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Common Redpoll

(Carduelis flammea)
Indiana Dunes State Park, Indiana
November 2007

General Information

The Common Redpoll is a circumpolar denizen of the taiga and tundra of the high arctic. They range across the northern reaches of North America, Europe, and Russia. Related species in this group include the Goldfinches, Greenfinches, Linnets, Twites and the Carduelis Siskins. During irruption years, Redpolls, Pine Siskins, Pine Grosbeaks, Purple Finches, and other northern finches extend their range southward, adding excitement and color at backyard bird feeders where seed is offered. Migratory movements of Redpolls are usually during the day, but individuals may begin to move well before sunrise.

The Arctic (or Hoary) Redpoll (C. hornemanni) (not shown) is considered a separate species even though hybrids with the Common Redpoll are thought to occur. More work is needed to determine the extent of interbreeding.

Redpolls are from 5 to 5.5 inches long with a wingspan of 8.25 to 8.75 inches. They are characterized by their red cap, black chin, reddish wash on the breast, pink rump, somewhat forked tail, whitish under parts and overall brownish streaking. Weights range from 13 to 14 grams (0.5 ounce). These birds are tame and show little fear of humans, likely because they live so far north away from human habitations.

Male Common Redpoll
Figure 1 - Male Common Redpoll

Female Common Redpoll
Figure 2 - Female Common Redpoll

Adult females also show the red cap and black bib, but the reddish wash on the breast may be absent or much reduced. First year birds lack the red cap until after they molt in late summer.

The white stripe on the wing and overall brownish streaking can be seen in the photo.

Common Redpoll
Figure 3 - Common Redpoll

Common Redpoll
Figure 4 - Common Redpoll

This photo shows the upper side of the Common Redpoll. The red cap, the overall brownish streaking and the slightly forked tail of this adult bird are readily visible. Note the roundish shape of the outer tail feathers of this adult bird. The shape of the tips of the tail feather is an important clue to determine the age of an individual. The tips of the tail feathers in young birds are more pointed.

The under side of the Redpoll is whitish.

Common Redpoll
Figure 5 - Common Redpoll

Common Redpoll Under Tail coverts
Figure 6 - Common Redpoll
Under Tail coverts

Note the dark center of the under tail covert feather shown here. The extent of streaking in the under tail coverts is the most reliable criteria to determine the age and sex of individuals in this species (Pyle 1997). In an older bird, as shown here, the dark central patch of the under tail coverts is less extensive than that found in younger birds. Hoary Redpolls, in contrast, show little to no dark coloration on the under tail coverts.

Female Hoary Redpolls of the subspecies C. h. exilipes overlap with some male Common Redpolls in coloration and streaking density, so care must be taken when working with these species (Pyle 1997).

Here at the Indiana Dunes State Park Nature Center, Kiley and Mackenzie are learning the techniques used determine the age and sex of a Common Redpoll. Bird banding is a wonderful opportunity for both youngsters and adults to observe and study birds up close that are otherwise seen only in fleeting glimpses as they flit among tree branches, bushes, or to and from feeders.

Future Ornithologists in training
Figure 7 - Future Ornithologists in training

Kiley and Mackenzie say goodbye to this Redpoll
Figure 8 - Kiley and Mackenzie
say goodbye to this Redpoll

Kiley and Mackenzie take a last look before saying goodbye to this Common Redpoll. If this banded bird should be encountered again, much useful information will be gained about its movements, longevity, biology, and ecology.

Breeding Biology

Redpolls breed in mixed birch or conifer forests often in loose associations with other Redpolls. The female builds a cup nest of small twigs, grass and plant stems, often high in a tree. From 3 to 7 pale blue eggs marked with fine pink or lilac spots are incubated by the female and hatch in 10 to 13 days. Both parents tend the young, who leave the nest in another 11 to 14 days.

Banding Recoveries

The records at the Bird Banding Laboratory show that between 1955 and 2000, 342,158 Common Redpolls and 11,732 Hoary Redpolls were banded and released. Of these, 698 Common Redpolls and 27 Hoary Redpolls were encountered at locations away from where they were banded. Banding studies show that Redpolls live up to 8 years in the wild.

If you should recover a banded Redpoll, please report the band number to the Bird Banding Lab by calling 1-800-327-BAND. Your report will add valuable information to what is known about this species.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. How do these tiny Redpolls and other small Arctic birds survive winters?
Redpolls live in high Arctic regions where winter darkness lasts up to 6 months and temperatures plunge well below freezing. Research has shown that Redpolls are able to survive temperatures down to minus 67 degrees C (89 degrees F below zero).

How do these little birds survive these harsh conditions? Redpolls have anatomical, physiological and behavioral adaptations that enable them to survive and to thrive in these harsh winter conditions.

One of the most important anatomical adaptations that allow Redpolls to thrive in severe cold weather is their esophageal diverticulum, a partially bi-lobed pocket situated in their neck. Redpolls use the esophageal diverticulum to store seeds, especially before nightfall or before a storm. The extra seeds allow them to “feed” while sheltering from the cold. The birds knock seeds from trees, gather the seeds from the ground and store them in the esophageal diverticulum. They then fly to a sheltered spot where they can regurgitate, shell, and consume the seeds at leisure while protected from predators and harsh weather conditions.

