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Sunshine, cold crisp air, clear blue sky, sparkling snow – all the elements of a perfect winter day. I must go for a walk. As the snow crunches underfoot, a white-breasted nuthatch "yanks" while spiraling around a silver maple. A downy woodpecker "peeks," a bluejay gets sassy, one vigilant crow caws, and a bright red male cardinal chips as it crosses my path. Nothing unusual or unexpected happens until I pass under a tall white birch and realize the tree is raining seeds.
Looking up, I discover 300 common redpolls, many upside-down. Each one clings to a spindly branch while intently feeding on the drooping catkins, devouring minute seeds and discarding the inedible bracts. Three hundred birds and not a peep from any of them.
Common redpolls, Carduelis flammea, are always a delight to see because they are never as common as their name implies. Home for these tiny sprites extends from the boreal forest tip to the southern edge of the arctic tundra. In winter, they wander in search of food; some years blanketing Wisconsin, other years appearing in scattered flocks or they may be absent altogether.
Of all the winter finches, the five-inch common redpolls are better adapted to withstand colder temperatures and tend to stay farther north or arrive later. Their esophagus has a special out-pocketing which they fill with seeds just before darkness so the birds can digest the food overnight to produce warming energy. Redpolls tend to be active earlier in the morning and later in the twilight to lengthen the time spent feeding. Their food preferences help survival. Common redpolls prefer birch seed, which is one of the highest calorie-rich seeds available on the winter landscape. As much as 80 percent of a redpoll's diet may be birch seeds. An extra- thick layer of downy feathers insulates their tiny bodies to reduce heat loss.
Birders taking a superficial glance may mistake common redpolls for pine siskins and goldfinches. Look closer. The sprightly brown streaked birds sport a red spot as a cap and a black chin. Their underparts are snow white with fine brown streaking on the flanks. Males have a pink to reddish wash on their breast and sometimes display a pink rump. Tails are deeply forked.
Common redpolls have a close relative, the hoary redpoll, Carduelis hornemanni, which looks similar but is lighter overall with finer streaking, a white rump and just a wash of pink on the male's breast. Hoary redpolls nest even farther up in the arctic than common redpolls and tend to stay farther north in winter. Always check flocks of common redpolls for the possibility of a stray hoary redpoll.
The little finches travel the countryside in flocks alighting in fields with standing weeds. They cling to weed stems and extract seeds or drop to the ground to pick up fallen or wind-blown seeds. Individual redpolls are restless, always popping in and out of view, twittering as they go. If something spooks the group, they erupt and fly as one big, loose flock. They either settle down quickly or, just as likely, disappear over the next rise in a field.
Redpoll arrival is unpredictable at best. Wait and watch. Drive slowly past weedy fields. Look for movement and listen for quiet peeps. Check birch trees in the neighborhood. Keep thistle feeders full. This could the year!
Anita Carpenter loves winter walks near her Oshkosh home.