My little buddies are back.
I remember them well from my days managing the Wetlands, Pines and Prairie Audubon Sanctuary. They would alight onto the snow-covered ground by the dozens, softly calling to one another while feeding on discarded sunflower seeds that the fox squirrels were notorious for knocking out of the feeders.
Many more would be perched within the surrounding trees and shrubs, flitting about, vocalizing, and nervously landing here and there, always searching the ground for anything edible. So many and tiny they were, but always a delight to observe. When something frightened them, the whole mass would depart all at once -- yet, just as quickly, back to the ground they'd come.
Common redpolls are a welcome sight to any backyard birder accustomed to providing seed for mostly those local yokels. Not necessarily overbearing to other species of birds, though remarkably abundant at times, common redpolls are indeed a favorite feathered friend of mine.
Redpolls are finches, and are closely related to pine grosbeaks, evening grosbeaks, pine siskins, American goldfinches and crossbills. The little fellows are pretty much the identical size of our year-around resident black-capped chickadees. Common redpolls sport dark faces and black throat patches, similar to chickadees and another of their close relatives, the non-native house sparrow. Nonetheless, it's their distinctive streaked flanks and reddish brown heads (red poll) that helps set them apart from other species of birds.
The common redpoll is one such species that are often referred to as an "irruptive" species. You may have heard this term before. Simply put, an irruption is an influx of different species of birds into an area they don't normally occupy. We typically observe this phenomenon during the winter months when birds migrate from the north to the south.
Other birds commonly associated with winter irruptions include pine grosbeaks, pine siskins, purple finches, evening grosbeaks, red crossbills and white-winged crossbills. Other species that will often shift wintering areas are black-capped chickadees, blue jays, red-breasted nuthatches, Bohemian waxwings and varied thrushes. Remember a few winters ago throughout northern Minnesota and the Big Bog country of Red Lake when large numbers of great gray owls and northern hawk owls were the talk of many a birder? Without question, it was another grand irruption.
I don't recall observing many, if any, redpolls last year. But so far this year the handsome little fellows have found their way to my backyard. The lack of food is believed to be the reason irruptive species like common redpolls migrate south from Canada in the first place. When food availability is low, irruptions are bound to occur.
Common redpolls enjoy feeding on birch and alder catkins. So, when a preferred food source is depleted or naturally low in availability and abundance, huge numbers of redpolls will disperse from their preferred wintering areas in search for "happier hunting grounds." These irruptions can be wide-ranging to as far south as the Mid-Atlantic States or central Kansas.
More than one species can irrupt together too. In the winter of 1997-98 in the Northeast, red and white-winged crossbills, evening and pine grosbeaks and common redpolls staged an enormous "super flight" into that region. Varied thrushes, known for their wanderlust behavior, are commonly observed in regions as faraway as the East Coast from their typical winter range of the Pacific Northwest. Several winters ago I observed one of these out-of-place thrushes next to my platform feeder. As well, an excited reader wrote to me just a couple of months ago relating the sighting of a lonely looking varied thrush at a feeder too!
The presence of recent flocks of common redpolls has added a little diversity to the backyard mix of, up until now, mostly chickadees, nuthatches, a few hardy goldfinches and downy, hairy and pileated woodpeckers. A handsome bird, the gregarious five-inch redpolls are easy to identify and a joy to observe and listen to.
The sudden appearance of this northern-breeding "winter finch" reminds me of that Red River Valley winter of 2001-02 when huge flocks of the not-always-so-common, common redpolls dominated my feeders. And though some people believe that seeing large numbers of uncommon birds, or birds not ordinarily observed in a particular area, is a sign of a harsh winter to come, I'm not convinced that this is the case this winter.
To be sure, what it likely means is that a species of bird, like the common redpoll, migrating to a different wintering area might be experiencing a difficult time elsewhere and is searching for more favorable areas. In other words, food is probably the driving force, and birds go where food can be found.
Ah yes, the winter months are always a good time to appreciate nature. For me, the slower pace of January into March is a welcome reprieve from the hustle-bustle of preceding months. My little buddies, all those common redpolls calling to one another and fluttering about, are fine reminders why we live where we do as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org