It is a real treat for backyard birdwatchers when a flock of Common Redpolls descend to their feeders. At those times you are entertaining far-flung guests from a distant and exotic land. Redpolls are a species of the far north. They breed and nest around the perimeter of the North Pole. In the fall they migrate south into Canada and northern Europe. About every other year, when tree seed supplies are cyclically low, they “irrupt” farther south and winter in the northern states of the U.S.
Common Redpolls are a tiny finch, with a yellow, conical bill typical of a seed eater. The male has a bright red crown (“poll” is an old term for cap or hat). Both sexes have a black chin and lores. The flanks and back are broadly streaked in white and brown, and the wings and tail are black-brown. The cheeks and breast of the Redpoll have a faint, pinkish hue which is more apparent on the males.
A rarer relative of Common Redpolls, the Hoary Redpoll is very similar in pattern and color, though much paler overall. Distinguishing the two species from one another is problematic as there are dark Hoarys and light Commons. If you find finches present in your yard that match this general description, assume you are observing the more likely of the two, Common Redpoll.
Typical wintering habitat includes open woodlands and scrub, field edges, and towns. Breeding habitat is subarctic rocky scrub areas. Because such locations are very exposed, redpolls are able to glean seeds quickly, store them in diverticula (a crop-like structure), and later, in a safer spot, regurgitate and ingest the seeds. Grab your meal and head for a more comfortable place to dine seems to be the Redpoll strategy! Does this make them “fast food junkies?”
Redpolls are almost exclusively seed eaters. Natural forage includes tiny seeds of trees, shrubs, and grasses. At feeders in the winter, they are very fond of millet seed and sunflower seeds. The small yellow millet and fine bits and pieces of sunflower contained in Aspen Song® Finch mix are ideally suited and sized for attracting this special specie.
While the opportunity to enjoy Common Redpolls only occurs on a two year cycle, when they do arrive, they will flock to your yard in numbers. Once your finch feeder is located and recognized as a dependable food source, they will stay with you for much of the winter. Their exotic story and subtle beauty will provide much enjoyment while they remain. And so as not to provide too much of a good thing, they will be back…eventually!
Reference: Knox, Alan G. and Peter E. Lowther. 2000. Common Redpoll (Carduelis flammea), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology.