The hoary redpoll is bird of the week, not because any have appeared, but because some are anticipated.
And because there is a plausible, if circuitous, connection between the redpoll and the Christian saint whose festival is celebrated today, St. Nicholas.
To accept a link between the hoary redpoll and St. Nicholas requires that we concede two things. One is that Nicholas is the model for Santa Claus. The second is that Santa Claus lives at the North Pole.
The hoary redpoll is a bird of the North. The most recent checklist of birds of the world published by Bird Life International gives it the common name “Arctic redpoll,” in fact.
This is to discourage the use of an obscure and easily misunderstood—though perfectly appropriate—adjective to describe this redpoll.
Hoary means “frosty,” hence “hoarfrost,” a phenomenon we denizens of the Red River Valley know well enough.
This redpoll is frosty, and that provides another plausible connection to Santa Claus. Santa’s colors are the colors of Christmas, red and white. So are the redpoll’s colors. In fact, this little bird is frosty white all over, except on the top its head, the “poll.”
Thus, the hoary redpoll makes a good bird for the season.
One difficulty, however, is that hoary redpolls aren’t common. Nor are they dependable.
It is a species to anticipate, in other words, rather than to expect.
The same is true of its close relative, the common redpoll. Common redpolls are vastly more abundant than hoary redpolls, by a margin of 8- or 10-to-1, I’d guess.
Thus, they are more likely to be seen, statistically.
That doesn’t make them more dependable, however.
Both redpolls species are examples of what are known as “northern irruptives.” This refers to the fact that some years they are scarce, or even absent, and some years they are abundant. They seem to “erupt,” in other words.
So far, this has not proven to be a good year for redpolls. I’ve had only a couple of reports, and I’ve had only a handful at my own feeders.
Easy winter so far
This is not necessarily predictive, however. It is early in the season, and the season so far has been extraordinarily mild. This means the birds can forage through the countryside and find sustenance, rather than depending on feed we humans offer them.
There’s a bit of anomaly here, though, because at least one other species of northern finch, another irruptive, is abundant throughout the area. This has so far been a banner year for pine siskins. This year’s may not be the greatest influx of them, but certainly it is a greater influx than most years bring.
What’s more, the siskins have been here a long time, at last six weeks already. Still, their numbers appear to be increasing. Every day brings more to my feeder operation west of Gilby, N.D.
On the other hand, one other northern finch was present in large numbers and is now scarce, at least at my place. This is the dark-eyed junco, which often sticks around until the ground is snow-covered.
My feeder has attracted American goldfinches, although these are not so numerous as the siskins. This would have been remarkable a decade or so ago, when goldfinches were almost wholly migratory. These days, goldfinches tend to hang around later into winter, and I’ve had some instances where individuals or small groups have spent the whole winter.
Two rather more rare northern finches have turned up in our area, too. I’ve had a couple of reports of pine grosbeaks and one of red crossbills. These are occasional visitors here. I’d say both species are worth watching for, but neither should really be anticipated.
They’re less likely than hoary redpolls, I’d say.
Recognizing a redpoll isn’t difficult. These are small birds, smaller than house sparrows. They are low slung. Usually, redpolls appear in pretty large flocks, often in weedy patches and unharvested sunflower fields. They do come to feeders, where they take sunflower seed. They also eat thistle, though they’re not as enthusiastic about it as goldfinches.
The two species can be told apart in two ways.
First, as the name implies, hoary redpolls are lighter. They appear quite white, with perhaps smudges of gray on the breast. The wings are darker, but still the overall impression is of a light-colored bird.
Common redpolls are darker, especially on the back and breast; elsewhere, they often are streaked in brown. Hoary redpolls are much less streaked, sometimes hardly at all. As the season moves along, both species show a rose-colored blush on the upper breast—a sure sign of spring.
Even without this, though, the hoary redpoll presents itself in white with a flourish of red, an appropriate qualification for the Santa Claus bird.