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Mike Jacobs: Redpolls show up in large numbers this winter

Redpoll numbers have been building at our place. This week, they’ve reached 60, I’m sure, and perhaps as many as 100.

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Illustration / Mike Jacobs
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It has been a good winter for birds, I assert without expectation of argument. For me, the evidence is plain. I have not lacked a subject for this column.

Mike Jacobs
Mike Jacobs

This week, though, belongs unquestionably to the common redpoll.

Redpoll numbers have been building at our place west of Gilby, North Dakota, since early December. This week, they’ve reached 60, I’m sure, and perhaps as many as 100. It’s hard to tell. Redpolls are active, flighty birds, but it seems to me that they don’t have much commitment to the flock. Instead, the birds move freely from one group to another, so it’s very difficult to count them.

Of course, the danger is always over-counting. Still, I’m sticking with 60.

Reports on the Grand Cities Bird Club’s listserv lend credibility to my count, I think. Several observers have reported large numbers of redpolls at their feeders.

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Redpolls are among the so-called “northern finches” that show up in large numbers in some years and are nearly completely absent in others.
But this is clearly a redpoll year.

Redpolls are small birds, smaller than most sparrow species. A better comparison would be with pine siskins. Both of these species have been at my feeders this week.

While redpolls lead the list, there have been other birds to note. During the back-to-back-to-back snow events from Sunday through Tuesday, birds of a dozen different species visited my feeders. The redpolls were most numerous, but – finches first – siskins and sparrows were present, too.

I was surprised to find at least two American tree sparrows among the birds at the feeders. Tree sparrows are hardy birds, and they sometimes spend winters here. I don’t expect them regularly, however, and so I am delighted to see them when they appear.

More surprising, I think, were the house sparrows that turned up during the storm. They were the first of their kind at our place in several years. The house sparrow is not native to North America.While house sparrows were abundant in American cities for more than a century after their introduction, numbers have dropped dramatically in the last decade. House sparrows forage for spilled seed, and I suppose they came to me because my place has the only spilled seed in the neighborhood.

The number of blue jays has grown to five, based on the number of individuals I see at one time. That’s up from previous counts. That may be coincidental. I just happened to see birds that were already here. Or it could be that blue jays from the neighborhood are coming to the easy pickings at my feeders. Each day, black-capped chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches show up, and so do two species of woodpeckers, downy and hairy.

That makes 10 species that I try to keep track of – while wondering what else might show up.

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For several days just before Christmas, a northern shrike patrolled the backyard. I found several prints of wing feathers that might be the mark of a shrike picking off one of the birds at my feeders.

Or it might be the sign of a blue jay burying peanuts.

The list doesn’t include the owl that I hear most mornings when I get out of bed – three hours before sunrise. The owl is no surprise, but I rarely see it in winter. The nights are too long. Unlike the owl, I can’t see in the dark.

Birds are not the only customers at our feeders. Red squirrels show up regularly. They don’t seem to be affected by the cold. We’ve also attracted a cottontail rabbit. The racoons have retreated to their dens for this cold snap, it appears. They haven’t shown up, nor left any sign of a nocturnal visit, since mid-December.

The species notably absent from the list is the other redpoll, hoary redpoll. This is a paler version of the common redpoll, easily recognized by its overall whiter look. Watchers in Grand Forks have reported seeing hoary redpolls this week.

The hoary redpoll does share the mark that named the species. The poll is a red spot on the forehead just above the eyes. In winter, redpolls display varying amounts of a rose-pink blush on their breasts. This grows more vivid as winter moves along. It apparently plays a role in selection of mates.

To which I cannot resist adding that among redpolls, it's not the size that matters. They’re all tiny. It’s how you show it off that counts.

Jacobs is a retired publisher and editor of the Herald. Reach him at mjacobs@polarcomm.com.

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