Redpolls are hardy little birds of the world’s northern tier. They breed in areas throughout the tundra where the short-growing willows speckle the landscape, during the refreshingly-cool (not dangerously-cold) summer months. Throughout the winter months, many of them head southward in search of food, often clinging to the largest expanses of alder and birch for their supply of catkins to feed on. When food is plentiful in their northern stomping grounds, the lower 48 states tend to see relatively few redpolls during the winter months. During winters when food is scarce throughout their northern habitat, they will irrupt in incredible numbers to thistle feeders, thickets, and road sides; looking for food and grit. At times one can’t help but think of them as pigs from the arctic 🙂
Both the Common Redpoll and the Hoary Redpoll are incredible little birds. They can survive down to -80ºF, and on the nights just following a deep snowfall, have been known to bury themselves in the snow to stay warm (in the same manner that Ruffed Grouse exhibit). Redpolls form impressive flocks not only for safety, but also to increase their chances of finding food. More sets of eyes have a greater chance of finding food! These small-billed finches are always searching for more food to consume, and they have an impressive number of rods (light-sensitive cells within the eye) to help them find food throughout their lives. Aside from being seen at bird feeders during the mid-day hours (like many birds are), redpolls can also be seen feeding just as the sun is cresting over the horizon in the morning hours, as well as late into the evening. Another songbird that shares this fondness for low-light foraging is the Northern Cardinal! If you think about where redpolls spend their lives (extreme northern breeding ranges, and slightly less-northern range for their wintering grounds), having the ability to see in low-light conditions can really come in handy! Redpolls spend their entire lives in areas where the sun tends to be at a shallower angle in the sky, resulting in the lower-light conditions.
Redpolls are a chunky, well-insulated finch species. Common Redpolls, as their name states, tend to be more common – especially in the lower 48. The Common Redpoll hosts a gorgeous crimson-red spot on top of their head. Their wings are dark, with two white wing bars. They have contrastive set of streaks lining their sides, just under their folded-up wings. Their faces tend to be washed in a brownish color, although some can be slightly more pale-faced than others. They have a little “goatee” and thin mask of black near the front of their face, near the base of their yellow bill. The undertail coverts of a Common Redpoll (if you are lucky enough to see them) are moderately streaked, with some birds showing a great deal of black speckling among the white undertail feathers). The male Common Redpolls host a gorgeous deep pink color throughout their frontsides. Some of the very fit and attractive males will even have a hint of pink on their rumps! By the way, Common Redpolls have rump feathers that can have various amounts of streaking; keeping in mind that the rumps are often streaked with thin black lines. Female Common Redpolls look remarkably similar to the males, except that the females have a frosty-white frontside instead of the pink color.
Hoary Redpolls are the needle-in-a-haystack bird within flocks of Common Redpolls. Hoary Redpolls thrive in northern arctic regions, and even in mid-winter, tend to be the more northern of the two redpoll species. As a whole, Hoary Redpolls are “frostier” in complexion. Their faces tend to be paler than the Common Redpoll’s faces. The Hoary Redpoll’s flanks (sides of the body, under the folded wing) have fewer streaks, and of the streaks observed, the streaks tend to be thinner, less noticable, and less-contrastive than the boldly-streaked than the Common Redpoll. At full extent, the adult male Hoary Redpoll can acquire a gorgeous blush of bleached pink coloration, starting just below their neck, and going to the belly. This color on the adult males is never as robust and intensely-colored as the male Common Redpoll’s wash of deep pink. Hoary Redpolls have two white wingbars as well, but host bolder, more noticable wingbars on their dark wings. Hoary Redpolls tend to show a greater amount of silvery-white streaking throughout their nape (back of the head) and upper back region, compared to the browner-backed Common Redpoll. Hoary Redpoll’s undertail coverts are mostly white, showing tiny flecks of dark at most (averaging less than Common Redpolls’ undertail coverts). The rump on a Hoary Redpoll is pure white. Along with all of these subtle field marks, Hoary Redpolls have a ever-so-slightly smaller bill than the Common Redpoll, and also have a chunkier, neck-less look as well. Hoary Redpolls as a whole are beautifully-frosty, and much paler in complexion than their more common cousin, the Common Redpoll.
Redpoll ID takes practice and experience with observing these finches in the field. Like all subtle bird ID, there are times when a bird is simply unidentifyable; and that is quite alright! The Redpolls are a very special treat to witness during the winter months, and depending on where you live, their numbers can greatly vary. If you happen to within the United States near the Canadian border, brace yourself as these little birds stock up with food to satisfy their migratory restlessness and hunger; as they prepare to make their long journey north to the arctic.
Can you pick out the Hoary Redpoll and Common Redpoll in this picture?