Length: 5.25 inches
Wingspan: 9 inches
The smallest of our red finches (5 inches long), the common redpoll looks like a pine siskin with a red cap on its head. Streaky on backs and sides, with a tiny yellow bill surrounded by a black chin, the common redpoll is an active, vocal, 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. The common redpoll’s small size and red cap make it easy to separate from other red or streaky finches.
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.
The song of the common redpoll is a long series of twitters and rising buzzy trills: chit-chit-chit-chewee, tu-tu-tu-tseeet, chit-chitchit-zeeeet. Its common call is a chattering ch-ch-ch-chweee!, rising in tone on the last, longer note. The flight call of common redpoll is described as zit-zit, zit-zit.
When and where to look
Common redpolls nest in Alaska and across northern Canada. From September through December they migrate south from the northern portions of their range into southern Canada and across the northern half of the United States, where they 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.
If you live in a northern state, you might spot common redpolls in winter chomping on thistle seed and sunflower seed from your backyard feeder. They forage hastily, filling special pouches in their upper gut. Then they regurgitate the seeds, shell them, and eat them. 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.
The polar bears of the bird world, redpolls can survive colder temperatures better than any other songbird. Extra food, stored in their crops, is digested during the night, keeping the redpoll warm.