The Redpolls are Coming! The Redpolls are Coming! (And Siskins, Too)

 By Gustave Axelson and Emma Grieg
February 3, 2015
common redpoll on branch Photo by Gary Fairhead via Birdshare.

Time to put out the call like Paul Revere—redpolls, as well as siskins, are making a southward push into the Lower 48 states right now in their winter migrations. (Just in time to be counted in the GBBC in a couple weeks!)

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About every other year, cold winter winds blow flurries of two boreal birds—Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls— down from Canada to scatter about the Lower 48 states. It’s an irruption cycle driven, scientists think, by shortages in the crop of conifer seeds (such as spruces and pines) and catkins (such as birch and alder) in the North.

In search of food, flocks of siskins and redpolls travel south and fan out across the United States, often finding a steady supply of forage and refuge at backyard bird feeders. During the winter irruption of 2008–09, siskins were spotted at 50 percent of the 10,000 Project FeederWatch reporting stations across the continent, more than twice the typical count. The every-other-year irruption pattern would mark this winter for another irruption.

Marshall Iliff, a project leader for eBird, says the siskins are leading the way so far this winter.

“This year is a really good one for siskins,” Iliff says.”Whenever siskins reach Florida and south Texas, you know something special is afoot.

“Redpoll numbers are up from last year but have not measured up to winter 2012-2013, which was excellent. They do appear to be making a late January push, which is not unusual, so we can expect their numbers to increase along their southern margins into February and early March.”

A look at recent eBird maps for each species shows just how far south these species are stretching.

Pine Siskin Spinus pinus

A Pine Siskin shows off its streaky patterns and touches of gold. Photo by Kathleen Bartels/GBBC.

Gregarious flocks of Pine Siskins descend en masse when they find a source of seeds. At bird feeders, they’re all atwitter in frenzied motion, fluttering while they feed and making constant wheezing sounds (contact calls emblematic of the tight social bonds within their flock). Siskins are streaky brown finches that can be confused with House Finches and goldfinches, but they’ve got a small, sharply pointed bill—and telltale (though sometimes faint) yellow splashes near the wing tips and tail.

A recent eBird map of Pine Siskins shows their sweeping movement south this winter. Click on the picture for a bigger image.

Siskins in steep decline

Unfortunately, the Pine Siskin was one of 33 bird species on the 2014 State of the Birds report list of Common Birds in Steep Decline. While their global population likely still numbers in the tens of millions, siskins counts in the annual Breeding Bird Survey have dropped more than 75 percent since 1966. They’re part of a suite of northern breeding birds that are under intense habitat fragmentation pressure from timber, oil, natural gas, and mineral extraction in the boreal forest of the northern U.S. and Canada. According to the Boreal Songbird Initiative, an area twice the size of Japan has already been cut out of the boreal forest, and one-third of what remains is already slated for industrial development of some kind.

Common Redpoll Acanthis flammea

Redpolls, like this Common Redpoll, are the only finch with a distinctive red cap and black around the bill. Photo by Yves Déry via Birdshare.

Much like siskins, redpolls are peripatetic busybodies at bird feeders, emitting electric zapping calls as they bustle about gleaning seed. They are also brown streaky finches that gather in large communal flocks, and at first glance they also might be mistaken for a House Finch. But if you look closer, you’ll see a distinctive purplish-red cap cocked forward on their head, and black on their face around the bill—no other finch has that.

A current eBird map of Common Redpolls indicates large numbers may be showing up at feeders all over the Northeast and southeastern Canada. Click on the picture for a bigger image.

Look closely at your redpoll visitors
OK, you’ve got redpolls crowding around your feeder, but wait, one of them looks slightly different, paler than the rest with a snow-white chest. Congratulations, you’ve just won the redpoll lottery—a Hoary Redpoll, Acanthis hornemanni. Hoaries are a subtly different species, and during irruptions there’s a chance in every flock that one or even a few paler Hoary Redpolls could be mingling among the Common Redpolls. Hard-core birders will travel far and put forth a lot of effort to notch a Hoary on their life list. If you see one, enjoy it on your list while it lasts. Ornithologists are constantly bickering over whether there’s enough genetic evidence to support defining Hoary Redpoll as a distinct species, and someday soon Hoaries may be lumped back in with the Commons.

