For the Birds Radio Program: Common Redpoll

Original Air Date: Feb. 8, 1988

Redpolls are finally turning up in good numbers. (3:59)

Duration: 4′03″


Now that we’re approaching the primary and caucus season, it’s time to talk about the most interesting poll of all–the redpoll.

Redpolls are finally starting to turn up at Duluth feeders. Although 280 Common Redpolls were counted on the Duluth Christmas Bird Count, they were concentrated in the outskirts of town. One of my friends had some in Lakewood township, but they haven’t turned up at my favorite Port Wing Blue Jay hater’s feeder yet. And not one was counted on the Rochester Christmas Bird Count–even though their 64 species set an all-time Minnesota record. Most redpolls are probably still way north of here, enjoying their frozen Arctic wonderland.

Experiments show redpolls to be the hardiest songbird in the whole world–hardier even than crows and ravens. Yes, those fragile looking finches can survive air temperatures as low as 67 degrees below zero–they even take winter baths in icy brooks or by burrowing into wet snow.

How can such tiny finches be so hardy? No, they don’t have antifreeze in their blood. But they do have unusually good eyesight at low light intensities, so they can start breakfast at dawn while other birds are still shivering in their cold winter beds. And they can keep eating at dusk when other birds have already retired. The extra calories from these twilight meals provide the fuel a redpoll needs to survive the worst cold spells. Also, unlike most songbirds, a redpoll can stoke its furnace several times during the night. It pigs out during those late afternoon meals, eating more seeds than its stomach can hold. The surplus is stored in a series of large pouches in its esophagus, to be drawn upon throughout night. And the seeds it selects are dense in calories, like birch, thistle, and sunflower. Finally, the redpoll’s streaked, pinkish plumage is unusually thick and warm.

Redpolls are as gregarious as they are hardy. In the breeding season they don’t fight over territories, and often build their nests very close together. And in winter they team up, often in flocks of several hundred birds. The five visiting my feeder this year seem as aware of each other’s movements as the Boston Celtics are. Redpolls are found here throughout the regular basketball season, and one or two can occasionally be found through the playoff period, though, unlike the Celtics, redpolls usually don’t last here through the finals in June. The best way to tell a redpoll from a Boston Celtic is that redpolls never wear high-top shoes.

Redpolls look quite a bit like Pine Siskins, and sometimes people don’t even notice them in a siskin flock. All redpolls have some yellow on their beaks, and all have an red forehead that glitters in sunlight. Males usually show some pink on their breasts, though it’s quite variable.

Redpolls are classified in the same genus as siskins and goldfinches, and all of them are about five inches long from beak to tail. Like siskins, redpolls are curious and tame– sometimes mine don’t even leave the feeder as I pour seed in. They’ve been known to light on people, and some have even been caught by hand for banding.

Redpolls are drawn to expensive niger seed the way yuppies are drawn to sushi. Fortunately, most redpolls settle for sunflower seed–so far the yuppie syndrome has been pretty much contained within the human species, and will probably never spread to birds.

(Recording of a Redpoll)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”