Bird Watcher's General Store

Redpolls Love Winter - 01/30/04

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redpolls

Dear Bird Folks,

Last week, much to my delight, I had some new birds on my feeders. I had redpolls, for the first time ever in my South Orleans yard. The book says that they come from way up north. Could it be all this cold weather that has brought them here and will they stay all winter?

-Elizabeth, S. Orleans

No Elizabeth,

it is not the cold. Although it seems that this frigid weather would make even Big Foot pack up and move to any place further south, even South Orleans. The truth is that redpolls could care less about our little cold snap. They are probably laughing at all the fuss we are making about this recent weather. Believe it or not, things have been balmy around here, compared to where these birds come from.

Common Redpolls are small finches, that can be found anywhere in the northern part of the world, including Canada, Scandinavia and Siberia. Only the size of a goldfinch, they are able to thrive in the planet's worst weather. Redpolls hold the songbird record for living in the coldest climate. They survive in temperatures that would turn any other songbird into Swarovski crystal. They live in areas where the mercury drops below minus eighty. That's right -80, eighty degrees below zero, negative eighty Fahrenheit. (It has to be Fahrenheit, because I don't think Celsius even has a number that goes that low).

How is it possible for birds, that weigh less than a half of an ounce, to survive such extreme cold temperatures? It's all about getting enough food. Redpolls remain active and are able to continue to forage in low light. Feeding in poor light is an important skill in the north, when days are short and nights are long. They also have a little pouch or crop on one side of their throat where they are able to store food. Like many of us, they fill their pouch before they go to roost for the night. During the night these birds actually awaken, cough up the grub, have a midnight snack and go back to sleep. The extra food is just what the birds need to enable them to survive the frigid night. A great system if you don't mind a few crumbs in the bed.

If these birds are from way up in Canada and they don't mind the cold, why would they make the trip all the way to Cape Cod? Once again it's all about the food. Redpolls' most important food source is the wicked tiny seeds produced by the birch and alder trees. When the seed crop fails, they go looking for food and they don't care where they have to go for it, even to your yard Elizabeth.

Usually a handful of redpolls are reported on the Cape every winter. Only occasionally do we get enough of them where lots of people are able to spot them. Judging from the number of calls we are getting about redpolls, this was a bad year for birch seeds and lots of birds have come down looking for food.

Because redpolls have a resemblance to the ever-present House Finch, I would be willing to bet that many redpoll feeder visits often go undetected. It's obvious that you are paying attention Elizabeth, but I'm sure that there are many people who fill their feeders, go back inside, turn on "American Idol" reruns and miss much of what happens on the other side of the window. It's a good idea to keep a pair of binoculars handy and occasionally check out any bird that looks a bit odd. A distinguishing field mark for redpolls is a bright red cap on the head. They also have black around their bill and chin, giving them a goatee look. The same look that fashionably stunted men seem to be so fond of.

You are lucky Elizabeth, I haven't seen Redpolls in my conservative neighborhood for many years. They all disappeared after the McCarthy hearings. (Think about it.) I can't say for sure how long they will stay at your feeder. Many people report them staying for several weeks. I guess it all depends on how good of a cook you are and what kind of birch seed recipes you have on hand.



Artwork by Catherine Clark


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