Feeder Tips for the Irruption
Your best bet for catching a wave in the siskin/redpoll irruption is hanging a thistle or nyjer seed feeder, either a plastic tube or a mesh sock. All finches love nyjer and thistle, but they’re especially effective at attracting siskins and redpolls by the flockful. They also may hang around sunflower seed feeders, scavenging seed bits left over from the bigger-billed birds that can open up sunflower shells. Flocks can be 100-birds strong or more, so if you get a rush you may want to put up multiple feeders. You’ll also find siskins dangling upside down on the seed heads of plants sticking up in your yard.

Where did all these birds come from?
Generally speaking, siskins and redpolls are from Up North, but their ranges are separated by degrees of latitude (see their range maps). Pine Siskins have a breeding range that runs across the boreal forest of Canada and the northern United States, with an offshoot that runs south among high-elevation conifer forests along the Rocky Mountains all the way to Central America. As for Common Redpolls, the best way to envision their breeding habitat is to look at the top of globe—their range stretches along the high boreal forest and tundra that circles the Arctic Ocean at the top of the world.

Happy Wanderers
Apart from their two-year irruption cycle, siskin and redpoll population movements can best be described as erratic. It’s almost as if somebody shook up a bottle of winter finches and let it spray across North America every other year. Research on Pine Siskins during the 2008–09 irruption appeared to reveal two possible patterns. Siskins caught and tagged with leg bands in the South (for example, Alabama and Georgia) were later recovered due north (Minnesota and Michigan), whereas siskins banded in the Northeast (New York and Pennsylvania) were found in the Canadian West (Manitoba and Alberta). So there could be two separate siskin travel highways, a north-south route and an east-west route. Redpolls, on the other hand, are all over the place. One redpoll banded in Michigan was found in Siberia; another banded in Belgium was recovered two years later in China.

Hardy Troopers in the Cold
Siskins and redpolls have excellent strategies for coping ramp up their metabolic rate and put on 50 percent more winter fat. Redpolls sometimes tunnel into the snow to spend the night in their own insulated snow cave. Both species have throat pouches for storing extra seed to eat later. Siskins can store as much as 10 percent of their body mass in their throat (the equivalent of 60 hamburgers for the average human), plenty of energy to get through a subzero night.

 

For more on redpolls and bird visitors to your birdfeeders:

Comments

  • Jenny Eaton

    I had one common redpoll at my feeder in Harpers Ferry on February 1st, mid day.

  • charley

    Where can i buy these beautiful birds. And of course the red siskins.

  • Debbie

    Do Siskins flock with Finches?

  • victoria

    Yes, it is quite common to see siskins with American Goldfinch and others. Thanks for asking!

  • Skip Pothier

    I am presently hosting a flock of about 150 Redpolls in my backyard. They started as a few in mid December. In January they started appearing in numbers and the flock kept growing until now they have reached the 150 range. I bought my fourth 50 pound bag of nyger seed yesterday.
    I keep a heated birdbath filled in the yard. It is a big attraction in the below freezing weather. Lots of Pics if you are interested. My count is eased as I have five 20 perch feeders hanging from an old tent frame. Full perches is 100 birds. In irruptions in previous years I have had them in the the 300 range. Five bags of Nyger in those years. I am in Port Perry, Ontario. Happy Birding.

  • Grace

    I saw a red poll two weeks ago(end of Jan. And, I believe I saw two siskins today (feb. 10) .

  • Liz Peterson

    Saw three Common Redpolls this weekend in Ocean City, MD – awesome!

