One of the smaller members of the finch family, the common redpoll breeds in northern latitudes and despite their tiny, fragile body size, can survive in bleak Arctic tundra landscapes.
Female Common Redpoll
Common Redpoll perching on broken branch
Common Redpoll about to land
Common Redpoll perching in tree
12cm to 14cm
20cm to 25cm
12g to 16g
The common redpoll is also sometimes known as the mealy redpoll. It is similar in appearance to the lesser redpoll, but is larger and paler, with streaky brown upperparts. Its underparts are whitish, streaked with black, and two white lines are visible on their folded wings.
Perhaps the key identifying feature is the red ‘poll’, a crimson crown, and on male birds, pinkish streaking is visible across the breast and on the rump. They have a black chin patch and a short, conical bill, which is yellow, tipped with dark gray. Eyes are dark brown and legs are brown.
Females are similar to males, but with a darker, more streaked plumage, and red only visible on their crown. Their chin patch is more rounded than that of the male, but not as rich a black.
In winter, both males and females become paler than the deeper tones seen in summer months.
Juvenile common redpolls are similar to adult females, with an all-over brown, streaky appearance, with darker markings across their head. No red patch on the crown, breast or rump is present, and their underparts have an off-white, buff wash.
Male (left) and female (right) Common Redpolls
Common redpolls are larger than lesser redpolls and similar in size to its fellow finches, the house finch and the American goldfinch. There is no difference in size between males and females.
Common Redpoll feeding on the ground
Three main calls are commonly heard: a chattering call when perched or in flight, a nasal whistle when feeding or used as a contact call to round up newly fledged young, and a rattle that is used to alert other nearby birds of a threat.
Common Redpoll calling out
Common redpolls follow a mainly seed-based diet, feeding on spruce, alder and birch trees. In summer, insects are also eaten.
They are a highly acrobatic species and are fascinating to observe hanging upside-down, delicately stripping tiny seeds from catkins.
Insects and spiders are the most common foods in a young redpolls diet. Chicks are also fed on tiny seeds.
Common Redpoll eating cone seeds from a fir tree
Coniferous forests and tundra landscapes both support breeding common redpoll pairs. Heathland with birch scrub, as well as willows, rowan, alder, juniper, spruce and pine, are preferred nesting habitats.
In winter, common redpolls are found in similar landscapes, moving inland from coastal scrublands in search of food supplies.
The wide distribution range of common redpolls extends across northern latitudes of Europe, Asia, northern North America, Greenland and Iceland.
In winter, a shift southwards occurs, and the range extends further into the United States, and scattered sites across northern Europe.
Russia has the largest population of common redpolls, with estimates ranging from 10 million to 100 million. Iceland, Sweden, Finland and Norway report the highest concentrations.
The North American population is estimated at around 200,000, while in Europe figures are estimated at up to 2.4 million, with a further 10 to 100 million in Russia.
Known as ‘winter finches’ common redpolls breed in Arctic landscapes, but may spread southwards when conditions are particularly harsh, so in colder years, sightings become less of a rarity across much of the northern US.
In the UK, the common redpoll is actually far less common than its close relative, the lesser redpoll. Breeding pairs are exceedingly rare in Britain, with only around 12 pairs annually, although this number increases to around 335 individuals in winter.
Common Redpoll during the winter
North American nesting grounds of common redpolls are found in Alaska and parts of northern Canada.
Between September and December, post-breeding birds migrate into southern Canada and across the northern half of the US, where they are most commonly spotted during May.
Sightings can never be guaranteed, but the best place to look for common redpolls is the eastern coast of Scotland and England, particularly during the autumn and winter.
Migrant birds are present in the UK between October and April, when they depart for their breeding grounds in Iceland, Greenland and northern Eurasia.
Common Redpoll perching on a branch
On average, common redpolls have a lifespan in the wild of between two and three years, with reports of much older individual birds recorded, including a banded bird that reached over 9 years. In captivity, it is believed their potential life expectancy is greater still, with anecdotal reports of up to 25 years.
Under the United States Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1917, it is an offense to kill, capture, injure, export or import a common redpoll or its eggs.
A similar law in the UK, the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1918, protects common redpolls from being knowingly killed, harmed or taken into captivity. As Schedule I birds under the same act, their eggs and nest sites have additional protection against being destroyed or disturbed.
Across their global distribution range, common redpolls are classed as a species of least concern. However, in the UK, they have Red status on the British Birds of Conservation Concern list, due to their limited breeding numbers.
Population data for the UK, however, is positive and encouraging, with signs of slight increases in both breeding and wintering numbers being recorded in recent years.
Common Redpoll in-flight
Males and females check out suitable nest sites together before the female begins construction. Most popular nest settings are in branches close to the trunk of an alder, spruce or willow tree, or lower down in dense bushes in tundra landscapes.
Nests are made with an outer layer of twigs, an internal layer of bark, roots and lichen, and an inner lining of down, buds and reindeer fur.
May and June are the most common months for common redpolls to begin nesting, although in some locations, for example, Canada’s Northwest Territories, laying may be as early as April.
Second broods are fairly common, and are usually completed by September.
