Bird Lore: Common Redpoll

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The Common Redpoll is a small finch that is a common arctic and subarctic breeder. It is common in winter across northern North America and sometimes makes its way to Edmonds. It is not seen here every year, but in irruption years such as this one, it is seen throughout Western Washington, including Edmonds. When seen in Edmonds, it is usually around the marsh. One writer calls it the catkin finch because it loves birch catkins. In our area it feeds on red alder catkins and often associates with Pine Siskins.

When the Common Redpoll irrupts southward in winter, it is not because of the cold. It is due to a scarcity of food in the northern latitudes. It eats mostly seeds with some insects. Its seed diet includes catkins, weed seeds, small conifer seeds, and buds of willows, alders, and birches. Insects are part of its summer diet. The Common Redpoll has a throat pouch for seed storage. It may fill the pouch quickly and then fly away to swallow the seeds in a more protected, warmer spot.

In winter flocks, males dominate females. As the breeding season approaches, females dominate and may take the lead in courtship. The Common Redpoll does not seem to defend a breeding territory. Nests of several pairs may be close together. The nest is usually well hidden in dense low shrubs, within a few feet of the ground. It is an open cup of fine twigs, grasses, and moss, lined with feathers, animal hair, or plant down.

The female incubates her four to five eggs for about 10-11 days. The male feeds the female during incubation. The female then feeds the hatchlings. The young leave the nest about 12 days after hatching.

The oldest Common Redpoll of record was at least seven years and 10 months of age. It lived in Alaska. It is an incredibly wide-ranging bird as evidenced by banding records. A redpoll banded in Michigan was recovered in Siberia. Some banded in Alaska have been recovered in the eastern U.S. One banded in Belgium was found two years later in China. Collective nouns for all finches include charm and trembling. Because of the way the Redpoll moves about and forages, another appropriate collective noun would be a restlessness of redpolls.

The Common Redpoll is known to tunnel into the snow to stay warm during the night. Tunnels may be as long as a foot and be 4 inches under the snow’s surface. This species can survive temperatures of -65 degrees Fahrenheit. It does so by increasing its plumage in winter by a third.

Conservation status of the Common Redpoll is that of least concern. The global population is estimated at 160 million, with 17 percent spending some part of the year in Canada, and 22 percent wintering in the U.S. This species can succumb to salmonella infections at feeders. Although it is now less common, in the past this species was trapped for food or to keep as caged birds in Europe. The Common Redpoll breeds in the circumpolar far north, away from large numbers of humans and our associated environmental impacts. Time will tell how climate change might impact the boreal and tundra habitats of this species.

You can here the flight calls of a small flock of Common Redpolls here: https://www.xeno-canto.org/398876.

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

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