The common redpoll, now appearing here
By Bert Raynes, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: November 21, 2012
A frequent expression a bird-watcher hears from puzzled companions goes something like this: Oh. I like birds, but not those little brown birds — sparrows? — that all look alike.
That reaction used to be challenging to listen to when I was trying hard to learn the field marks and songs that distinguish those smaller, sparrow-size ... little brown birds. In fact, some of those little bundles of feathers are rather easy to identify. Some indeed are.
Which brings us to common redpolls. Common redpolls are small (5- to 5.5-inch) streaked gray-brown finches. The size, shape and similar behavior of pine siskins and winter-plumage goldfinches. Both sexes of common redpolls, however, sport red polls on the tops of their heads — on their crowns. Small pointed bill and a black chin. Males may have a pink breast.
By the way, the definition of “poll” in this instance seems to have come from its original meaning: To take a poll meant to count heads. A canvass. How quaint: Nowadays polls are too often designed to elicit a response, to influence or alter opinion. A person needs to be wary.
Redpoll are far north birds, breeding and living in the Arctic and boreal zones, even in winter. However, as with other winter finches, large numbers of redpolls come south during periodic “irruptions.”
An irruption is an irregular movement of large numbers of birds following their breeding season. Redpolls are seedeaters: trees with small seeds and various leaves. They move into areas beyond their normal range due to inadequate food supply. Species subject to irruption in North America include the rough-legged hawk, snowy owl, Stellar’s jay, Clark’s nutcracker, Bohemian waxwing, evening grosbeak, pine siskin and common redpoll.
Reports of common redpolls by Nature Mappers and other citizen scientists here in Jackson Hole have been made for a month this year. Intriguing.
Also intriguing are reports of evening grosbeaks and rough-legged hawks. Makes one wonder what kind of summer our western Canadian neighbors experienced. If this is to be an irruption year, one wonders what natural food supply birds need has failed.
There are two redpolls in North America. The common redpoll, which lives primarily in the Boreal, and the hoary redpoll, that lives to their north, in the Arctic. (Some authorities now believe the hoary redpoll is a northern population of the common redpoll. In any case, the hoary withstands colder temperatures than does the common.The sole outward difference between the two birds is whether the bird’s white rump patch is unstreaked and all white and if the bill is smaller than a common redpoll’s. Then you might have hoary. Hoarys are rare here in the sunny south.
Field Notes: It’s one of those times. Fall days when, after large deciduous trees are bare and the grasses and forbs are kind of dry brown, many of our low-growing willows show off their luscious colors and thus also signify their different species. Botanists suggest that willow species galore occur locally and their study is a career in itself. There might be two dozen or more species here.
The weather lingers between autumn’s end and winter’s beginning. But winter wings keep beating their way south. Common redpolls are being seen in small flocks and at feeders in the Hole. Way too soon to guess if they’ll stay the winter; they usually leave by mid-February when they do show up. One flock of 75 common redpolls was at the north end of Jackson Lake on Nov. 1 (Susan Patla). There was one immature Harris’ sparrow with them.
Rough-legged hawks are being noticed (Frances Clark, Bernie McHugh, Susan Marsh, Kirby Williams). At least one mourning dove hasn’t migrated; it hangs out in loose association with ever-enlarging swarms of Eurasian collared doves (Mary Lohuis). Rosy finches are back in the valley along with some evening and pine grosbeaks. Steve Poole welcomed a bird in Wilson he seldom sees there: a Clark’s nutcracker. Steve specializes, you might say, in butterflies of this region; the few overwintering species may come out for a while on warm, sunny days.
Kirby and Stephanie Williams saw snow geese on Nov. 13. Brian Bedrosian had another white-throated sparrow, in Wilson. Tundra swans are stopping in before going south.
Bears would not be inclined to enter dens and sleep. Be bear aware.
© Bert Raynes 2012
Bert Raynes writes weekly on whatever suits his fancy with a dash of news on nature and its many ways.