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Waiting for Redpolls

By Donald Attwood


Common Redpolls have dark red spots on their foreheads – easy to see at a feeder, not so easy at the top of a birch tree.

In early November I saw my first flock of Common Redpolls, winter visitors from the far north. Wanting to know if we could expect a redpoll irruption this year, I consulted the annual Winter Finch Forecast from the Finch Research Network. This forecast was first published in 1999 by Ron Pittaway, a naturalist working for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. He assembled a network of birders, biologists, foresters, and others to report on changing tree-seed crops in the boreal forest. As he and others were discovering, colourful finches would irrupt southward during winters when the northern forests produced fewer seeds. Some finches (Red Crossbills, for example) flourish on the seeds of pine, spruce, and other conifers, while redpolls love birch seeds. When birches in the north produce fewer seeds, as reported in this year’s forecast, redpolls can be expected here during winter.

For a month or so, I saw flocks of redpolls on the fringe of a nearby golf course and around the Clarke-Sydenham Nature Reserve. As a novice birder, my first challenge was to be sure they were redpolls. For various reasons, birds in nature don’t always look like those in guidebooks. I was seeing flocks of sparrow-like birds (small and brown) eating high up in birch trees. The only way to get close enough to discern their markings was to stand directly beneath them, but it’s not easy to see fine details looking straight up through binoculars, especially when the sky is cloudy and the light poor. (This was November, you’ll recall). To confirm their identity, the detail I was seeking was a dark red spot on their foreheads – the mark for which they’re named. (“Poll” is an old word for head.)

When you’re looking almost straight up at a bird, details shown in guidebooks are mostly out of sight – redpolls being a case in point, as I could not see the tops of their heads. Eventually I decided they had to be redpolls for a combination of reasons: it was the season of boreal finch irruptions; they were eating in flocks, which is typical of certain species; they were eating birch seeds, a redpoll favourite; and some (the males) had a splash of pink on their breasts, though even that was hard to make out against the grey sky. Males of other species, such as Purple finches, also have pink on their breasts, but they differ in terms of how and where they feed. Redpolls are also distinguished by small black chin spots, though these too were hard to discern against the grey clouds.

In previous years, a few redpolls sometimes visited our backyard feeders in the depth of winter. This year, hoping to attract more, I bought a thistle-seed feeder because redpolls love thistle, also known as Nyjer seed. Yet although I continued to see flocks of redpolls in the area, none came to our feeders. Perhaps the thistle feeder was a mistake?

Then one day in January a few showed up, followed by more the next day and the next. They began coming early, often at sunrise, and returning several times a day, 25 or 30 at a time. Buying more thistle seed from Le Nichoir (online) has become a regular thing now. They’re a lively bunch, these redpolls, crowding the sides of the feeder. This sort of foraging in flocks is also typical of American Goldfinches, which showed up by the dozen in previous winters; this year they only come in twos or threes. Their scarcity is puzzling because goldfinches are not irruptive winter finches that summer in the far north; they nest here in summer. Their scarcity this season may have to do with conditions in the near northern forest, at the limit of their breeding range.

Redpolls at the feeders encourage other birds to visit. (Beside thistle we offer sunflower seeds, peanuts, and suet.) The same happens in the woods and meadows: birds watch other species, learning where to find food and when a site is safe. Jane Jacobs, the great writer and urbanist, observed that ‘eyes on the street’ make a neighbourhood safe for everyone, including children. Various species rely on small birds to watch a space and certify its safety. At the least hint of trouble from any direction, redpolls explode from the feeder, alerting others.

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