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Among the Alders

Text and photo by Marie Read
Common Redpoll

As the snow flies on a frigid morning in January, a male Common Redpoll perches among the cones and catkins of speckled alder. Redpolls are the most predictable of North America’s irruptive winter finches—birds that sometimes abandon their haunts in the far north to head south in large numbers. Roughly every other winter redpolls move en masse, or “irrupt,” into the Lower 48 states, mirroring the cyclical nature of tree seed production in the boreal forest.

In their northern home, the redpolls’ typical winter diet consists mainly of the seeds of birch, alder, and aspen. If that seed crop fails, the tiny birds invade other regions in search of winter food supplies. When they first arrive in a new area, hungry redpolls may head straight for the kinds of trees with which they are most familiar. Later they may find a ready food source in the nyjer seed feeders we hang in our backyards. They’ve been known to descend on feeders in the hundreds. This winter may have one of the best irruptions in years.

Hunkered down in my chilly photo blind, I captured this portrait of a male Common Redpoll as it approached a nearby feeder on my property, just a few miles from the Cornell Lab.

About the Author

Marie Read is a freelance nature photographer and writer and a frequent contributor to this magazine. Visit her website at


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