Last week I finished off my introductory column with a little challenge. I presented you with a photo of a bird and wondered if you could identify it. This week, as promised, I provide the answer to the question and a few “up close and personal” details about the common redpoll.
Common redpolls spend the summer in the great Canadian north. Up that far they nest in the open tundra and line their nests with ptarmigan feathers and caribou fur. They will eat insects if they are abundant, but they specialize in seeds, which is great for those of us who offer seeds during the winter.
In fact, redpolls have become so specialized on seeds that they have developed what anatomists call an “esophageal diverticulum.” For those of us who speak English as a first language, this anatomical feature might be better described as a special pouch in which the birds can store seeds for later consumption.
Storing it up
This way, redpolls can load up on food when the feeding is favorable and then save some for a midnight snack. This is particularly important for a bird that must contend with the extended hours of darkness that come with the Canadian winter.
But sometimes the conditions during the Canadian summer can result in a failure of the food crop. This is why redpolls are described as “winter” finches in our area. When conditions in Canada are unfavorable, they will cascade down from the north in search of something to eat.
Thus, if you have a bird feeder that is faithfully stocked on a daily basis, you might have attracted a flock of redpolls. The first ones arrived at my house at the end of December and the flock has grown to more than 100 birds since then.
Feeding these refugees from the north is a rather simple proposition. Redpolls will respond to almost any type of feeder and if you have a porch or a deck with a railing you are also in good shape.
Redpolls will respond to many types of seed, but their absolute favorite is nyger seed (something we regularly call “thistle” seed). I picked up a cylindrical feeder made of a fine wire mesh that can be filled with thistle seed. I also offer mixed seed (with white millet) and black oil sunflower in a variety of other feeders. On really busy days the feeders are completely utilized and the porch railing is absolutely crawling with hungry little redpolls.
At just over 5 inches in length, the common redpoll is comparable in size to a goldfinch or a house finch. The distinctive red cap of the redpoll has a noticeable shimmer to it when seen in real life, almost as if the feathers were actually cut out of shiny plastic. White, gray and brown feathers dominate the rest of the plumage, but additional splashes of color can occur.
Adult males have a wash of pinkish-purple feathers across their breast feathers, as though they accidentally dumped a glass of cranberry juice on themselves. Immature males resemble the females, which only have the red caps. Immature females lack any red at all.
The beginnings of the red breast feathers on the bird shown in the photo probably indicate an immature male that is maturing into a breeding male for the coming spring, which (incredibly) is just around the corner. The days are already getting longer and soon the redpolls will return to Canada for the breeding season. So enjoy them while you can!
Bill Danielson is a professional nature photographer and author living in Altamont. Contact him at www.speakingofnature.com.