Saturday, January 08, 2011
Winter Finches - Common Redpoll
“What a rich contrast! tropical colors, crimson breasts, on cold white snow! Such etherealness, such delicacy in the forms, such ripeness in the colors, in this stern and barren season!”
-- Henry David Thoreau, Concord, Massachusetts, December, 1855
On the morning of the blizzard, I was doing some work in my study while the rest of the family was slowly stirring into activity. My grandson came up the steps and said, “Grandad, you should see all the birds at the bird feeders.”
“Ohhh, you’ve got to show me,” and I followed him down the steps.
In the kitchen, he stepped slowly. “Don’t scare them,” he warned.
The platform feeder was covered with small, brown streaked birds, and my first thought as I looked from mid-kitchen through the window was that the Pine Siskins had returned. As I crept closer to the window with my young guide, the connection between eyes and brain started to wake up. Some of the fifteen small birds crowded on the platform were facing me, and they had reddish wash on the breast, a tiny black chin, and a red crown.
“The redpolls are here!” I announced quietly.
I had been expecting them - or to be a little less arrogant - I was expectantly hopeful that redpolls would visit the feeders this year. I did not see a single redpoll all of last winter, and the last time I had significant numbers was during the winter of 07-08. But this year redpolls had been reported for a couple of weeks, the reports gradually moving from northern Vermont toward southern Vermont. My expectations were high.
The “Winter Finch Forecast” stoked the expectations: “Redpolls should irrupt into southern Canada and the northern United States this winter. The Common Redpoll's breeding range in Ontario is mainly in the Hudson Bay Lowlands from the Manitoba border southeast to southern James Bay. Redpolls in winter are a bird seed specialist and movements are linked in part to the size of the birch crop. The white birch crop is poor across much of northern Canada. Another indicator of an upcoming irruption was a good redpoll breeding season in 2010 with double and possibly triple broods reported in Quebec. Samuel Denault of McGill University has shown that redpoll movements at Tadoussac, Quebec, are more related to reproductive success than to tree seed crops in the boreal forest. Redpolls will be attracted to the good birch seed crops on native white birch and European white birch in southern Ontario and to weedy fields. They should be frequent this winter at feeders offering nyger and black oil sunflower seeds.” (Ron Pittaway)
The redpolls shared the feeding grounds with Evening Grosbeaks. In the week prior to the blizzard, my physical count of the grosbeaks rose to 64. On the day of the blizzard, the grosbeak flock was significantly larger, conservatively in excess of 100.
Common Redpolls are closely related to siskins and goldfinches Their Genus is “Carduelis,” deriving from the Latin for thistle, a favorite food of these birds. The “poll” of the redpoll comes from Middle English “pol” meaning head, as in taking a poll or “counting heads.” Hence redpoll means “red head.” As you may guess, redpolls are circumpolar and were known by the British long before the British found their way across the pond. John James Audubon called this bird the Mealy Redpoll Linnet, but could discern to difference between it and the Common Redpoll which he met in northern Europe.
There was no lack of food in my feeders during the late December blizzard.
“... To those who have not visited the northland, the redpolls remain erratic winter visitors; they rarely go south of the 40th parallel. They are rare in many years, but are sometimes abundant, often occurring then in large flocks, the members of which may be alternately wild and delightfully tame.”
Of all the winter finches, the redpoll is my favorite. Good birding!