Winter brings bounty of boreal birds

WI DNR
Pine grosbeaks are among the "winter finches" arriving in great numbers in Wisconsin and other parts of the eastern United States

With more people spending time at home, birdwatching has become a welcome respite during the pandemic. Heading into 2021, birds continue to brighten the Wisconsin landscape, including some in numbers not seen in years.

Pine siskins, evening grosbeaks and other “winter finches” have descended out of the Canadian boreal forest into the eastern United States, providing birdwatchers welcome excitement that promises to take some of the chill out of this winter season.

“Many of these northern species had banner nesting seasons,” said Ryan Brady, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ Conservation Biologist. “But then poor tree seed and fruit crops across Canada forced the birds south in search of food.”

It’s not uncommon for one or two of these northern species to overwinter in Wisconsin. Still, this season has already seen unusually good numbers in six or seven species, an event dubbed by researchers as a “superflight.”

First came red-breasted nuthatches and purple finches in late summer, then droves of pine siskins in early fall, and soon after both were white-winged and red crossbills. Late October and early November brought more evening grosbeaks than any year in recent history. Pine grosbeaks and Bohemian waxwings weren’t far behind in the north woods, while redpolls soon spread statewide.

Pine siskins are tiny bundles of energy that prefer nyjer (thistle) seeds at backyard feeders.

Look for & attract "winter finches" to your feeders

Many of these species are attracted to backyard feeders, especially as winter progresses and local supplies of natural foods are exhausted. The single best seed to offer is black oil sunflower, which has high fat content and attracts the most species. Small finches like siskins and redpolls, however, prefer nyjer (thistle), while white millet and suet can be great additions for ground-feeders and woodpeckers, respectively.

Common redpolls are often found in weedy fields and on birches until frequenting feeders more often later in winter.

Researchers call such mass movements of many species a “superflight” instead of the more commonly known "irruption," which is mass movement of one species.

Many of these northern species had banner nesting seasons in Canada's boreal forests in 2020 but poor tree seed and fruit crops forced them south in search of food.

The single best seed to offer is black oil sunflower, which has high fat content and attracts the most species.

Small finches like siskins and redpolls prefer nyjer (thistle), while white millet and suet can be great additions for ground-feeders and woodpeckers, respectively.

Provide a heated water dish that is deep enough for birds to drink from but not bathe.

Attract evening grosbeaks with an open platform feeder containing black oil sunflower seeds.

Every week or two clean all food and water sources to minimize diseases like salmonellosis and keep birds healthy.

In addition to food, a heated water dish that is deep enough for birds to drink from but not bathe in is great for attracting winter finches and resident species. Every week or two, clean all food and water sources to minimize diseases like salmonellosis to keep birds healthy.

Find Bohemian waxwings in open areas with plentiful fruit. They are grayer than Cedar waxwings with a rusty undertail and more wing markings.
Red crossbills are usually found near conifers, especially pines and occasionally others like spruce.
White-winged crossbills prefer seeds from spruces and other soft-coned conifers.