For the Birds Radio Program: Hoary Redpolls!

Original Air Date: Feb. 3, 2009 Rerun Dates: Feb. 5, 2013

This has been a great year for redpolls, including the rare Hoary Redpoll.

Duration: 4′17″


The upper Midwest is in the middle of a splendid redpoll winter. Common Redpolls have been visiting many area feeders, and for some reason Hoary Redpolls seem easier to find than usual within the redpoll flocks.

I love redpolls of any variety. The Common Redpoll was Number 123 on my life list—I saw my first on February 2, 1976, at the Fenner Arboretum in East Lansing, Michigan, and can still remember how that lovely bird, with its rosy breast and glittering ruby forehead, made friendly ascending Beeeee? Notes just like my Grandpa’s canaries had once done. It was three years before I saw my first Hoary. That was at a bird feeder in Madison, Wisconsin, and by then I was sort of taking Common Redpolls for granted, but the Hoary’s frosty whiteness was ever so pleasing to see.

Hoary Redpolls are very closely related to Common Redpolls, and very close to them in appearance, as well. Hoaries are more white—one of the authorities on the species writes, “Adult males in fresh plumage have been likened to drifting snowflakes and resemble fluffy snowballs when perched.” It takes a certain measure of patience to properly identify them, though, especially for acquisitive novice and intermediate birders who so yearn to add one to their lists that they can’t help but look for signs of whiteness in every redpoll they see. Fortunately, Hoaries do have a few field marks that are fairly clear, and can be diagnostic when you see them in combination. First, their beak is shorter and stubbier than the beak on a Common Redpoll, and this is more noticeable because Hoary Redpolls are thicker-bodied. And hoaries have more delicate streaking on their sides and their rump—indeed, unlike the streaked rump on Common Redpolls, a Hoary’s rump can be almost clear white or pinkish white, and Hoaries have the courteous habit of spending much of their time drooping their wings to make it more noticeable.

Identifying Hoary Redpolls is challenging enough that a lot of birders concentrate on field marks rather than on the miraculous little birds themselves. Redpolls are exceptional—able to survive colder temperatures, and longer periods of extended darkness, than any songbirds, ravens included, and Hoaries live even farther north than their common relatives. How do they do it? To get through the dim northern days where the sun doesn’t rise for months, they have lots of extra rods in their retinas, so they can at least gather a bit of light when it still seems absolutely dark to us. They may even find some food during moonlit nights. To stoke their metabolic fires during the long winter nights, they can stuff their oversized stomach, and when that’s full they can stuff pouches all along their esophagus, so even as they sleep, they can continue to digest a steady stream of food to get the energy they need to shiver in order to maintain their body temperature.

Hoary Redpolls spend their lives in sociable flocks, even during the nesting season when several nests can be built in the same small clump of bushes. Although redpolls can be skittish when a person walks onto the scene, it doesn’t take them long to decide we don’t pose much of a threat, so Hoary Redpolls are one of the easier rare birds to photograph. These confiding, sociable, fluffy little snowballs are one of the reasons to celebrate winter.