Common Redpoll by Christian Goers
Area birders afflicted with redpoll fever

(published 2-6-12)

Bird names can be misleading as most of us know. Case in point, the red-bellied woodpecker, whose pinkish underparts are one of its least conspicuous field marks. Or the Nashville warbler, a species that not only doesn’t live in its namesake city but is said to despise country music. That’s just not right.

The common redpoll, because of its name, is a species that might tend to be dismissed by birders who are new to the game. “Common” birds just aren’t very exciting, right?

Well, what’s common and what isn’t depends on where you live. Around here, redpolls are a rare winter visitor, and northern Illinois is about as far south as they ever travel.

Every birder I know wants to see a common redpoll, and lately many are getting their wish. All signs point to 2012 being a redpoll “invasion” year, with sightings around DuPage County and all of Chicagoland on the rise since mid-January. This appears to be the best opportunity since 2009 to add common redpoll to your life list.

Redpolls, along with pine siskins and crossbills, belong to a group we call the winter finches. They are “irruptive species,” meaning they sometimes appear here in unusually large numbers. Or they might not show up at all.

It all depends on the winter food supply on their arctic and sub-arctic breeding grounds. If the cone and seed crop is good, they may never leave the tundra. But when food is scarce, the birds wander south in nomadic flocks. It’s during those times that our thistle feeders become finch magnets—for redpolls and siskins, in particular.

Common redpolls are easily identified. As with many birds, the key markings are on the head. Look for a goldfinch-sized bird with a crimson cap, black chin and a tiny yellow bill. Redpolls also are heavily streaked on the flanks (like a pine siskin) and the males generally display some pink on the breast.

In the words of birding guru Pete Dunne, the common redpoll is a “streaky, stubby, effervescent pip-squeak of a finch with a small red beret and a black goatee.”

You’ll know this bird when you see it. So keep your feeders full and watch them carefully this month and right into March. That very strategy paid off for me in February 2009 when three common redpolls stopped by my thistle feeder and stayed for about 20 minutes. That was the first and still only time I’ve hosted backyard redpolls.

This winter, other birders are experiencing the same thrill. Christian Goers spotted eight redpolls at his Hinsdale feeder on January 4 and shared the accompanying photo. It was a new species for Goers’ yard list and the birds visited just a week after he’d added common redpoll on his life list during a trip to Door County, Wis.

Redpolls usually travel in flocks and often congregate with other finches. The birds in Goers’ backyard were associating with house finches. Goldfinches and siskins are other likely companions.

Hopefully some redpolls will visit your thistle feeder, too. Meanwhile, if you need a more immediate cure for redpoll fever, try looking beyond the backyard. Weedy fields and anywhere with stands of alder, birch or spruce are worth checking for redpolls. Birch seeds are their favorite food.

Currently the region’s premier “hotspot” is the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe. Evanston birder Matthew Cvetas and his son Jake counted 115 common redpolls there on January 16. Five days later Al Stokie of Park Ridge reported at least 65 redpolls at CBG. He said the largest flock was foraging in the birches around the Regenstein Center.

The Morton Arboretum and Crabtree Nature Center (Barrington) also can be good sites for redpolls.

Birders who have the good fortune of encountering a flock of common redpolls should always look for that needle in a haystack, the hoary redpoll. The hoary is a common redpoll look-alike but with a pale or “frosty” appearance. Separating a hoary from a common is challenging even for expert birdwatchers.

Hoary redpolls are far less likely to visit our region than their “common” cousins. Also keep in mind that there is nothing common about the common redpoll. In these parts, every sighting is a gift. Good luck!

Copyright 2012 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.