Fri. Feb 23rd, 2024
The Boreal Forest: Ontario's Songbird Nursery

Today’s post comes from discovery and marketing specialist Dave Sproule.

Migratory birds are already arriving along the edges of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, and many southern parks host bird-watching events and festivals.

But for most migrants, these parks are just a rest stop after crossing those large expanses of water. Your destination may be much further north: the boreal forest.

What is the “boreal” forest?

boreal forestThe boreal forest is huge. One of the largest ecosystems in the world, it surrounds the northern tip of the planet, from Europe to Russia and Canada. More than half of Ontario’s forest cover is boreal forest.

The word “boreal” means north, so climate is an important factor in how this ecosystem works and what species of plants and animals live in it. Long, cold winters mean that To survive all year round, you have to be tough.

For plants, it means there are fewer species. In the woods; only those adapted to living in cold climates can do so. The list of trees in our boreal forest is quite short: pine, poplar (such as aspen), white birch, black spruce, and white spruce are the main species.

The same goes for many animals: they have to be able to withstand cold they hibernate (like turtles, frogs, and bears), grow thick fur like lynxes, foxes, and wolves, or develop other survival strategies.

We saw this gray jay in Missinaibi Provincial Park.We saw this Canada jay in Missinaibi Provincial Park

However, many birds can escape the cold by flying south. where the climate is warm and the food abundant all year round. Some stay and live in northern space all year round, such as GRAMgreat gray owls, boreal chickadeesand Canada Blue Jaysbut most birds migrate.

So if living in a tropical paradise is so wonderful, why would birds fly hundreds or even thousands of kilometers to northern Ontario?

yellow warblerA Yellow Warbler eats breakfast for her babies in Halfway Lake Provincial Park

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A word: food.

The boreal forest is full of food. While winters are cold and snowy, spring and summer have long days with lots of sunshine. The plants grow quickly and, as always, there is someone waiting to eat those plants.

Caterpillars and other herbivorous insect larvae can be found in large numbers, and birds are there to find them. During the breeding season, even species that are often considered seed eaters need an enormous amount of protein-packed insects to feed their growing young.

What types of birds live in the boreal forest?

Fun fact about boreal forest birds: Many have acquired seemingly strange common names. Often this is because they were named by observers far from their usual habitat. The Palm Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Connecticut Warbler, and Tennessee Warbler were named as they went through their migrations.


Warblers are a family of songbirds loved by bird watchers. They include some of the most sought after species for their diversity, color and beautiful songs (hence the name warbler).

Some, like the ANDyellow warbler, They breed throughout much of North America, but others breed almost exclusively in the boreal forest. Different species will be found in different types of habitat.

Palm WarblerPalm Warbler

Tennessee Warblers will be found nesting on the ground in relatively open mixed forests, while Palm Warblers They are found near peat bogs and open moist coniferous forests. Others, like bbroad-breasted warblersIt will be found nesting in relatively dense stands of conifers. Magnolia Warblers They live high in the branches of pine and spruce trees and are rarely seen close to the ground, but their songs are easily heard.

Warblers are “gleaners” meaning they carefully look for insects hidden under twigs and leaves. He Cape May Warbler is a spruce budworm specialist, searching the needles for the caterpillars that, in some years, can devastate spruce trees.

Cape May's WarblerCape May Warbler

Some familiar faces can also be found breeding in the boreal forest, as many southern Ontario birds migrate to the boreal forest to take advantage of the numerous insects.


The iconic W.white-throated sparrow known for its distinctive song “Sweet Canada, Canada, Canada”, will often be found on the border between open and wooded areas that provide dense edge habitat, ideal for nesting.

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white-throated sparrowwhite-throated sparrow
juvenile rushJuvenile Junco

Reeds They may be familiar birds that forage in the backyard in winter, with their gray plumage and white flashes on their tails, but as soon as spring arrives, they disappear and head to the boreal forest where most of them breed.

lincoln sparrow It also depends on the boreal forest, but lives in humid edges, between wooded margins and open waters.


With the long hours of daylight, the birds can feed longer and, with so many insects to eat, they can raise many young. Their territories can be quite close together because there is a lot of food available.

Last summer, within earshot of our campsite in Ivanhoe Lake Provincial Park, we heard three men Swainson’s thrushes singing to warn each other, illustrating how close their territories can be.

But how do I distinguish them?

You don’t have to be a bird watcher to appreciate the diversity and abundance of birds in many northern parks.

You don’t need a lot of fancy equipment. to appreciate birds and nature. Simply hearing and seeing them in their natural environment along a park trail is satisfying. However, if you want to know more about them, such as what family of birds they might belong to or even what species they are, A pair of binoculars is useful equipment.

bird watcher with binoculars

A field guide will help you identify the bird. If you have seen correctly: Sibley, National Geographic, Peterson are all good guides and there are many more.

Discovering what others have seen in the parks is just a click away

Palm WarblerPalm Warbler

Most provincial parks have been identified as hotspots for bird watching in eBird, a citizen science app that allows birdwatchers to record the species and locations of bird sightings.

And there are many other apps for your iPod or phone. Sibley makes an electronic guide which puts the field guide on your device. iBird is another guide. Merlin Bird ID asks you some questions about the bird you saw to help you make an identification. a number of other applications like birdJam uses recordings and photographs of bird songs to help you identify what you have seen.

What could be better than taking a walk to look for and listen to birds?

It’s well known that getting outdoors improves our health, both physical and mental, but researchers believe that listening to birdsong also has beneficial effects on our mental well-being.

Whether you just watch and listen or become a dedicated bird watcher, A trip to our northern forests to experience the bird life in Ontario parks will be rewarding and healthy.