What to Look and Listen For
The common redpoll is a small, active, vocal, and highly gregarious bird. Both males and females have the namesake ruby red forehead (poll has its origin in a word meaning “head” or “top”) and brown streaking from the red cap all the way down the back. A dark face and chin frame a small, conical, yellow bill with a dark culmen. The flanks are streaked, the belly white, the legs dark, and the tail deeply notched. The wings have a white wing bar.
Individual birds show a good deal of variability in their overall pallor and streakiness, and there are moderate sex-related differences as well. Males are identified by a pink wash on the breast, and this too is highly variable among individuals. The female’s breast is mostly white.
Like goldfinches, redpolls have an undulating flight with an alternating flap and glide, holding the wings to the body on the glide. Their flight call is described as zit-zit, zit-zit.
Don’t miss the opportunity to identify a rarer hoary redpoll among flocks of common redpolls, especially in Canada and the northernmost U.S. It’s a tough call, but worth the examination if you identify one.
When and Where to Look
In fall migration, common redpolls move from September through December from the northern portion of their range and may be seen through May. In irruption years, the movement seems more condensed, starting in mid- to late December with significant numbers by mid-January and departures starting in March.
The extent of the birds’ southern invasion depends on food supplies. In widespread irruption years, they can be found as far south as Colorado, Missouri, and Virginia. In November 2007, a first-ever common redpoll was documented in New Mexico.
Redpolls are easily attracted to feeders filled with fresh Nyjer or hulled sunflower seed. Like goldfinches, they move around a lot through the winter day in search of food. Their arrival progresses in stages: The initial group arrives, alighting first in the trees. The flock grows as more birds join them. Then a small group peels off to move in to the feeders, followed by other small groups until the feeders are fully occupied. Overflow birds forage on the ground. —Nancy Castillo