  • Carol McDowell

    Hi Skip, Saw your posting about all the Redpolls you are currently hosting in your backyard. You mentioned that you have photos of your Redpolls that you are willing to share. I am interested in seeing your photos, if you don’t mind. Thanks for offering to share your photos. I live vicariously through others, as most of our birds are limited to Little Brown Jobs (sparrows), Gold Finches, House Finches, Dark Eyed Juncos, Northern Flickers, California Valley Quail, Mourning Doves, Collared Doves, Cooper’s Hawks, Sharp-shin Hawks, Redtail Hawks, American Kestrel, American Robins, European Starlings, Red-winged Blackbirds, an occasional Chukkar, Bald Eagle, Prairie Falcon, half a dozen pesky squirrels, and native pygmy rabbits. =)

  • We have had about 30-40 pine siskins coming to our backyard feeders since early January. Atlanta, Ga.

  • Liz Dauphinee

    Have been waiting patiently for the RedPolls to arrive outside Halifax, NS – was starting to give up hope until they came the day before the Nor’easter that hit Nova Scotia on February 15! With them came the Pine Siskins.

  • Penny

    I have Arctic Redpolls and Pine Siskins. I am in Liberty, NC in the very center of the state. I regularly see siskins within flocks of Gold Finches but these are my first redpolls. Very cute and very friendly. Even though they are hanging around my thistle they really seem to like the suet. They will land on the suet feeder as I’m putting in new cakes. Very fearless! LOVE THEM!!

  • Brenda

    I would love a redpoll or siskin visit here in Northern VA. I’ve got my eye out for them here in Great Falls!

  • Amy

    I have 100-200 Pine Siskins. We’re in south Alabama, very near the Florida line. They are taking over the finch feeders while the goldfinches wait patiently for their turn. I have several finch feeders but they forage through the other feeders too, making a huge mess. By 10:30 this morning, the finch feeders were empty and I filled them before bed!

  • Nancy Smith

    We have hundreds of Pine siskins at our feeders right now. They love the thistle seed,but they will also eat sunflower seeds. They arrived with the goldfinches? Hard to keep them in food.

  • anna nitschke

    I have a smaller flock of redpolls (but it’s hard to tell actually as the food can often be empty in two days) but I usually see a group of about 20 at a time. I will have to pay more attention to see if there are siskins mixing in because I think there are. I live in Port Loring ON which is 1.5 hours from Sudbury 1.2 from North Bay.

  • barbara derby

    I have a small flock of red polls and quite a few pine siskins. I have three finch feeders and fill them every day just before dark. I spend too much time watching the birds but I do enjoy them. I have quite a few bluebirds this winter which is a first for us to see them during the winter. We usually just get a quick glimpse of them in the spring but these have been around since February 2014. I did leave the bluebird houses out this winter but I usually bring them in so I can give them a good cleaning. I will put up more come spring.

  • Sean Wadsworth

    Have approx 200 Red polls, devouring a daily supply of shelled sunflower seeds that are scattered along the railing of our deck. We’re in the forested woodlands of Conway,NH.
    They started coming in mid Dec with 10 or so, and kept growing in numbers each week.
    Thrilling to see!

  • Carla Troutman

    I’ve had 5 to 7 common redpolls at my feeder this morning here in western KY near the Ohio River. They are beauties!

  • Melody Hazel

    at Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada, have been hosting a flock of approx 100 sassy common redpolls along with a beautiful hoary redpoll since November 2014. They are relatively tame and await us eagerly and greet us cheerily every morning as we refuel feeder stations with nyger seed. It is such a treat to see the flock decorating the yard’s trees like Christmas decorations, where they perch, warming themselves in the winter’s sun.

  • Melody Hazel

    Hi Barbara! Where is that you are located that you have overwintering bluebirds? What kind of bluebirds do you have?

  • Brian McElroy

    I had quite a few Pine Siskins in my backyard on 3/6/2105, 3/7/2015 and 3/8/2015 in Elizabethtown Borough, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania

  • Patricia

    I saw my first Pine Siskin during one of the many February storms we had this year. Today, March 15, 2015, it is back along with the largest amount of Goldfinches (20+) I have ever had. The Pine Siskin mixes with the Finches (there are both House and Goldfinches here year-round) on the thistle socks. Still waiting to see a Redpoll some day. Plymouth County, MA.

  • Patricia

    Sounds like a magnificent sight!

