By Kate Crowley

Until the snowstorm we had a couple weekends ago, we were getting a bit bored by the activity around our bird feeders.  I hate to say it, but with the snowless ground and the general drabness of the landscape the chickadees, nuthatches and blue jays just weren’t lifting our spirits.  Then the snow fell and with it came the common redpolls.  I think it is unfortunate that whomever named these bird’s gave them the title ‘common’, because they are anything but.  They belong to the finch family, which can often be stereoptyped as having dull brown, featureless feathers.  These redpolls do have brown feathers on their backs and streaks of white and brown on their flanks, but they also have a little black ‘goatee’ below their bill and on their heads (poll) they wear a jaunty cranberry colored cap.  And the males go even further, with a flush of pink, verging on red, flowing down their breast and belly - the perfect little splotch of color against a background of snow. 
Redpolls, both the ‘common’ and the hoary (another species seen further north) are considered irruptive species, which means they generally move south from Canada, into the northern border states when food is scarce in their tundra habitats.   They are winter visitors and as such, welcome additions to the theater of feathered actors who entertain us throughout the cold, daylight challenged months.  Whatever winter throws at these delicate little birds they tough it out.  Research has shown them capable of withstanding colder temperatures than any other songbird. 
Others have told me that the redpolls arrived at their feeders that stormy weekend too.  We expect them to be present in varying numbers for the next three months.  In the days following their arrival we marveled at the numbers gathered around our small thistle feeder and on the ground below.  There were easily 50 birds in the flock.  There just aren’t that many species that come to our feeders in such large numbers and it is always a thrill to see the nonstop flutter of wings as they compete for seeds at the feeder and on the ground.  Then without any obvious (to us) change, they fly into the air as one and we can see just how many were hiding in the branches of the spruce. 
Once in the air, their high pitched twittering and undulating flight is very reminiscent of American goldfinch as they swirl one direction and then another before alighting en masse in the bare branches of a maple or oak.
Every morning we get up and look out the window to check on the redpolls.  Sometimes they don’t appear until mid-morning, but come they do, even on Saturday with the miserable rain dripping off of the branches onto our soggy snow.  The birds don’t have any option (or opinion) about the weather.  They just need to keep feeding their featherweight bodies to be able to maintain enough heat to survive.  I watched them pick and peck among the dark husks of sunflower seeds that were exposed by the melting snow.  The thistle feeder only has perches for 4 birds at a time, so the majority looked on the ground for seeds that have fallen from the feeders.  This morning they were working the bare ground beneath the spruce tree. 
Without birdfeeders they would be searching for seeds from grass or trees, like birch and alder. One of the more amazing adaptations that redpolls have is called an esophageal diverticulum - a partially bilobed pocket located in the mid-section of their throat.  This acts as a storage space for seeds, allowing the birds to collect lots at one time, then find a safe and warm spot in which to regurgitate individual seeds, shell them and eat them.  Other birds like blue jays have a gular pouch which serves in a similar capacity.    
Mike had contemplated taking down the thistle feeder a few weeks ago, because it was sitting ignored by all the other birds.  Thankfully, he procrastinated.  If you have bought thistle you know it is far more expensive than sunflower seeds, so it is only provided in smaller quantities.  But as far as we are concerned, they’re worth every penny.     


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