Between three and seven eggs are laid, which are pale greenish-white to icy blue in color and are marked with pale reddish-lilac spotting.
Eggs measure around 17 mm by 13 mm (0.7 in by 0.5 in), and are incubated by the female alone, for 11 days. While incubating, the female is brought food while on the nest by the male, but will also leave the eggs unattended for brief periods.
No evidence exists to suggest that common redpolls mate for life.
It’s far more likely that pairs remain together only for the duration of a single breeding season and find a new mate the following year. Pairs usually raise two broods together in a typical season.
Common Redpoll sitting on its nest
Although they are relatively small birds, common redpolls can be feisty, mobbing or nipping at intruders that venture too close to their nest sites. They are usually fairly sociable birds, forming feeding flocks with other finches during winter.
Common redpolls have been observed to roost communally in flocks of up to a thousand birds, settling overnight on expanses of birch scrubland.
They also are known to use chambers they make in the snow, roosting in a small tunnel below the surface of the snow to conserve body heat.
Common Redpoll perching on a branch
Common redpolls are partial migrants.
If enough food sources are present in their breeding grounds, and local conditions are not totally inhospitable, it’s likely that they will remain on their home patch all year round. But equally, if temperatures plunge to an intolerable level or food stocks run low, migration south is likely.
Across northern Eurasia, including the Arctic landscapes of Siberia and Russia, migration in winter is common, with breeding birds temporarily shifting southwards into Scandinavia, the British Isles and parts of continental Europe.
In North America, common redpolls breed in Alaska and across much of Canada. Once breeding is complete, migration south begins, although some individuals remain in their breeding territories if enough food resources are available.
Only a handful of common redpoll pairs breed in the UK each year but are joined by a few hundred winter arrivals. It’s very rare for common redpolls to be resident in the British Isles all year round, as both breeding and wintering grounds are most often found further north.
Flock of Common Redpolls in-flight
Particularly in winter, when their natural sources of tree seeds may be running low, redpolls may venture into gardens to visit well-stocked feeders.
Niger seeds are a particular favorite.
A rare breeding bird in the UK, twite numbers have dropped dramatically in northern England since 1990, with only a handful of pairs remaining. Efforts are ongoing to revive the UK breeding population, with further pairs nesting in Wales and across Scotland, which is joined by migrants from northern Europe during winter months.
One of twenty species in the Spinus genus, Eurasian Siskins are small widespread finches with predominantly yellow/green plumage. Not uncommon in gardens in the winter, birdwatchers are most likely to encounter these agile little birds in coniferous forests and plantations.
Serins are the smallest European member of the finch family. Rare reports exist of breeding serins in isolated parts of the UK, and small numbers might be seen during migration passage each year, although sightings are not guaranteed.
Unique to the Caledonian pine forests of the Scottish Highlands, the Scottish crossbill is the UK mainland’s only endemic bird species that is not found anywhere else in the world. Visually, it’s relatively hard to distinguish Scottish crossbills from the two other crossbill species (common crossbill and parrot crossbill) found in the UK.
A rare breeding bird in Britain, found mainly in pine forests in the Scottish Highlands, the parrot crossbill is both the rarest and the largest of the three crossbill species found in the UK. Similar in plumage to the red crossbill and common crossbill, the key identifying features of the parrot crossbill lie in the shape of its head shape, its bill structure and the pitch of its song.
A seed-eating finch, widespread throughout much of the UK, linnets are a colourful presence on heathlands and scrublands, particularly in coastal areas or in hedgerows on agricultural land, where they feed on weed seeds, including dandelion and dock, around the edges of cultivated fields.
A tiny finch, only marginally larger than a blue tit, the lesser redpoll is an acrobatic streaky seed-eater, that can be seen all year round throughout Ireland, in much of Wales, northern England and parts of northern and central Scotland.
Britains largest finch, the hawfinch is unmistakable due not only to its size and light chestnut colouring, but mainly because of its giant, almost cartoon-like bill. They are fairly secretive birds, and with a maximum 1,000 breeding pairs in the UK, sightings would certainly count as memorable.
Identified by its distinctive yellow wing patches and wheezing call, the Greenfinch is a common garden bird throughout the United Kingdom.
The European goldfinch is common across southern England, and can frequently be seen feeding on the seeds of thistles, teasels and other scrubland vegetation.Goldfinches are enjoying a population boom, with garden visits reported to be up 70 percent on numbers seen 20 years ago.
The common rosefinch (Carpodacus erythrinus) is resident in forest and woodland habitats across northern Europe and Asia, and, as its name suggests, has a plumage marked with various shades of red and pink.
This medium sized finch is a specialised feeder with a chunky downwards curving beak which is crossed at its end giving rise to its descriptive name.
One of the most common birds to visit back gardens in the UK – and also one of the most easy to identify – the chaffinch is a colourful and tuneful finch, known for its cheery, repetitive trilled song. They live in a wide range of habitats, and with more than 5 million breeding pairs, it shouldn’t be too difficult to tick one off your bird spotting list if you know where to look.
The Bullfinch is an unobtrusive but beautiful woodland bird, and an occasional garden visitor.
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