Both male and female have the red cap, their bills are yellow and around the bases of their bills they have a black patch. In spite of the similarity of color, however, male and female can be distinguished from each other by a bit of color. A male has a reddish wash below the black on its face.
That’s the common redpoll, which isn’t common at all in our area. Nor is it a regular migrant. Its home area is the far north, the land of tundra and scrubby birch and willow trees. In years when birch and other seeds are plentiful it stays there through the winter. But when seeds aren’t plentiful it flies south, wanders south is a good way to describe its winter travels for it has no regular pattern of travel as true migrants do. Usually it doesn’t fly farther south than southern Canada or the northern states of the U.S. But I’ve seen redpolls in northern Indiana. One was seen and reported as far south as Virginia.
There is a second redpoll in North America. Named the hoary redpoll, it too is a bird of the north, generally even farther north than the common redpoll, most of them nesting north of the tree line. It’s colored much like the common redpoll but, as its name tells us, it’s lighter, grayer. But the distinction is not great. Common and hoary redpolls are difficult to tell apart. That’s what I’ve read and been told. I’ve never seen a hoary redpoll. At least, I’ve never been certain I saw one.
There is one distinction between a common and a hoary redpoll that is easy to tell. The hoary has a white patch on its lower back, a white rump. But just try to pick out one striped little brown bird in a flock of striped little brown birds fluttering about on the ground, feeding in a grassy field or a patch of weeds.
Hoary redpolls, I’ve read, don’t usually venture as far south as common redpolls. Those that do are generally singles of their kind hobnobbing with a flock of commons. I’ve tried to pick them out whenever I’ve seen a flock of redpolls. I’ve never succeeded. A hoary redpoll would be a lifer for me.
The long-range weather forecast is for a severe winter in Canada and the U.S. That could lead to a mass movement south of redpolls and other northern nesting birds. With birds such a movement is called an irruption. There was an irruption of great gray owls into northern Minnesota a few years ago. That’s another lifer for me but unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you look at it, my wife and I were wintering in the south that year.
I saw an irruption of redpolls once. I was living in Ithaca, New York at the time and that winter redpolls seemed to be everywhere. Common redpolls. Now I haven’t seen any redpolls in several years. Maybe this will be the year I see both common and hoary.