Winter is the time when your feeders can be filled with finches. Or not.
It depends a great deal on the coniferous and hardwood seed crops in Canada. Various finches eat various seeds. The seed crop varies year to year by tree species and geography. Seed crops are assessed each fall by a small army of observers from Manitoba east through Canada to the maritime provinces. Reports are gathered, and man named Ron Pittaway of Minden, Ontario, fashions a finch forecast. He speculates on southward movement by several species.
In general, it would be better if Minnesota were an eastern state instead of being toward the western edge of the Canadian forests where these birds spend most of their lives.
Cone crops are poor in eastern Canada, but "much better," according to Pittaway, in the Hudson Bay lowlands (north, northeast of us), and northwestern Ontario west to Alberta and beyond.
Pittaway posts his report on the birding email network BirdChat. Species by species, this is what he sees.
Pine Grosbeak: Mountain ash berry crop variable in northern forests, in part due to drought. What ash berries and ornamental crabapples there are will go fast. Grosbeaks are expected to use black oil sunflower seed at feeders, and buckthorn berries. We could see Pine Grosbeaks in more than usual numbers in northern counties. Birds drifting into central Minnesota are possible
Purple Finch: A strong migration south out of eastern Ontario is expected. Seed crops there are very low. Pittaway says that, "Purple Finch numbers have dropped significantly in recent decades as spruce budworm outbreaks subsided. Currently, a moderate population decline continues in the province."
Red Crossbill: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology reports a strong southerly migration of this species throughout the northern U.S. Minnesota, including the Twin Cities, saw a brief flare of crossbills in late summer and early fall. Reports of that species have been non-existent in recent weeks.
White-winged Crossbills: Not expected to move south of Canadian breeding habitat.
Common Redpoll: Pittaway predicts a "good southward flight" because of a poor birch seed crop across the north. He recommends Niger thistle seed, and suggests watching for these birds not only at feeders but also in birches and weedy fields. I've seen flocks of hundreds of redpolls rise from tall grasses along roadways.
Pine Siskin: Movement south in the northeast, but over-wintering in northwestern Ontario where seed crops are good. Siskins wander, however.
Evening Grosbeak: This is a species seen each year in limited numbers from Aitkin County north. They can be found in the Sax-Zim birding area north of Duluth (Google Sax-Zim; the name comes from abandoned small towns). Pittaway says most movement south by this species will be in the northeast. Population of this bird is low, he says. It thrives on spruce budworm outbreaks.
Other species he mentions:
Red-breasted Nuthatches north of Minnesota are expected to stay there. Bohemian Waxwings, however, could come down in larger-than-usual numbers because of the poor Mountain Ash crop to our north. Mike Hendrickson, birding guide from Duluth, reports that the North Shore has a good crop of berries this year. He's hopeful that we're looking at a good winter for Bohemian Waxwings. The North Shore is the place to look for these birds, Duluth to Grand Marais.
Photos: Male (top) and female Pine Grosbeaks, both photographed at feeders in the Sax-Zim area north of Duluth.