Redpolls are sort of dumpy, little sparrow-like birds.
They are brownish, streaked on the sides, have fluffy feathers, and are distinguished by red caps (“poll” is an old English word for the top of the head).
Quite a few of the male birds have pink breasts.
There actually are two separate species, the Common Redpoll, which is the smallest and darker of the two, and the Hoary Redpoll, larger, and with a distinct greyish or whitish cast (“hoary” is another obsolete English word meaning frosty).
Redpolls breed in the Arctic—completely around the pole. They may stay there all winter, but often drift south if the northern winters are especially severe.
Under these conditions, they may be seen at Britain, the Scandinavian countries, and northern Europe, as well as in southern Canada and the northern U.S.
Sometimes they come in very large numbers and sometimes not at all. One year I counted at least 60 at a time at my feeder; another year not a one.
These little redpolls are members of the sparrow family, and they tend to move around in loose flocks. They fly rapidly and change direction almost instantly.
A flock appears to move as one unit—as though the birds were somehow all fastened together.
They keep up on incessant twittering as they move or feed. This doesn’t really sound all that much like bird calls, but more like a rustling, or high-pitched chattering sound.
Redpolls usually are not much afraid of people. Perhaps that is just because they don’t see many people up where they live—and don’t know how mean we can be.
Anyway, it is quite normal to be able to walk very close to them providing you don’t make any sudden moves.
A Mrs. Wetherbee, who used to do a lot of bird banding in her Massachusetts backyard, says she often could just pick them up without frightening them.
Personally, I have never found them to be that tame, but they certainly are not as skittish as many of the wild birds.
In the winter, the natural food of these birds is the seeds and buds of such trees as alders, willows, birches, and the like. They also are partial to weed seeds and grass seeds.
They are easily attracted to a bird feeder if you use any kind of grain or cracked corn.
The two redpoll species are closely related, as their scientific names indicate—Acanthis horemanni (Hoary) and Acanthis flammae (Common). They both nest either on the ground or in low shrubby trees.
They don’t seem to establish any private territory as almost all other birds do. They also have been known to interbreed with each other.
Look for a continuously twittering flock of small birds, anywhere from a dozen to a hundred. If they are little fluffy birds with red caps, they are one of our winter visitors from the far north of the world.
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