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Common Redpoll

These birds are easily identified by the small red patch on their heads.

A boreal nesting species, the Common Redpoll moves south in winter during years with a spruce or beech seed failure. It is a social species, and flocks of several dozen Common Redpolls can sometimes be seen at bird feeders.

The Common Redpoll can hang upside down like a chickadee, and often forages on outer branches of trees. It is well adapted to cold weather, and can survive temperatures of 65 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.


Description of the Common Redpoll


The Common Redpoll is a very small finch, heavily streaked on the flanks and upperparts.  It has a reddish cap, a black face, and a short, conical, yellow bill.

Males have pink or rosy red breasts.  Length: 5 in.  Wingspan: 9 in.

Common Redpoll

Photograph © Glenn Bartley.

Visit the Bent Life History for detailed information.


Females lack the pink breast.

Seasonal change in appearance



Similar to adult females.


Common Redpolls occur in birch forests and thickets, and in weedy areas during winter.


Primarily seeds, with some insects consumed during the summer.

Common Redpoll

Photograph © Glenn Bartley.


An active forager in weeds, shrubs, or trees, redpolls are usually found in flocks outside of the breeding season.


Common Redpolls breed in Alaska and Canada, and winter across much of the northern half of the U.S.

More information:

Bent Life History

Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Common Redpoll.

Fun Facts

A true bird of the north, redpolls can survive harsh winters despite their small size.

In some years, redpolls occur much farther south than in other years, probably due to food availability.


The song is a series of repeated notes or trills, and a variety of calls are given as well, including a rapid “chit chit chit”.


Similar Species

Hoary Redpoll
The Hoary Redpoll is much paler overall, somewhat “frosty” in appearance.



The nest is an open cup of small sticks, grasses and moss, often lined with feathers.  It is usually placed near the ground in a small shrub.

Number: Usually lay 4-5 eggs.
Color: Pale greenish and marked with purple and brown.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 10-11 days, and leave the nest in another 12 days, though continuing to associate with the adults for some time.


Bent Life History of the Common Redpoll

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the Common Redpoll – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.



When the cold air masses of winter extend their fronts into our northern tier of states, a period of welcome surcease from the storminess of the seasonal transitions descends upon regions within their influence. During this month or more of calm the days scintillate and begin to lengthen, and the dwellers of the northland, human as well as wild, come out of hiding to enjoy the sun and the cold, dry air. These are among the most beautiful days in the northland; the temperature hovers between : l0~ and ~20o F., there is no wind, and a great silence lies upon the winter barrens. From the distant spruces that dot the valley slopes like stubble come the faint tinklings of white-winged crossbills and the occasional rattle of redpolls, sounds so faint that you must hear them repeated to feel sure that the sound is not coming from your own lungs.

Not many redpolls winter near the edge of timber, but some do, and only a year in the semibarrens, that broad, indefinite ecotone between the treeless tundra and the spruce: fir: larch forests of the taiga, can give one a sense of thorough familiarity with these small finches. To those who have not visited the northland, the redpolls remain erratic winter visitors; they rarely go south of the 40th parallel. They are rare in many years, but are sometimes abundant, often occurring then in large flocks, the members of which may be alternately wild and delightfully tame. Here is how they impressed Henry David Thoreau (1910), who wrote from Concord on Dec. 11, 1855:

Standing there I am reminded of the incredible phenomenon of small birds in winter,: that ere long amid the cold powdery snow, as it were a fruit of the season, will come twittering a flock of delicate crimson-tinged birds, lesser redpolls, to sport and feed on the seeds and buds now just ripe for them on the sunny side of a wood, shaking down the powdery snow there in their cheerful social feeding, as if it were high midsummer to them. These crimson aerial creatures have wings which would bear them quickly to the regions of summer, hut here is all the summer they want. What a rich contrast! tropical colors, crimson breasts, on cold white snow! Such etherealness, such delicacy in their forms, such ripeness in their colors, in this stern and barren season! The edge of the tundra marks their northern limits, which they penetrate only where coastal driftwood provides substitute nesting sites, as Brandt (1943) reports from the Bering Sea Coast of Alaska. “Back from the driftwood of the coast these birds were not met with,” he writes, “until the rolling upland tundra was reached, where occasional patches of stunted gnarled willows grow.” Ecologically, then, the common redpoll belongs in the “subalpine” or tundra: coniferous forest ecotone, as Pleske (1928) also makes clear.

