photos by Robin Song
In this segment of the Earth and Beyond program, host and producer Robin Song tells what a lot of birdfeeder watchers in Southcentral Alaska have noticed this winter. Audio runs 4:30. Text follows.
If you’ve put up bird feeders this winter, you’ve no doubt noticed the large numbers of redpolls visiting them. Even if you haven’t, you may have seen large flocks flying over, or come upon flocks on the roads, picking sand off the snow after the plow has passed. These small members of the finch family seem to be everywhere, this winter.
Usually I watch the redpolls flying overhead, during the winter, but not coming in to visit my feeders until February. They will eat the catkins in the birch trees, bustling about the crown of the trees as they feed. Along about February they start arriving at my feeders, happy to take advantage of my seed handouts. They are the only winter birds who will eat millet and other seeds besides the black-oil sunflower seeds, so I buy bags of mixed seeds for wild birds, which leaves more sunflower seeds for the other winter birds, such as chickadees and pine grosbeaks.
This winter was different right from the start. In early November I noticed 8 redpolls coming to my feeders. This number slowly increased until there were 30-odd redpolls at the time of the early January Winter Bird Count. The flock size continued to increase. By mid-January there were approximately 75 redpolls. That number has held steady since then.
I’ve been reading the emails coming in to the Alaska Birding Group, and many have been about the number of redpolls visiting feeders from Homer, Seward, Kenai, Anchorage, on up through the Matanuska Valley.
Some of the comments include the following:
Homer-We’ve had up to 65 Common Redpolls at our feeders, whereas in previous years we’ve had only one or two.
Anchorage-While driving north on Minnesota near Tudor, a large flock of around 200 redpolls flew over.
Anchorage-We’ve had about 50 to 100 daily. Not an unusual amount, but not an every year amount, either.
Soldotna-I have 100 to 200 in my yard feeders. This is one of the higher years (I have had 300 at one time) and they just showed up a week or two ago.
Nikiski-The redpolls here seem to be increasing in number.
Anchorage-At times, if I could count them, I bet there are more than 100 in the yard. They pretty much empty five feeders in about 24 hours.
Going to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology site, I read that ‘Redpolls-birds of the arctic tundra and boreal forests- migrate erratically, and occasionally show up in large numbers as far south as the central U.S.’
In winters when they decide-for whatever reason- not to migrate, then they show up in large numbers at our feeders, and are to be seen massing in trees, stripping those birch catkins. They are energetic and chatty, scrapping as they re-establish their rank in the flock. Males have rosy-pink breasts, and all mature birds have a bright cherry-red cap of feathers on their poll. Juvenile birds have a more golden-colored poll. They are rarely still, flying down from the trees like fluttering leaves to land and eat seeds, hopping and jostling, chattering all the while. Then they’re off, the whole flock taking instant flight back to the trees in a flurry of wing beats. Seeing that it’s safe to return, one bird, then another, then the rest of the flock zips in to begin eating once again. There’s safety in numbers, so if one bird takes off, they all go-just in case a would-be predator may be in the area. It’s much harder to pick off one bird in a moving flock.
While these small birds can eat a surprising amount of seeds, no one complains, for – as one birder put it; …”it’s a wonderful Sunday morning sipping coffee and watching the redpolls mob the feeders. I bet the word ‘redpoll’ is mentioned 25 times a day in my house these days.”
Next winter it could be entirely different, so enjoy the energetic, lovely little redpolls while they are here.
Feb.15, 2013, by Robin Song