What Does an Irruption Year Mean?

Have you ever heard this term among birders and wondered what it means?  According to Project Feeder Watch it is defined as “the movement of northern-wintering species to the south in years of low food availability.”  

I’ve recently heard from customers that they have seen flocks of Evening Grosbeaks in parts of Scarborough and the Durham region.  Personally, I would love to see the Evening Grosbeaks, but never have, maybe this will be my year 🙂

Other species that may be moving southward include Pine Siskins, Purple Finches, Redpolls, Pine Grosbeaks, Red-breasted Nuthatches and Bohemian Waxwings.  … And then there’s one more I have seen, the Northern Shrike. If you observe any of these species in your yard, you may wonder what seeds they prefer.  

Evening Grosbeaks – The male evening grosbeak doesn’t  lose its bright yellow plumage in the winter months.  With its large conical beak, like cardinals, black oil sunflower seeds will be sure to please.  Evening Grosbeaks are known to arrive in very large flocks, so you will want to stock up on their seed of choice.

Pine Siskins –  If you see a bird that you think looks like a goldfinch, but not quite, it’s likely to be a Pine Siskin.  They have streaked feathers on their breast and a forked tail.  They prefer feeding from a cylindrical feeder filled with nyjer seed.

Purple Finch –  Unless you see house finches and purple finches side by side, it can be difficult to determine which is which.  House finches have more of a red colouring, while purple finches have a raspberry hue.  The female purple finch also has a white eyebrow and a white streak under her cheek.  Both of these finches relish safflower and sunflower hearts.

Common Redpolls – If you see a small bird with a red patch on their head and heavily streaked brown and white feathers on their sides, a common redpoll is visiting your feeder, most likely at a nyjer feeder.

Pine Grosbeaks – This is a large, stubbier finch with a conical beak.  Males are easily identified by their reddish-pink head and breast.  Both male and females have grey wings with white wing bars.  Females and immatures lack the red feathers and instead have a rusty head and rump.  They will be happy to feed on sunflower seeds and suet.  

Red-breasted Nuthatches –  These spirited little birds are slightly smaller than the white-breasted nuthatch.  They love to feed on out-of-the-shell peanuts, suet and sunflower seeds.  You will recognize them by their black and white striped head, grey back and orange-tinged belly.

Bohemian Waxwings – These social birds will visit your garden only if you have fruit bearing bushes, it’s almost like they have a GPS to find berries.  While we see Cedar Waxwings during the warmer months, we may see the Bohemians in the cooler months.  The difference between the two as quoted by Cornell,”Bohemian Waxwings have gray bellies and rich cinnamon under the tail whereas Cedar Waxwings have yellowish bellies and white under the tail.”

Northern Shrike – You may see a brilliant coloured bird perched on the tree top and think, ‘oh what a pretty bird’.  Yes, they are.  Grey in colour with a black mask over their eyes, and black wings, they are  the smallest predators of songbirds and small rodents.  

If this does turn out to be an irruptive year for birds, I hope you enjoy them… without too many Northern Shrikes.

Happy Birding,

Jane Paradis

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