Spring: In the transition zone the redpoll arrives late and departs early. Except for stray individuals, mid-March sees them leave the more southern regions, and soon thereafter, in years of abundance, the birds often stream northward in large numbers, as emphasized by Farley’s (1930) remarkable observation of “tens of thousands” of redpolls moving north across the prairie near Chamberlain, S. Dak., on Mar. 23, 1929, and Richard L. Weaver’s (in litt.) experience with “three to four thousand birds” moving up the Connecticut Valley near West Lebanon, N.H., on Mar. 25, 1941, “a continuous stream of birds made up of small flocks of about twenty-five individuals, many of them pausing to bathe in icy pools.”

At Indian House Lake, Quebec, at 56ol2~ north latitude, in the heart of the semibarrens which is their home and which I shared with them during a year of military duty, the winter resident populations thins out near the end of March. Though there are signs of movement throughout April and May, there is no marked influx. Spring migrants apparently spread out so widely that their arrival is almost imperceptible near the northern limits of the range. At Point Dall, Alaska, however, between 610 and 62~ north latitude, Brandt (1943) reports that mixed flocks of common and hoary redpolls arrived on May 16.

H. Bradford Washburn, Jr., reports by letter finding dead redpolls at 17,700 feet and 18,200 feet near the summit of Mount McKinley in Alaska, on May 31, 1947, and July 10, 1951, respectively. He believed the birds had been swept up to the higher parts of the mountain by the strong southwest storms which hit the peak at that time of year.

Courtship: At Indian House Lake during 1945 the common redpoll began to sing on March 5, about a week after its more northern relative, the hoary redpoll (C. h. exilipe.s), which wintered there with it but did not summer. From March 12 to the end of the month the birds were very noisy and excited. By the last week of March many appeared paired and sneaked through the alder thickets near our camp, calling plaintively and behaving shyly. By mid-April scattered pairs had apparently selected nesting sites, but they were so extremely secretive I found it impossible to fb~ the status of the few pairs that wandered about near us. Some days the thickets along the lake seemed deserted, when suddenly a passing northern shrike would draw up a swirling group of 10 or so rcdpolls, seemingly from nowhere. Once the threat passed these sprites melted back into thickets so unobtrusively that their momentary clatter seemed to have been an error of observation.

Not until the morning of May 25, 1945, did I first observe mating. Although coitus did not actually take place, the female crouched, dropped her wings, and twittered excitedly. The male stood before her stiffly and bowed a few times. That afternoon, and again on May 30, birds were seen picking up ptarmigan feathers from our camp hillside, evidently for nest material.

No truly territorial behavior has been reported by the few naturalists who have witnessed this redpoll’s prenuptial activities. Song is most active before the flocks break up, and no fighting over nesting territories appears to take place. The irregular spacing of nests, sometimes close together, seems to confirm this view.

William Dilger’s studies of captive redpolls offer new enlightenment on this score (Dilger, 1957). He found that a rigid social hierarchy exists within the flock, the males being clearly dominant over females during the nonreproductive season. This dominance is linear, from high to low male, and from low male to high female to low female. The low male usually directs his attacks toward a female after losing an encounter with a male. Most significant, however, is the fact that females become aggressive and dominant over the males as the breeding season approaches. European studies suggest that this reversal of dominance is characteristic of cardueline finches in general. “Each female,” Dilger states, “clearly singles out a certain male to which she behaves in a particularly aggressive manner. These are the couples between which pair bonds are ultimately formed.” Once the pair bond is fully formed, the males are in almost constant song and keep as far as possible from one another. There is, thus, little overt aggression among them.

Nesting: T his absence of territorial behavior, coupled with the shyness of nesting birds, makes nest hunting difficult. The discovery of fully fledged young redpolls in the streamside alders of Indian House Lake on June 8 was a complete surprise to me. Six occupied nests were found on June 9, 14, and 25. These nests were built on a careless foundation of small twigs laid across adjacent branches out from the trunk of a small spruce, or in the crotch of an alder or willow, and from 3 to 6 feet off the ground, usually about 5 feet. On this platform is woven a loose cup of fine twigs, rootlets, and grasses or, if in the forest, black tree moss (Usnea barbatus). The nest is then completed by a thick layer of ptarmigan body feathers (mostly white), making a small warm cup into which the female can sink almost out of sight as she sits on her small eggs. All these nests appeared to be loosely built, and they disintegrated quickly once abandoned, their feather lining blowing away. Walkinshaw (1948), on the other hand, considered the Alaska nests very well built, and found many of the past year’s nests in the low leafless willows.

