Published November 11, 2012, 12:00 AM

ALWAYS IN SEASON: Unpredictable redpolls show up early

Jacobs ponders an early surge in the redpoll population.

By: Mike Jacobs, Grand Forks Herald

A big bunch of redpolls — certainly 40 or more — showed up at my backyard feeder west of Gilby, N.D., one afternoon last week.

I’ve seen redpolls around Grand Forks, too, and several callers have mentioned flocks of redpolls around the area.

All of this raises the question, “Is it early for redpolls?”

Redpolls are usually associated with winter and very early spring, so, yes, it does seem early for redpolls.

But the truth is that redpolls are very unpredictable birds.

Some years, they show up early. Some years, they show up late. Some years, they don’t show up at all.

Plus, redpoll numbers can vary quite a bit from day to day.

While it might seem early for redpolls, their arrival in early November or even in late October isn’t unprecedented. Neither is the number of redpolls showing up.

Flocks of redpolls numbering thousands of individual birds have been seen on Christmas bird counts in northeast North Dakota.

Still, large numbers of redpolls so early in the year does seem unusual.

What’s up?

A couple of possibilities:

First, this has been a very dry year, not just in the Red River Valley, but across much of the continent. This could have affected food supplies in the heart of redpoll country, which is the scrub country of the Canadian Shield, several hundred miles north of here.

Second, the redpolls may be more conspicuous this year. A dry fall made for a long harvest season, and there are few sunflower fields remaining to attract wandering redpolls. Instead, they are coming to bird feeders, where they are easy to see.

At the same time, many brushy and weedy areas have been mowed, removing cover that redpolls depend upon for shelter from the weather. This they find in shelterbelts and overgrown gardens, places where they are more easily seen.

There are two redpoll species. The common redpoll is much more abundant. Probably more than 90 percent of redpolls seen here are common redpolls. The remaining tenth are hoary redpolls, a separate but quite similar species.

These are small finches, smaller and slimmer than the house sparrows that are so familiar here, but larger and more robust-looking than the kinglets, which are late fall migrants in the Red River Valley.

Both species appear quite light, overall, but the hoary redpoll is noticeably paler. The common redpoll appears browner with heavier streaking on the breast and belly. Indeed, some hoary redpolls have little striping at all.

Both species have brownish wings with prominent white patches.

The birds are named for their most prominent field mark, a red spot on the top of the head. This poll distinguishes them from other small finches that occur here.

As winter passes, the male redpolls develop a pink or light red flush on the breast. This makes them among the handsomest of the finches.

Redpolls are gregarious birds. They’re almost always seen in flocks, though sometimes these consist of only a few birds, and once in a while, a single redpoll will show up.

They come eagerly to bird feeders. They’re fond of black oilseed sunflower and of thistle. Redpolls feed both at the feeders themselves and on the ground below them.

The redpolls are among a suite of northern birds that move south through our region every fall. These include a number of sparrow species. Most of these have passed through by now, although late sightings of Harris’ and fox sparrows occur fairly often, and swamp and tree sparrows have been seen well into the winter.

The more common finches, however, are dark-eyed juncos, distinguished by the overall gray color, and pine siskins, which are heavily streaked and appear quite dark, in contrast to redpolls. Siskins often feed with redpolls, but they can be picked out easily because they show patches of yellow in the wings and on the rump.

Other sightings

It’s a good idea to be alert for several other species that sometimes occur here. There have been reports of evening grosbeaks in Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. Reports of red-breasted nuthatches have come from Grand Forks and Devils Lake.

I’ve had a couple of reports of waxwings.

Earlier in the season, there were reports of crossbills. Like redpolls, the crossbills are associated with winter. They’re named for their bills that are adapted to pick seeds from the cones of evergreens.

In open country, both short-eared owls and rough-legged hawks have appeared, but I’ve seen no sign of snowy owls yet this season — and it is time for snowy owls.

Jacobs is publisher of the Herald. Reach him at (701) 780-1103; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1103; or send email to