  • Patricia

    I will try the shelled sunflower on deck railing idea. I would love to see a Redpoll. Saw my first Pine Siskin last month.

  • Andree Dubreuil

    Sorry, I have no Facebook ,, nor website..
    Great news about your common redpolls,, how,, wonderful to hear this news.. Keep it up.. I loved hearing and reading about your experience,, they are quite wonderful..those Common Redpolls..
    Your devotion, is shared, and your comments read..
    Greetings from Trois-Rivières, Québec
    They remember ,, I waited 3 years for them ..
    put the dates on your agenda.. and in the meantime Happy Spring 2015..
    Keep posting your comments… we love them..

  • Andree Dubreuil

    Wonderful to read your comment..
    Thanks for feeding them so well, probably had a few of them here in Trois-Rivières, Qc..
    100s stayed in March..
    Keep posting comments.. Last irruption here in my yard, was in 2012.
    Greetings from Qc.

  • Gwynn Bounds

    We have been feeding birds for many years here in central Mississippi, but this year was the first time that we have had Pine Siskins visit our feeders!! They made their appearance here on March 23 and are still here in pretty good numbers (50-100). We only have one nyjer feeder so my husband has to fill it every morning in order to feed the masses. Any idea when they will be leaving our southern garden for their northern home? A small number of Goldfinches are still hanging around, also. They are usually headed north from here in mid March or so.

  • Andree Dubreuil

    Thank you for sharing your loving comment.
    I waited since 2012, to see them again..
    and for them.. I say.. Merci..for the seeds, which you gave them, devotion appreciated..
    Andree Dubreuil
    Greetings from Trois-Rivières, Québec, Canada

  • Andree Dubreuil

    Dear Liz Dauphinee,
    What a joy to read your input, grateful for it..
    Greetings from Trois-Rivières, Québec
    Andrée Dubreuil

    Your patience was rewarded!
    Merci, for the post..

  • Andree Dubreuil

    Penny, you are on your way,, Once they know you,, they have a very special GPS.. All the best.
    Andree Dubreuil
    Trois-Rivières, Québec, Canada
    Keep setting the table!

  • Andree Dubreuil

    Well, Breda
    First of all, only saw them when I had a 4 foot snow bank, and the weather was about -30 celcius..
    But,you probably have so many birds that I have never seen. I will give them your invitation..
    Best wishes from
    Andree Dubreuil
    Trois-Rivières, Québec, Canada

  • Andree Dubreuil

    Amy,, great meals,,That is what it is all about..
    What you do is wonderful, and I wanted you to know,, and sorry for the mess they left,,unfortunately, I live too far away to help you to clean up..
    My birds,,have left it,, Under the snow, in between, and above,, Spring is just letting me know, what they left behind..
    Greetings from
    Andrée Dubreuil
    Trois-Rivères, Québec, Canada

  • Andree Dubreuil

    One,, it is only begun,, he may not have Facebook, but,,
    Jenny, he or she has contacts, do not underestimate.
    Thanks for sharing your post..
    We all cheer for you… Rome was not built in one day..
    Greetings from Trois-Rivières, Québec, Canada
    Will try to send you some more..
    in the meantime,,, Enjoy, the ones your with..
    Best wishes..for your feeders..

  • Andree Dubreuil

    Charley,
    The only way you can enjoy them,, is just simple,,
    Walk, talk, and birdwatch..
    Just sharing with what you see, is owning with so many other followers of your discoveries,
    Capture their freedom and flight.. by sight..
    Greetings from Trois-Rivières, Qc.

  • Andree Dubreuil

    Must leave that for others..
    All I had were common redpolls…
    But then,, I live on the even numbers of the street,,
    and the sun is always brighter on the other side..
    Glad to see, some feeders had both..
    Greetings.. from Trois-Rivières, Qc.
    Some have all the luck,, do send pictures!!

  • Andree Dubreuil

    Wow.. Love your post,, lots of good stuff,,
    wonderful food,, special thanks for your post,, devotion, and generous,, seeds,, go for it..
    Hang in there,,
    Common Redpolls,, enjoy a feast!!
    Greetings from Trois-Rivières, Québec
    Give us news on the other birds… OK.