L. I. Grinnell and Ralph S. Palmer (Grinnell, 1943) had similar difficulty locating nests around Churchill, Manitoba. Of nine nests found, “the bulk material was chiefly dried grasses, though in one nest, small twigs had also been used.” Ptarmigan feathers were used in the lining of eight nests, plant-down in five, hair in one, and lemming fur in another. According to Brandt (1943), the use of small twigs as a nest foundation is characteristic of this species and helps to distinguish it from the nest of the hoary redpoll where the two nest together in Alaska.

The dimensions of 11 nests given by L. I. Grinnell (1943) and Brandt (1943) were as follows: Outside diameter, 7.6 to 10.0 cm., averaging 8.7; inside diameter, 4.5 to 6.0 cm., averaging 5.6; outside depth, 5.0 to 8.8 cm., averaging 6.8; and inside depth, 3.0 to 5.1 cm., averaging 4.0.

The nest site naturally varies with the type of cover available. In the semibarrens, the principal habitat of this species, it nests usually in dwarfed or poorly formed spruces, or in willow and alder thickets. Where the common redpoll ranges onto the tundra, it must perforce use any cover available, whether driftwood stranded by high tides, tufts of grass, or human artifacts. Concealment likewise varies considerably; nests in spruce are usually the best concealed, those in deciduous shrubs sometimes poorly so because they may be built before the foliage has developed enough to provide concealment. Although some nests survive the sweep of winter winds, no one has yet reported that the common redpoll uses the same nest from one year to the next, as Wynne-Edwards (1952) reports is true of the arctic races on Baffin Island, and of the lesser redpoll (A. f. cabaret) in Scotland.

Lee R. Dice (19 18b) considers nest building the work of the female alone, but I have seen both birds at the nest during the last phases of construction.

Eggs: Four to five (rarely up to seven) eggs comprise the clutch. Brandt (1943) writes:

The egg ranges from ovate to elongate ovate in shape, is almost without gloss, and somewhat delicate in structure. The ground color is prominent, and ranges from greenish white to pale glaucous blue and pale turquoise green. The markings are never conspicuous because they lack boldness, yet often the broad end of the egg is thickly sprinkled. These spots, while concentrated at the large end, are never found to be wreathed as in the case of the Hoary Redpoll. In color they range from pale rose purple to purplish lilac.

An occasional additional kind of marking, in the form of hairline pencillings or small dots is to be found usually at the broad end of the egg. The latter vary from dull dusky purple to dull violet black.

Walkinshaw (1948) likens them to eggs of the field sparrow (Spizella pusilla).

The measurements of 50 eggs average 16.9 by 12.2 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure £0.3 by 12.9, 17.0 by 13.7, and 14.£ by 11i2 millimeters.

Preble (1908) reports a nest with one egg as early as April 24 on the Upper Mackenzie River and Perrett (in Austin, 1932) records four fresh eggs on April 28, at Nain, Newfoundland, Labrador. These are early dates which contrast with L. I. Grinnell’s (1947) late date of July 22 for young just leaving the nest at Churchill, and admit the possibility of a second brood in this species, something Brandt (1943) seems confident of in Alaska. A. C. Bent (in litt.) thought so, too, writing me: “When I was in Nome in 1911, we found both species about equally common and both nesting * * * they were well started on their second broods about the middle of July; young birds of the first broods were fully grown and on the wing.” June, however, seems to be the peak month for nesting activity. Females do all the incubating.

Although Grinnell (1943) found incubating females to be close sitters, I found that they almost always left the nest quietly as soon as I approached; they dropped below the level of the nest and flew off through the alders without giving alarm. Only once did adult birds betray their nest by showing alarm. On the other hand, Walkinshaw (1948) says: “I soon found that when redpolls scolded me in the region of these groups of willows, they had a nest there.”