Behavioral adaptations are also important. Redpolls, as do other species of birds, can fluff their contour feathers to trap layers of air to insulate their body and greatly reduce heat loss. Redpolls will sometimes burrow into the snow to escape especially cold weather. Under the snow, temperatures will remain at about minus 4 degrees C (24 F) even when air temperatures drop to 45 degrees C below zero (-49 F).

2. Why do northern finches come south during some winters and not others?
Every couple of years or so, northern finches invade more southerly locations. These invasions, also called irruptions, are greatly anticipated by bird watchers as species that normally occur at high latitudes move south in large numbers. It is generally agreed that these irruptions are triggered by shortages of food in the normal ranges of these species of birds. Synchronous failures of northern trees to produce enough seeds to support populations of seed eating birds causes these birds to move southward in search of food. Seed failures and the resulting invasions of seed eating birds occur simultaneously in North America and in Europe.

In North America, several species of finches tend to invade during the same years. These include the Pine Siskin, White-winged Crossbill, Purple Finch, Pine Grosbeak, Evening Grosbeak and the Redpolls. Other seed eating species, such as the Red-breasted Nuthatch, will also come south in invasion years.

In Europe and Asia, Nutcrackers, Jays, Owls, the Great Spotted Woodpecker, Brambling, Great Tit, Coal Tit, and the Willow Tit also show irruptive behavior patterns.

3. What do Redpolls eat?
Birch seeds are the staple food for Redpolls most of the year. During the winter, Redpolls also consume seeds of Alders, willows, pines, elms, basswood, larch, and seeds from many species of weeds. Insects are an important part of their diet in the summer, especially during the breeding season.

4. How can I attract Redpolls to my feeders?
Redpolls will readily come to feeders where thistle seeds are offered. In fact, the Genus name Carduelis for this group of birds comes from the Latin Carduus meaning “Thistle.” Well-stocked feeding stations that attract finches will most likely attract Redpolls.

5. How are the different species of Redpolls related?
Worldwide, several subspecies or races of Common Redpoll are recognized: These include the Common Redpoll (sometimes called the Mealy Redpoll), (C. f. flammea), the Lesser Redpoll (C. f. cabaret), the Greater Common (or Greenland) Redpoll of Greenland and Baffin Island (C. f. rostrata), and the Redpoll of Iceland (C. f. islandica).

In the Palearctic, (Europe and Asia), the Lesser Redpoll occurs from the UK through central Europe. The Mealy Redpoll, a pale gray race, occurs from Scandanavia eastward across northern Russia. C. f. rostrata, a larger, more heavily streaked, dark brownish race, occurs in Greenland and Baffin Island with winter range extensions into Iceland and the British Isles (Beaman and Madge. 1998).

In the Nearctic (North America), the Common Redpoll (C. f. flammea) breeds from Alaska to Newfoundland and may winter south from California across to Virginia. C. f. rostrata breeds in the Northwest Territories and may winter south from Colorado across to New Jersey.

Some taxonomists suggest that the Redpolls are just one species with several subspecies. Others suggest that there may be as many as 6 separate species.

The Arctic Redpoll, a separate species, is a frosty looking version of the Common Redpoll. In North America, two subspecies are recognized. C. h. hornemanni breeds in the Northwest Territories and may winter south from Michigan to Maryland. C. h. exilipes breeds from Alaska to Labrador and may winter south from Oregon to Maryland. Intermediates between Common and Hoary Redpolls occur. For this reason, a Hoary Redpoll in a flock of Common Redpolls should be identified with caution and may not be safely separated in the field or even in the hand (Pyle 1997).

Photo Credits

Special thanks go to Brad Baumgardner, Interpretive Naturalist, Indiana Dunes State Park, John Schaust, Chief Naturalist for Wild Birds Unlimited, and John Spicer for kindly allowing us the use of their respective photographs for this Common Redpoll site.

Further Reading

Alderfer, J., Ed. 2006. Complete Birds of North America. National Geographic. Washington, DC.664 Pp.

Beaman, Mark and Steve Madge. 1998. The Handbook of Bird Identification for Europe and the Western Palearctic. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. 868 Pp.

Baicich, P. J. and C. J. O. Harrison. 1997. A Guide to the Nests, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds. 2nd Ed. Academic Press, Boston. 347 Pp.
Baughman, M. ed. Reference Atlas to the Birds of North America. National Geographic. 480 Pp.

Ehrlich, Paul R., D. S. Dobkin, D. Wheye, and S. L. Pimm. 1994. The Birdwatcher’s Handbook. A Guide to the Natural History of the Birds of Britain and Europe. Oxford University Press. Oxford. 660 Pp.

Flint, V. E., R. L. Boehme, Y. V. Kostin, and A. A. Kuzenetsov. 1984. A Field Guide to Birds of the USSR. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ. 353 Pp.

Jonsson, L. 1993. Birds of Europe with North Africa and the Middle East. Princeton University Press. Princeton, NJ. 559 Pp.

Pyle, P. 1997. Identification Guide to North American Birds. Part I. Slate Creek Press, Bolinas, CA. 731 Pp.

Terres, J. K. 1995. The National Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Wings Books, NY. 1,109 Pp.

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