  • Andree Dubreuil

    Keep those comments coming in,, we are all ears,,
    Grace.. Best Wishes,,
    Andree Dubreuil
    Trois-Rivières, Qc..

  • Andree Dubreuil

    Dear Liz Peterson,,
    I may be far away, but I wanted you to know.. that I read your comment and I love Common Redpolls, even though they are with me.. when it is -30 celcius.. but,, I may be far.. but.. I wanted you to know, Liz,, that your comment was read..
    Greetings from Trois-Rivières, Qc. Canada
    Andree Dubreuil

  • Brenda Sowers

    I have 50-100 Pine Siskins at my feeders. Noisy little buggers that eat me out of house and home. But I enjoy every moment of it. Unfortunately, it seems my chickadees didn’t feel like hanging around and competing for food.

  • andree dubreuil

    I just bought some great,, and I mean great,, lawndry bags for the finer stuff,, you want to take care of when you are drying,, what I mean,, is the bags in which you would put your fine,, undergarments..
    Well, they have bigger mesh,, and the birds can get the black-seed sunflowers,, they just have to work at it..
    The finer, mesh ones,, you can buy at C.Tire.. and will hold alot of finer niger seeds..
    Water, I bought a nice, cattle rubber tub,, just e-mail me if you want a picture of it…
    All the best, and wonderful spring greetings,,
    Barbara,, we are there,, and think,, you are simply great..
    Enjoy.. and for the birds.. I extend my thanks..
    Andree

    [This comment has been migrated from an earlier post version by Cornell Lab staff.]

  • Sharon

    Today, when I opened the patio door to let my dogs out, I saw a Common Redpoll on the top railing of our deck 7 feet away. I was shocked because it was facing me full on, singing, as if it neither noticed me in the doorway, nor my dogs as they ran past it into the yard. After several seconds the bird flew away and I knew my close, unobstructed view of him was a gift to be treasured. This was the first time I had identified the Common Redpoll although I’ve glimpsed these little birds in my yard before today. Not sure if they frequent Fargo, ND.

    [This comment has been migrated from an earlier post version by Cornell Lab staff.]

  • Andree Dubreuil

    I am not a all a specialist..
    But, what wonderful news,, I read your comment..
    Just think of it,, you will be the migrating stop-over,, do not underestimate,, them.. now,, that they know you,, and your welcome mat,, your feeders, in the next few years,, may reserve,, many surprises,, and thanks,, many thanks,, for your comment.. Have a wonderful spring, and summer,, and…
    For the common redpolls.. thanks for the news.. and a wonderful thank you.. for those who enjoy your enthusiasm..
    Greetings from Trois-Rivières, Québec..
    Sharon,, your comment was really appreciated,,

    [This comment has been migrated from an earlier post version by Cornell Lab staff.]

  • Sharon

    I’ve searched “Robin” blogs, in vain, for an answer to this question so I’m back
    asking for advice. This is only the 2nd year I’ve had nesting birds in my yard; last year, mourning doves and now, robins. The doves nested in a small, apple tree, but I noticed when the grackles came around (a flock of about 30, twice daily,) the doves got nervous and flew off the nest. So I stopped feeding and the grackles finally stayed away. This year the robins have built their nest in my feeder so of course I’m not feeding. The grackles have come back after our recent rains to work the yard but I’m hoping that won’t last. My question: Should I continue to feed even though it draws in large birds that clearly bother the nesting birds? What do experienced birder’s do? I have noted, BTW, that the smaller birds, e.g. the Common Redpoll,seem to like my flower gardens and despite my not feeding, are happily still here! But will they stay if I don’t resume feeding them soon? Lastly, thank you, Andree D. for your kind reply! Your acknowledgement was so wonderfully uplifting!

    [This comment has been migrated from an earlier post version by Cornell Lab staff.]