Both Walkinshaw and I have been intrigued by females that brooded an empty nest while we measured their eggs nearby.

Young: Tnformation on the early development of redpolls is scarce. I established one 11-day incubation period at Indian House Lake, and Lawrence I. Grinnell (in litt., 1955) agrees that his “10 or 11 days” (Grinnell, 1943) should read “probably 11 days,” even though European students (Witherby, 1938) report 10 or 11 days for this species. WaLkinshaw (1948), writing of Alaska observations, said, “We found that, usually, three young hatched the first day, and the fourth the following day. With five-egg sets, four usually hatched the first day.”

The following information on development is drawn from Grinnell’s (1943, 1947) studies: Except for faint wisps of grayish natal down on the principal feather tracts, the newly hatched young are naked and they weigh less than 1.5 grams. Motor control is limited to the ability to right themselves when turned over on their backs, and to spreading and closing the toes. So translucent are they that food can be seen in the gullet, and blood vessels give the skin an orange-red hue. The fourth day sees the eyes begin to slit, and they are quite open the next day. The sixth day sees the young vigorous and active, although the first cheep notes are not uttered until the tenth day, when they show the first fear reactions. Perching is first accomplished successfully on the eleventh day, and the nestlings can fly enough to leave the nest the next day. Growth in weight is rapid and steady until the ninth day, when it tapers off abruptly after attaining 12 grams. Adults weigh 13 to 14 grams.

The long days of the subarctic summer provide about 20 hours of daylight, including the colorful crepuscular hours, and the redpoll’s nesting day is consequently much longer than that of related fringillids from more southern regions. Adult females are sometimes active from 3:00 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., at Churchill (Grinnell, 1943). Somewhat farther north in Alaska, Walkinshaw (1948) found activity continued around the clock. Although females average approximately equal periods off and on the nest, the colder June period at Churchill, with a 310 to 630 F. temperature range, saw an interval of attentiveness only 40 percent that of July, when the temperature ranged between 42~ and 770 (Grinnell, 1947), meaning Thorter periods of exposure and more frequent feedings. The same adjustment to tcmperature is evident in the diurnal activity cycle (Grinnell, 1943), the feeding interval being only 8 minutes between 3:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m., but about 24 minutes for the rest of the day. The average interval between feedings diminishes with advancing age, being 38 minutes for the first 4 days, 23 minutes for the 5: 7-day period, and 19 minutes for days 8 through 10.

The nestlings are usually fed directly by the female, though she sometimes feeds them by regurgitation. Although Dice (19 18b) found no males helping to rear the young, both Walkinshaw (1948) and Grinnell (1943) observed males feeding them occasionally, and found that they also fed the female at the nest. The latter writes, “The female, before accepting the food from the male, opened and shut her bill rapidly several times, and while taking the food, she vibrated her wings continuously. * * * After accepting the food, the female regurgitated and fed the young. In the case of a rosy-breasted male and its mate, one parent would come alone to the nest, feed the brood of five, then fly off; the other parent would come almost immediately afterwardand also feed the brood.”

Writing to Mr. Bent from Mountain Village, Alaska, about nest sanitation in this species, Henry C. Kyllingstad says: “I have seei~ no evidence of any effort to keep the next clean. Never once have I observed the adult birds carrying off or otherwise disposing of the feces of the young. By the time the young are ready to leave the nest, it and its surroundings are extremely dirty, all twigs below the nest being white with the excreta. It is very easy to locate nests by this means if one wishes to band fledglings: simply look for a white blotch! I have seen hundreds of nests of these birds and they are all alike.” I was not impressed by any lack of sanitation in the Indian House Lake nests I found, and Grinnell (1943) definitely states that the nests “were frequently cleaned by the parent birds, usually immediately after feeding the young; the parent sometimes swallowed the exereta, sometimes carried them away.” Walkinshaw (1948), too, saw females swallow excreta at the nest. Absence of nest sanitation, however, is characteristic of most cardueline finches. The feces are not voided in a sac, and usually dry up and disintegrate quickly.

After leaving the nest on the 12th day, the dark, heavily streaked young I found at Indian House Lake associated in small family groups and remained in the protection of the extensive streamside alder: willow thickets for a while. By mid-July, when all the young were off the nest, their preferred habitat appeared to be the dwarf birch scrub along the upper edge of timber on the valley slopes.

