Boreal birds

The Boreal Forest (also known as the taiga) is a harsh place, dominated by snowy landscapes, primarily coniferous trees, extremely cold and long winters and short-lasting, cool summers, but it is the largest land biome circling the high northern latitudes of the globe. In North America that includes most of inland Canada and Alaska.

Boreal forests are dominated by conifers, and usually have an understory of moss or lichen. The coniferous forests of northern Minnesota aren’t really part of the boreal biome, being warmer year round and having many fruit- and seed-bearing plants in the understory. This is an important difference for boreal-dwelling birds.

Over 300 species of birds breed in the boreal biome during its short summers with almost continuous daylight and abundant supply of insects, but only about 30 bird species stay for the rest of the year. In years when food resources are scarce during the winter, some boreal-dwelling bird species “irrupt” and make short migrations south to the northern coniferous forests in Minnesota and other parts of the U.S. These irruptions are irregular both in timing and location, but we can usually find a few boreal species in the spruce-tamarack forest of Sax-Zim bog.

Boreal Chickadees are one of the species that may desert their boreal habitat in search of food in coniferous forests further south. Some years they are never seen during the winter at Sax-Zim bog in northcentral MN, and some years they can be found in abundance. This year, there seemed to be just one Boreal Chickadee hanging out at this particular feeder.
Boreal Chickadees look very similar to our familiar Black-capped Chickadees, but they have a brown cap, gray cheeks, and rustier sides, and their calls are distinctly different. Besides being geographically separated by occurring further north than the Black-caps, Boreal Chickadees prefer to spend their time at foraging at the top of spruce trees, while chickadees forage much lower and in a variety of conifer or deciduous trees. However, their ranges do overlap in the boreal forest, and there is at least one report of a hybrid produced by interbreeding of the two species.
Pine Grosbeaks breed in the farthest northern reaches of the boreal biome across northern Canada, but may retreat to the southern parts of the biome and northern coniferous forests in MN for the winter where they dine on a variety of seeds from feeders and from the understory vegetation of the forest.
These large-bodied, colorful finches are entirely vegetarian: they crush large seeds and fruits in their bills or may nip the tips of the needles off pines or firs. The birds vary in color and even in size throughout their range, which extends around the globe in the boreal biome. Males are pink to rosy red in color and the females have variable amounts of copper color on the head and breast.
Evening Grosbeaks are another large-bodied finch that breeds in the boreal region, and like Pine Grosbeaks, they retreat south during the winter, often in large flocks. Their irruptive movements during the winter are unpredictable and irregular, and they might be found as far south as Texas.
Evening Grosbeaks consume seed in the winter, but are ferocious consumers of insects in the summer, especially spruce budworm. Males in their bright black and yellow plumage really stand out in the gray winter landscape. Females sort of resemble the smaller Goldfinch females with their black and white wing feathers.
Canada Jays (well named because they are found almost entirely in just Canada, unlike the Canada Goose!) stay in their boreal homes year-round, tolerating whatever the climate throws at them. They are well-adapted to the cold, with dense plumage, short beaks, and even feathers that insulate their nostrils!
The best way for Canada Jays to survive the boreal climate is to eat whatever they can find: berries, insects, small mammals, nestlings of and sometimes adult small birds like chickadees, carrion, even fungi. Like some other coniferous forest residents, they store food year-round securing it under bark and in crevices with their sticky saliva. Canada Jays adapt to human presence easily, making use of their food stores (like a hanging deer carcass) and inspiring colloquial names like “camp-robber” and “whiskey-jack”. Do they really sample the alcohol?

Other notable “irruptive” species one might find in the northern coniferous forests of MN like the White-winged or Red Crossbills, Bohemian Waxwings, Red-breasted Nuthatches, Purple Finches, Common or Hoary Redpolls, Pine Siskins, as well as Snowy Owls and Great Gray Owls, all make winter excursions “up north” an exciting adventure in bird watching.

7 thoughts on “Boreal birds

  1. These are really cool birds, Sue, and you did such a wonderful job photographing them. I especially loved the Evening Grosbeaks with such bright colors that look like they were put on with a paintbrush. This year there was a flock of them in Virginia, I believe, but I did not want to join the crowd of photographers traveling to photograph them.

    • Thanks, Mike, for your nice compliments. Those finches must be twice the size of Goldfinches, and with those bold colors they really are stand-outs at a bird feeder. I would love it if they would visit my backyard, but they seem to stick to northern MN in the winter. Bird photographers are nuts, aren’t they — traveling all over the place to get a shot of something that probably shouldn’t be in an odd place anyway. There is a Mountain Bluebird at one of the local parks here and hundreds of people have crowded in there to take a photo of it.

  2. This such an interesting post, Sue. Down here in Western North Carolina Boreal Birds are as exotic as tropical birds. And fun to read about & see in your wonderful photos.They brought a sharp memory of my few years as a young married woman in Milwaukee, curled up on snowy wintry weekends with books by eat environmental writers of my new area of the world: Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac & Sigurd Olson’s The Singing Wilderness. How I loved those books & others, as they stirred my imagination & broadened my knowledge & awareness of that wondrous Northern World. Thank you for reminding of that precious time & my awakening.

    • Memories of snowy countryside are lovely, as long as you don’t have to be out in cold weather for too long. I was surprised to find it so much colder “up north”, compared to our urban-moderated temperatures in the Twin Cities. Standing around taking photos of birds is very chilling! Thanks for writing — I love hearing about your memories of the northland.

  3. Great pictures, I didn’t know the whiskey-jack as we call it in Alberta, can be found almost exclusively in Canada. I think it was in the running for Canada’s national bird, but I think that ended without naming a winner.

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