The boreal in your backyard

The Canadian boreal forest is far away for many of us, but now is the chance to catch a glimpse of its incredible wildlife in your own backyard.


Ian Corbet

Over the past few weeks, staying home has left many of us feeling a bit disconnected from the natural world. While we must bide our time until it’s safe to access our beloved wild spaces again, we can get reacquainted with the nature that surrounds our homes and yards. In particular, we can get a glimpse of the amazing birds that live and nest up north in Canada’s boreal forest and are now migrating from their off-season homes up through the U.S. 

No need to travel deep into the boreal, we can see these birds just by peeking out our windows or taking a stroll down the street. While some are only seen in specific regions of the U.S., many of these birds can be seen in backyards throughout the country.

The boreal forest is the largest intact forest ecosystem left on the planet and is home to an incredible biodiversity of species. During the summer months, it serves as a breeding ground for the many migratory birds of North America. These majestic birds are now traveling back from their winter habitats down south to their summer homes up in the boreal. Up to 3 billion birds make this annual journey, and in spring-time we get the chance to see these travelers as they spend their layovers getting some much needed rest in our backyards.

This list is a small segment of the more than 300 species that rely on the boreal forest in their lifecycle. Keep a keen eye out for them and if you spot one, wish them well on their long journey. Keep in mind that while the boreal forest may be far away, our everyday actions have an impact on this incredible forest. Millions of acres of the boreal forest are being chopped down each year, and our preference for 100% virgin fiber toilet paper is partly responsible. In order to keep this incredible forest intact, and our backyard birds coming back each year, we need to make conscious choices about what type of tissue products we choose.

Check out the list and keep an eye out in your yard for these boreal-bound birds. If you spot one, tweet a picture to us at @EnvAm or tag us on Instagram at @Enviroam! Also check our guide on Birding for Beginners for some useful tips!

Dark-eyed Junco

Photo: Kent Miller/NPS

These little birds earned the nickname of “snowbird” due to their almost sudden appearance down south when the weather gets a bit colder. They are now making the reverse journey back up north with the warmer weather and are among the first birds to arrive back in the boreal. These birds are especially reliant on the boreal forest as an estimated 80 percent of the Juncos’ North American population breeds there.

Magnolia Warbler

Photo: Alan Schmierer: Flickr/Public Domain

Look low to the ground to catch a glimpse of this small bolt of yellow feeding on small insects on the undersides of leaves. This one is for birdwatchers living east of the Rocky Mountains. Fun fact: this bird earned its name because it was first spotted in a southern magnolia plantation. This is another species heavily reliant on the boreal with approximately 74 percent of its North American population breeding in the Canadian forest.

Hermit Thrush

Photo: NPS/Public Domain

Look for these birds almost everywhere in the U.S. as they pass on through to their summer nests. Or better yet, listen for them. Hermit thrushes are known for their incredible musical call, with sounds that beautifully harmonize with human melodies. If you hear them singing, you’re quite likely listening to the travel plans of a boreal-bound bird as about 75 percent of their North American population breed in the boreal forest.

Canada Jay

Photo: Kent Miller/NPS

One for the West Coasters, these birds, also known as gray jays, are well recognized as frequent and sometimes overzealous visitors to campsites in the western and northwestern forests. These friendly critters followed me around while I taught ski lessons in Washington, hoping a student would drop some granola or a fruit snack. This bird thrives in coniferous forests, and has a particular fondness for the boreal’s old-growth trees. Approximately 73 percent of the total population of the Canada jays breed in the boreal forest. 


Photo: Michael B. Edwards//NPS

For those in coastal areas, these long-legged birds can often be found enjoying quiet beaches. The term sandpiper applies to roughly forty species of North American birds. They are mostly found running along the shore poking their beaks into the sand in search of food. Each species varies in where it spends its summer, but some, such as the Solitary Sandpiper, have about 85 percent of their North American breeding in the boreal forest.

Whooping Crane

Photo: Pixabay

Whooping cranes make the incredible 2,500-mile journey from the south of Texas to their boreal summer home at Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada twice a year. Birdwatchers in the Midwest are lucky enough to lie roughly on the path of migration of this endangered species. Ensuring the species survives and can regain population footholds relies on conservation of wetlands across their migratory paths as well as protecting their summer home in the boreal as more than 70 percent of the whooping cranes breed there.

Winter Wren 

Photo: Pixabay

It takes a keen eye to spot this little bird. Found mostly in the Eastern U.S. during most of the year, it spreads its range north and west during breeding season. The winter wren is very similar to other wrens, and where its territory overlaps, its call becomes the main differentiating factor. While it’s cold name would suggest otherwise, a little less than half of the North American population breeds up north in the boreal forest.

Common Loon

Photo: Pixabay

If you see a solitary bird drifting across a lake’s surface and then disappearing for long periods of time before popping its head up somewhere farther along, you’re likely watching this spectacular loon. Clumsy on land, these birds are incredible in water — especially once they go below the surface. An iconic symbol of our lakes and wilderness, the common loon is also reliant on the rivers, lakes and coasts of the boreal forest. About 74 percent of the North American population of  common loons breeds in the boreal forest.

American Robin

Photo: NPS/Public Domain

If you’ve ever happened upon a nest full of these robins’ bright blue eggs, then you likely know that most of this species doesn’t go all the way up to Canada to start their family. Still, approximately one-third of all American robins breed in the boreal forest. The arrival of these birds is a sign of springtime for many communities. In my family, we have an annual contest between the cousins to spot springtime’s first robin!

Trumpeter Swan

Photo: NPS/Public Domain

The trumpeter swan is North America’s largest waterfowl. It can be found in the upper Midwest and upper Rocky Mountain states. A conservation success story, the trumpeter swan nearly went extinct in the early 1930s, with populations dwindling down to roughly 70 swans. Through conservation efforts this species has rebounded, and approximately 57 percent of these birds breed in the boreal forest. This species story is an important reminder that ensuring the preservation of these birds also means protecting their boreal breeding habitat.

For a list of all of the bird species that rely on the boreal and how we can work to ensure their conservation, check out the Boreal Songbird Initiative.



Ian Corbet

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