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The Man Behind the Brilliant Winter Finch Forecast Is Passing the Torch

Ron Pittaway might be retiring, but fear not, finch fans: His collaborator Tyler Hoar will continue the highly anticipated reports.

As the days grow shorter and neotropical migrants return to their wintering grounds, North American birders begin eagerly awaiting a report that can single-handedly determine their winter birding plans: the Winter Finch Forecast.

Each year, the online post, developed and written by Ron Pittaway, offers predictions of the movements of enigmatic birds like White-winged Crossbills and Evening Grosbeaks. These “winter finches” depend on cone and berry crops of the boreal forest, and should the crops fail or be insufficient, the birds may irrupt south into lower Ontario, New England, and beyond, decorating suburban yards like Christmas ornaments during the winter months. The sudden appearances of these birds were long a mystery for most birders—until Pittaway came along. 

But this past month, much to the surprise of finch fanatics, Pittaway announced his retirement. Fortunately, he’s already elected a successor, but the immediate reaction across social media emphasized just how important the Winter Finch Forecast has become to the birding community. For decades, Pittaway and his network of community scientists have shared valuable insights and knowledge from some of the continent’s most remote areas with birders around the world.

“When it started, I was probably the only one with access to all of this information on what was happening with the North Woods,” Pittaway says. “People might be able to guess what was going on, but they always waited until I said what was going on. For the most part, I’ve been fortunate that I didn’t blow it any one time.”

Pittaway has been a birder since childhood, and he first noticed the rainbow of boreal finches that would mysteriously appear only some winters while he was growing up in Aylmer, Quebec, in the 1960s. He always aspired to become an ornithologist, he says, but he first studied forestry in college before heading north to work on a project studying Snow Geese in the Arctic in 1970. There, he met British ornithologist Ian Newton, who taught him about the finches’ erratic, food-dependant movements. Armed with this new knowledge, he returned to Ottawa where he met Algonquin Provincial Park’s Chief Naturalist Dan Strickland, who offered him a job at the park. “It was a mecca for winter finches,” Pittaway says. 

Ron Pittaway birding at Presqu’ile Provincial Park on Lake Ontario. Photo: Jean Iron

Algonquin provided Pittaway the ideal laboratory to observe both the trees and the finches that interacted with them. Birch, alder, and other conifer crops might bring in huge flocks of teeny-billed, red-capped Common Redpolls, while mountain ash berries served as a favorite of the large, loafing Pine Grosbeaks. But in poor crop years, the birds would essentially go missing from Algonquin. Based on these observations, in the 70s and 80s, Pittaway began making informal forecasts to other birders in Ontario by word of mouth and over birding hotlines. At first, he depended only on his own observations and those of contacts he met through his work. But as his notoriety grew, so too did his network—and the forecast’s popularity. He was soon wrangling information on boreal seed crops from naturalists in the Adirondacks, James Bay Lowlands, and Alaska.

Pittaway’s forecasts began reaching a larger audience in 1999, when he made his first email prediction to the ONTBIRDS listserv. Though mostly limited in scope to Ontario, where he and many of his contacts lived, birders shared the report far and wide. By the winter of 2019-2020, the forecast had grown to include individual, detailed forecasts for eight irruptive finch species: Pine Grosbeaks, Purple Finches, Red Crossbills, White-winged Crossbills, Common Redpolls, Hoary Redpolls, Pine Siskins, and Evening Grosbeaks, as well as three irruptive non-finch passerines whose food-dependent distributions are often correlated with those of boreal finches: Blue Jays, Red-breasted Nuthatches, and Bohemian Waxwings.

The Winter Finch Forecast has become as much an art as a science. Pittaway sends a survey in the late summer to his contacts—an average of 45 indispensable volunteers per forecast, he reckons—asking them to rate the seed crops of trees like pines, spruces, hemlocks, and mountain ashes as poor, fair, good, excellent, or bumper. Each of the observers has their own work cut out for them.

“As soon as the cone crop starts, I’m watching the trees to see what’s going on and how it will impact birds,” says Joan Collins, a licensed guide for Adirondack Avian Expeditions. Oftentimes, she has enlisted a network of her own to take cone-crop observations across northern New York State.

Pittaway then compiles all of that year’s data to generate a map of seed crops before issuing his final forecast in mid-to-late September. As an absolute rule, he wouldn’t tell anyone what he planned to write until the publication date.“Putting this together required endless hours,” Pittaway says. “I wanted to get it perfect—I consider myself a perfectionist—and so many people relied on me for the forecast and were watching very closely to see how well things panned out.” 

When Pittaway announced his retirement, birders across social media mourned the loss of the forecast—but almost immediately upon the announcement, Pittaway’s close friend and Winter Finch Forecast collaborator Tyler Hoar offered to take over. The two met at a hawkwatch in 1991, and as boreal finch fans do, bonded immediately over talk of conifer cones. Hoar soon became one of the forecast’s principal contributors as he traveled throughout northern Ontario and Quebec while working for the Natural Resources Department of Ontario and the Canadian Wildlife Service. 

Hoar doesn’t plan on reinventing the wheel. He will work with the same formula that Pittaway developed but hopes to expand the network of contacts. “It’s very big boots to fill,” Hoar says of Pittaway and his work. “I hope he enjoys being able to go out birding in the late summer and early fall. Now I’m the one stuck at home.”

While Hoar is a worthy replacement, theres no question Pittaways legacy is secure. “He’s done so much to build this network of people that look forward to finches every year during the winter time,” says Matt Young, former collections management leader at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library, who will be collaborating with Hoar on this forecast, as well as his own Finch Research Network. “There’s not a lot to do then, and finches are the one species group that can show up at your feeder and bring joy and color to your backyard. If anyone has done something to make that a popular event, it’s Ron.”

So, what’s Pittaway's plan for retirement? Unsurprisingly, he plans to spend some of it with his partner Jean Iron chasing birds. “We plan to do more birding and more relaxing,” he says. “It did eat up a lot of my time, especially at the end of the summer and the first few weeks of September—but this is the peak birding season for fall migrants. So this will give me more time.”

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