A closer look at the common redpoll

A common redpoll sits on a lilac branch in Vermontville earlier this winter. (Enterprise photo — Justin A. Levine)

VERMONTVILLE — One notably absent species in the Tri-Lakes during last year’s annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count was the common redpoll, and although none were seen during the concerted effort, I’ve seen several at my feeder over the last couple of weeks.

Mostly our bird feeder is host to black-capped chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches, but we occasionally get blue and gray jays, downy woodpeckers, evening grossbeaks and recently, redpolls.

Redpolls are tiny little things, not much larger than the chickadees. But their somewhat dull plumage is accentuated by a bright red skull cap at the front of their head. Some of the ones we’ve seen also have a reddish chest.

According to the Audubon Society, the Adirondacks are in the far southern portion of the redpoll range. The bird nests in the Arctic, but sometimes finds its way south to Canada and the northern U.S.

“Redpolls are tiny, restless birds, feeding actively on seeds among trees and weeds, fluttering and climbing about acrobatically, their flocks seemingly always on the move,” the Audubon Society says. “For their small size, they have a remarkable ability to survive cold temperatures; their southward flights are sparked by temporary scarcity of food in the North, not by cold. At bird feeders in winter, redpolls are often remarkably tame.

“(Redpolls have) a pouch within (the) throat where it can store some food for up to several hours; this helps the bird in bitterly cold weather, allowing it to feed rapidly in the open and then digest food over a long period while it rests in a sheltered spot.”

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology says most people see the birds in winter, since their breeding range is rather desolate.

“Common Redpolls breed worldwide in the far northern latitudes, in open woods of pine, spruce, alder, birch, and willow up to about 5,000 feet elevation,” Cornell says. “In the essentially treeless tundra they find hollows and shelters where deciduous shrubs or conifers can gain a foothold. They also live around towns. Most people get to see them in winter, when redpolls move south. In their winter range, which can be extremely variable as the birds seek unpredictable food sources, redpolls occur in open woodlands, scrubby and weedy fields, and backyard feeders.”

Audubon says the birds typically lay four or five eggs, but can lay as many as seven. The female sits on the eggs for about 10 days until they hatch, at which point the female does most of the feeding, although the male’s involvement varies by individual. Hatchlings leave the nest less than two weeks after hatching.

“Males dominate females in winter flocks, but as breeding season approaches, females become dominant and may take the lead in courtship,” Audubon says. “Does not seem to defend much of a nesting territory; nests of different pairs may be close together. (Nests are) usually very well hidden in dense low shrubs, within a few feet of the ground, sometimes in grass clumps or under brushpiles. Nest (probably built by female) is an open cup of fine twigs, grass, moss, lined with feathers (especially ptarmigan feathers), plant down, or animal hair.”

Redpolls feed mainly on seeds but will also eat insects in the summer.

Cornell says redpoll behavior is different from many other species, as the small birds may gather into flocks not only during migration but even while courtship is occurring.

“Common Redpolls are energetic little birds that forage in flocks, gleaning, fluttering, or hanging upside down in the farthest tips of tree branches,” Cornell says. “Like many finches, they have an undulating, up-and-down pattern when they fly.

“To keep order in flocks, redpolls have several ways of indicating their intentions. When quarreling with flockmates, a redpoll fluffs its plumage, faces its adversary, and opens its bill, sometimes jutting its chin to display the black face patch. Males court females by flying in slow circles while calling and singing. Males may feed females during courtship. You may see small flocks of this social species even during the breeding season; during migration they may group into the thousands. In winter, some redpolls roost in tunnels under the snow, where the snowpack provides insulation and stays much warmer than the night air.”

For more on redpolls, including audio tracks of their calls, go to www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/common-redpoll.