Hardy Winter Visitors:  Redpolls

By Karen Nichols

Winter visitors to our forests and feeding stations, Common and Hoary Redpolls are among the hardiest of the songbirds. In fact, Audubon’s Encyclopedia of North American Birds says these small finches can survive colder temperatures than any other songbird. Both the Common Redpoll (Carduelis flammea) and the Hoary Redpoll (Carduelis hornemanni) breed in the subarctic forests and tundra scrub and venture into Montana only during the winter months.

One way that Redpolls survive frigid weather is to store seeds in their crop —a relatively large throat pouch located about midway down their neck. The ability to store extra food during nightfall and severe weather allows them to conserve energy. After filling their crop, Redpolls will often fly off and find shelter from frigid weather in dense coniferous foliage. There, they will settle into the protected spot and swallow the seeds at their leisure. They will often adopt a fluffed-up ball posture that reduces heat loss.

Testimony to their hardy nature, the birds can be spotted bathing in icy creek water or burrowing into wet snow. The birds can be quite tame and easily approached. The very small finches with the red cap or “poll” and black chin are difficult to distinguish from each other. In general, the Hoary Redpoll has a “frostier” or paler appearance than the Common Redpoll. Another distinguishing feature (if you can get a close look) is the Hoary’s lack of streaking on its rump and undertail coverts. The male Common Redpoll usually has a rosy breast and sides, much brighter than the Hoary. Both Redpolls have a distinctive facial profile, with a small conical bill and a face that looks foreshortened or “smushed.”

Of the two, Common Redpolls are much more common in northwestern Montana, with Hoary Redpolls occasionally spotted within the flocks of Common Redpolls. During both the Kalispell and Bigfork Christmas Bird Counts, only one Hoary Redpoll was spotted on each count. That’s compared to 109 Common Redpolls on the Bigfork count and 21 on the Kalispell count.

Redpolls move about their wintering ground in large flocks, settling down to feed on seeds and buds of birch and alder or at feeders. When they are perched, listen for their swee-ee-eet call that is described as similar to, but coarser than, the call of the American Goldfinch. The flocks usually leave for their northern nesting ground by mid-March.

Redpolls are known for their tendency to roam. Fluctuations in food supply cause these finches to travel great distances to find suitable forage. These “irruptions” cause the birds to become abundant in areas where they have been uncommon or rare for several years. A Common Redpoll banded in Fairbanks, Alaska, one winter was recaptured 3,000 miles to the east near Montreal, Quebec the next winter.

For more information on these hardy little birds, check out Cornell’s new online bird guides at: http: //www.birds.cornell.edu/programs/AllAboutBirds/BirdGuide/

Information for the article was gathered from The Sibley Guide to Birds, The Birder’s Handbook, Birds of North America, the Cornell site listed above and the Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds.