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Redpoll. Photo by Nancy Jane Kern

THE BIRDERS OF THE AREA were on alert this fall for the anticipated northern finch species irruption caused by low food supplies in Canada, and they were not disappointed. During the past week I was checking out the Kinderhook farm fields and a small swirling flock of about 15 common redpolls flew ahead of me from the side of the road and up into the tops of some birch trees.

This was exciting! I hadn’t seen a flock like this in years! They flew down to feed on roadside weed seeds and exuberantly chattered and rattled with a call reminiscent of some of the many American goldfinch vocalizations, expressing their obvious pleasure at finding this bountiful location. They were ravenous and worked hard extracting seeds from the dried weeds. I am not sure what was on the ground, but they alternated between feeding there and then back up into the birches. Possibilities included grass seeds, seed shaken from the birch catkins, or road grit to replenish their crops.

A crop acts like teeth for birds, and the muscular gizzard surrounding the crop sack squeezes to grind and break down the seed/grit mixture so more of the vital nutrients can be absorbed. The grit passes through the intestine and out so it must be periodically replaced. An interesting feature of redpolls is their ability to store seeds in diverticula, their laterally expandable sections of esophagus. In winter, seeds can be gathered quickly out in the open, and stored in the diverticula. Later, in the dense cover of spruce or other conifers, they can regurgitate, husk and swallow the seeds, saving significant energy at times of intense cold. Fortunately, there was a stand of spruce near the southern end of the adjacent field and I assumed they would shelter there.

I keep waiting to see redpolls on my home feeders, but so far there are none. Marion Ulmer had a few on her feeders in Chatham this week. What feisty little fellows they are! Nothing short of a blue jay trying to land dislodges them. They eat seed for about five minutes and then fly off. They are conditioned to the harsh winters of the far north so snow, sleet and wind seldom keep them from the feeders.

If you are familiar with our beautiful little goldfinch, the redpolls are slightly smaller and slimmer with a length of about four inches. Their most distinguishing features are a black chin, and the red cap, or poll, which gives them their common name. The adult males also have a pink wash over the breast which adds to the species Latin name Carduelis flammea. Most of the bird has fine striping that is enhanced by the rosy wash. They are commonly found from Alaska through Northern Canada, Scandinavia to Russia and China near spruce and birch forests.

Another type of redpoll is the rare hoary redpoll which has a stubbier beak, is slightly larger, and can be first identified in a flock by its much whiter color. When perched, the bird’s back has a frosted look. I keep looking, but so far none have appeared. With the influx of this year’s cheerful little common redpolls comes hope of seeing more exciting visitors from up north. Keep your feeders filled and keep watching.

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