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Minnesota Outdoors: Common redpolls have returned

Submitted by Blane Klemek
Crookston Times

    I’ve been missing seeing them at the feeders this winter, but a glance out the kitchen window a few days ago lifted my spirits. Common redpolls have returned.

    This irruptive species of bird that’s often more abundant locally or regionally one winter and much less so the next, is typical of common redpolls and other irruptive wild birds. Yet it is this bird, the common redpoll, that I enjoy the most.

    Common redpolls are nondescript in appearance, though their namesake “redpoll”, due to the splash of red on their crowns, especially that of males, adds color to an otherwise plain looking bird. About five inches long, redpolls, though sparrow-like looking, are actually finches, not sparrows. Even so, one such “sparrow”, the house sparrow, is indeed an old world finch.

    Belonging to a large avian family, Fringillidae, redpolls are close relatives of many other finches that we regularly observe at our backyard bird feeding stations such as pine siskin, purple finch, house finch, pine grosbeak, and American goldfinch. Another species of redpoll, the hoary redpoll, is also observed from time to time in mixed flocks with common redpolls.  

    While I’ll never stoop as low to call a small brownish, unidentifiable bird an LBJ (little brown job), common redpolls are often lumped into this humble group of birds that some people find difficult to identify, especially at distances. But with keen eyes and sharp ears, common redpolls are easy to positively identify.

    As mentioned, the red cap of common redpolls is diagnostic, but so, too, is the small pointed bill and the species’ heavily streaked backs and sides. Females’ bills are yellow and both sexes have small, black bibs. Males’ chests are also sort of pinkish in color and quite noticeable in the right light. Yet even with all these traits, redpolls are frequently confused with their similar looking relatives like pine siskins and house finches. Look also for two white wingbars with no yellow anywhere.

    There have been winters living here in the Northland when I didn’t observe a single redpoll. I was beginning to think that this would be another winter without them until I saw the flock of 20 or 30 birds at my feeder and on the ground a few days ago. Bringing a smile to my face, I welcomed the little birds and muttered aloud, “Where have you been?”

    Sometimes referred to as “winter finches”, redpolls nest in the Arctic, but often spread out and invade southern Canada and northern tier states in the wintertime. Though small in size, one mustn’t let their diminutiveness fool you into thinking that they’re not survivors, because they most certainly are. These energetic birds of the Far North are tough as nails. They’ll even roost underneath the snow.

    One might make the mistake in believing that it’s the bitter cold that drives tens of thousands of redpolls southward into Minnesota and other northern states during some winters. The fact is that cold temperatures aren’t the reason at all. Like most irruptions and migrations, it’s all about food. Put another way, redpoll movement is food driven.

    Acrobatic and fleet-of-wing, redpolls are experts at exploiting foodstuffs such as small seeds within grass and sedge seed-heads, buds on various trees and shrubs like alder, willow, birch, and conifers, as well as in summertime foods that include wildflowers and fruits. Fluttering about picking seeds or hanging nearly upside down to access tough to reach seeds, redpolls are very adept foragers.

    In their Arctic nesting habitat, female redpolls build grass nests on branches of various shrubs. She will also utilize other plant material for constructing nests, even using moss. For insulating the nest, she lays a thick layer of animal materials in the nest-bowl such as feathers from spruce grouse or ptarmigan, wool, fur, and sometimes downy plant material, too.

    And while we Minnesotans will never enjoy nesting redpolls in our backyards and nearby fields and forests, rest assured that when conditions are just so, common redpolls will descend upon our feeders as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.