Oh My Goodness, The Redpolls Have Irrupted!
It was February, in the middle of a snowstorm that dumped over a foot of snow here. I heard the excited chirps high in the tree tops while I was shoveling my way to the woodshed. They were small birds, and there were myriads of them! Perched in the dark grey branches on a cold, grey day I found it hard to pick out any colors at all. Besides that, my glasses would become covered with snow every time I looked upward!
We usually have large flocks of goldfinches that hang around all winter. That was my first guess, and my second guess was purple finches.
I had read in Audubon magazine that this might be a good year to see purple finches during the wintertime. Although I had seen several purple finches the week before, these did not sound like the lovely and bubbly purple finches that usually appear in spring. Nor did they say “zeee-zee” as do the goldfinches.
Having finally reached the woodpile, I gathered up enough wood for the day and headed back to the warmth of the house. By then my fingers and toes were frozen, and my one thought was to start a fire and warm up.
The next day the sun was shining intermittently. As I glanced out toward the bird feeders I noticed that all 6 of them were loaded with small birds. It was time to fill the feeders anyway, so I again grabbed my shovel and worked my way out to the hungry birds. By now they were covering the ground beneath the feeders searching for morsels on the snow.
These friendly little guys didn't mind my presence at all. In fact a couple of them flew so close that I could feel the air from their wing beats. The nearer I came the more I realized that these were definitely not goldfinches. Nor were they the purple finches I had seen a week earlier. I had never seen these birds in person before in my life!
Once I recognized them as beautiful, cheery little common redpolls, I knew I had an irruption on my hands! That term in this context applies to a sudden large influx of birds that have ventured out of their known territory to find food. There was an irruption of Snowy Owls just last year in the American Plains. If you know anything about ‘Harry Potter’, you know that Hedwig was his snowy owl.
Redpolls are members of the finch family; they live and breed in the arctic and Canada. They move as far south as extreme northern New York State normally. Male Common Redpolls have splashes of red on their chest feathers, and are heavily streaked on their sides and underparts with dark brown. Redpolls especially love nyjer (thistle) seed. It seems they are not picky though, because they were swarming all over the suet feeders and the sunflower feeders as well as the thistle feeder. They wear bright red patches on their foreheads and have black chins and faces, and yellow beaks. Look for a bold white wing bar as well as a short notched tail.
My chickadees seem to give these small red finches free reign at the feeders, but the juncos are not intimidated by their numbers at all. They chatter excitedly to one another, and seem to always be in motion. Redpolls have a unique way of socializing and sharing by passing a seed from one bird down the line to another, which then passes it along to yet another, and so on. Their song is very sweet, and I mean that quite literally because that is what they actually sing: ‘swe-e-e-eet’.
My Short Video of the Redpolls at the Bird Feeders
Are You Familiar with Little Redpolls?
Along about the time the redpolls had begun to work at the newly-filled bird feeders, a deer made its way into their field of vision. They all rose in flight as one and filled the upper branches of nearby trees. Once they realized the deer was not a threat, the whole ‘gallup’ (the collective name for a group of redpolls) flew back and settled in comfortably as they chowed down.
In my research I found that, according to Whatbird.com, Common Redpolls sometimes are found as far south as the Carolinas, Oklahoma and northern California. They enjoy the arctic climate and tunnel under the snow to shelter against the frigid nights. To date they are considered a bird of least concern, meaning their numbers indicate a healthy, normal population without fear of extinction any time soon.
I wouldn't mind having these friendly and colorful American finches around here on a regular basis. However, I would need a second job to keep them in seeds! Still, I feel quite honored that they chose my backyard as their temporary home away from home. It’s always fun for me to discover a bird I've never met before!