Plumages: Dwight (1900), basing his description of the juvenal plumage on a single August specimen from Labrador, called it “streaked with sepia and clove-brown above with white edgings; rump paler but also streaked.” Wings and tail were clove brown with whitish or huffy edgings, and the coverts, wing bands, and tertiaries edged with pale cinnamon. The first winter plumage, he writes, is acquired by a partial post-juvenal molt late in August, involving only body plumage and wing coverts; the crown is then dull crimson, and the chin spot is dull brownish-black. A few young birds, even females, may acquire rosy breast feathers, but these are characteristic of adult males.

Continuing, Dwight adds that the first nuptial plumage is “acquired by wear, through which much of the buff is lost, the birds becoming darker and whiter with the crown spot a trifle brighter to the eye, due to loss of grayish barbules of the red barbs.” A complete postnuptial molt brings the adult winter plumage. The adult nuptial plumage, like the first nuptial plumage, is acquired by wear, the rosy feathers of the male deepening in color by loss of the grayish barbules and reduction of the whitish edgings. Female plumages and molts correspond to those of the male, but the crown spot remains duller and smaller.

Food: Availabiity is a powerful governing factor in the food preferences of so wide-ranging a species. In winter the redpolls that stay northward are largely dependent on the seeds of the amentiferous birches, alders, and willows. Southward they partake of a wider variety of seeds from forbs and grasses in addition to their usual staples, the lesser conifers. Grinnell (1947) has analyzed the available data from the literature and found that the redpoll is known to eat the seeds or parts of 41 genera of plants, and insects of 6 orders. A series of 10 stomachs he collected at Churchill between June 7 and 17 provide a clear index to availability of foods because they contamed vegetable matter amounting to 41.2 percent (mostly seeds of Ranuneulus, Eriophorum, and Draba), gravel (58.8 percent) and no animal matter. Insects were not plentiful that year before June 20.

Like most seed-eating fringillids, the redpoll takes insects when they are abundant, especially when feeding the young. In the sparsely settled expanses of its northland breeding ground, the redpoll seldom comes into direct contact with man’s agricultural activities. When it does visit settled areas in winter, its weed-seed-eating habits recommend it even to those who are not alive to its many other charms.

Tom J. Cade (1953) has suggested that this species “has a sufficiently adventuresome disposition to utilize sub-nival situations” in food-getting during winter, and that it is thus in possession of a trait adapted to ensure survival under difficult winter conditions. Although suggestive, his single observation of redpolls feeding in tunnels formed by weeds otherwise buried in snow, provides no evidence that the birds actually excavated these openings to get at food. To me, one of the most impressive effects of snow storms at Indian House Lake during the depth of winter was that as one alder: willow thicket along shore was drifted over and made inaccessible to birds (chiefly ptarmigan), another thicket was exhumed by the same winds. This made for frequent shifts in the accessibility of food supplies but never completely eliminated them. It seems likely that each topographic region will provide strikingly different conditions in this respect.

Behavior: The common redpoll shares much of its behavior, temperament, and voice characteristics with the other small cardueline finches, not merely the other redpolls, but with the siskin and the goldfinch as well. Close observation may disclose specific traits, some of them diagnostic for each member of the group, but these are difficult to describe and impossible to delimit.

Restlessness is certainly one of the chief characteristics of the redpoll in the open. Writing of its incessant activity, John V. Dennis (in litt.), who banded and carefully observed redpolls in Sharon, Mass., during the winter of 1949, says: “Even while feeding, the individual bird would never remain for long in one spot. After clinging to a weed stalk a few seconds, generally feeding with the body held horizontal to the bending stem and sometimes head downward, the bird would move on to another stalk, often just in advance of the main flock. Then, as though impelled by an innate rhythm, the flock would take wing again and the whole performance would be repeated. This was always the method of feeding in the open. Instead of relying upon a sentinel or the alarm call of an observant member of the flock, the redpolls take no chance, as it were, but fly up with pulselike precision.

“But when feeding in a sheltered region, such as a feeding tray near dense shrubbery, this instinct disappears. The flock loses its cohesion. Individuals stay at the feeders as long as they please; they come and go individually, unless an alarm sends them all away. They are much less likely to take fright at the appearance of humans than of birds of other species feeding with them.”