  • Andree Dubreuil

    Wherever,, you, are,, who, ever you are,, nothing, else,, will give you a cause,, feed a bird,, enter the world,, flight,
    Birds,, will give you that wonderful reason..
    Enter that world,, and no other,, flight,,,, no other,, will give you,, that wonderful.. thanks

    [This comment has been migrated from an earlier post version by Cornell Lab staff.]

  • andree

    Sorry,, I have no Facebook page nor twitter..
    But,, how is it.. how many birds do you have this summer,,
    Here, in Québec,, we can hardly call it a summer,, can you believe it.. only about 3 days so far of sunshine.. all other days rain.. Who visits your yard?? I really would like to know…
    If,, you get a chance.. let me know.. in the meantime..
    Have a great summer..

    [This comment has been migrated from an earlier post version by Cornell Lab staff.]

  • andree

    time for you to tell us.. what birds have you had this summer?

    [This comment has been migrated from an earlier post version by Cornell Lab staff.]

  • andree

    Hello, Penny,,
    Here,, I am in Québec,, have had only few days of sunshine,, all June and July,, rain,,
    What have you seen this summer,, and do not spare the facts..
    What birds???
    Andree Dubreuil

    [This comment has been migrated from an earlier post version by Cornell Lab staff.]

  • andree

    Hello Brenda..
    Long time,, since we all sighted Redpolls..
    How was the summer so far.. do tell me.. I live in Québec,, and we have had so much rain,, only a few species.. but alot of wet bird seeds… and squirrels.. black ones.. which are typical of our area,, and chipmunks..
    please share what you have seen so far this summer,, I am not on Facebook nor Twitter.. but.. we all want to know.. what happens in your birdfeeders?

    [This comment has been migrated from an earlier post version by Cornell Lab staff.]

  • andree

    Hello Sean Wadsworth..
    I know,, it may seem late in the season,, I am reading your comment,, as I Wonder,, have all those sunflowers,, which have not been eaten by the common redpolls… are they now,, blooming big sunflowers?
    Just wanted to wish you a great summer.. and do tell us of the birds you have hosted in your feeders?
    Here in Québec,, we have had only a few days of sunshine,, rain rain…
    Andree Dubreuil

    [This comment has been migrated from an earlier post version by Cornell Lab staff.]

  • Gwynn

    Wish some of those rain clouds would come our way…we have had very little rain this summer and abnormally high temps …today’s high was 103 here in central Mississippi. However, we had a little shower (.01in) yesterday afternoon to the delight of a couple of ruby throated hummingbirds. As they sat on a trellis they had a ball fluttering their tiny wings in the refreshing rain. One of the nice things about living in the south is we have lots of birds all summer long even in all this heat! Our feeders have fed numerous bird families…and it’s been quite entertaining watching the antics of all those youngsters!! After the goldfinches and pine siskins left (and we were beginning to think that they would be with us forever), we were excited to see the indigo buntings, as many as twelve at a time. Normally, they visit two or three days and then are gone, but this year they hung around for 30 days!! We had rose breasted grosbeaks for a couple of weeks, Cedar waxwings for a couple of days…we always have to give everything a good washing with the garden hose after they leave.haha…Also, male and female summer tanager, they are such a beautiful pair! Then we have the usuals…eastern bluebirds nested in one of our boxes and produced 5 hatchlings…bunches of cardinals…chickadees, wrens, tufted titmouse, towhees, house finches, white breasted nuthatch….yellow bellied sapsucker…red-headed, red-bellied, pleated and downy woodpeckers,, brown headed cowbirds, blue jays, purple finches and many ruby throated hummingbirds! I’m sure that I have left some out, but that gives you a pretty good idea of the birds in the trees in our yard and at our feeders. Hope fall and winter give good birding to everyone!

    [This comment has been migrated from an earlier post version by Cornell Lab staff.]

  • artiststevel

    My first pine siskin ever in Rowlett Texas

  • wastrox

    No pine siskins last year but I just noticed today I have pine siskins! If my friend hadn’t recently mentioned that she had them, I don’t know that I would have noticed them at all. They look so much like the gold finches and I have tons of them. I did notice my nyger feeder was being depleted more quickly than usual!