This disregard of humans, especially by birds in sizeable flocks, is commonly mentioned in the literature and forms treasured memories of those who have known the redpolls any length of time. Mrs. Kenneth B. Wetherbee (1937) records this as part of her banding experience near Worcester, Mass., during the winter of 1935: 36 and adds: “They were alarmed only by a sudden movement. By moving cautiously one could approach to within a few inches of them as they fed, and they were but mildly concerned when a hand moved slowly about among them * * *~ As a rule they fed peacefully, packed as closely as they could stand on the shelf, though occasionally one would open its bill in an unfriendly attitude toward a newcomer attempting to alight * * ‘ï~’ She actually captured redpolls by hand and describes it thus: “The window was slowly raised, and a hand, reached cautiously out, was carefully cupped about the desired individual which was brought slowly inside without unduly disturbing its companions * * ~’. If an individual displayed some nervousness, instead of attempting to capture it by hand, I gently shoved it toward a trap entrance.~~ John V. Dennis also wrote about the remarkable tameness of these birds: “Even as I was collecting birds in a gathering cage, birds still free sought to enter the traps. Some of the outsiders would peck through the mesh of the gathering cage at the birds imprisoned within. Often, individuals would calmly feed within the trap while every effort was being made to scare them into leaving through the exit.

“While awaiting their turn to be banded, the birds in the burlapcovered gathering cage were noisy and persisted in pecking one another. But if the burlap was suddenly removed the occupants would freeze in position and remain absolutely silent for close to a minute.”

W. C. Dilger (1957) found that no long period of habituation was necessary in his captive flock. Three days sufficed to work out the rigid social hierarchy which he considers typical of this species. The birds were so highly social that their various activities tended to be performed in concert. During the breeding season, however, males would not tolerate one another at less than 10 centimeters, whereas females permitted the approach of other females to about 4 centimeters before asserting their rank. Contacts between the sexes were somewhat intermediate.

An observation on feeding behavior made by William Brewster (1936) suggests the redpoll’s versatility. The birds involved were feeding on the ground, pouncing with both feet, kicking and tossing leaves to get at fallen birch seed, very much as fox sparrows do. Charles H. Blake (iii litt.) writes that, when feeding on seeds in catkins of gray birch, the birds normally perch on the twig bearing the catkin, steadying the catkin by grasping the twig and the catkin base in one foot.

The winter of 1947 brought some 300 redpolls to Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania, where they are usually rare. Maurice Broun, writing to Mr. Bent about this visitation, reported that, “One Sunday in January, about 50 of the little birds were bathing and wading in the icy water of the tiny brook by our house; the temperature was 380 F., and there was much snow and ice on the ground. After a thorough bath the bathers flew up to an apple tree where they shook and flashed their feathers, chattering contentedly in low tones. These are the only birds that I have ever seen bathing: really soaking: in mid-winter.” Palmer (1949) gives an interesting account of redpolls bathing in wet snow on a roof, as reported by Mrs. E. A. Anthony of Mount Desert Island, Maine:

The birds would take a series of vigorous hops to gain momentum, then plunge and burrow head first until almost out of sight. They fluttered their wings like birds taking a water bath. They would then remain quiet for several minutes, and emerge, flutter their wings, throw snow over themselves with their bills, and hop to another place to repeat the bathing. When a bird came out of a hole, another would dash into it, the first going into another hole or making a new one. About 50 birds kept this up for an hour and left the snow on the roof only after they had honeycombed it with holes.

Voice: The difficulty of describing the dry trills and other notes of the redpoll is evident when one looks over the varied syllabifications used by authors to interpret this small finch voice. In a letter to Mr. Bent, Francis H. Allen wrote, “Besides the rattling t.shu, tshu, tshu, as Ralph Hoffmann renders the ffight-note, this species has a call-note sweet or swee-e-et of a coarser quality than the similar note of the American Goldfinch, louder but not so clear and sweet, while not so husky as that of the Pine Siskin.”

Grinnell (1947) recognized three categories of notes: (1) a repeated chit used in flight and while feeding, (2) a trill which is a flight call, and (3) “a sweeter note, usually a perching call.” He adds, “None of the above-mentioned calls seemed to fulfill the function of a song.” The chit-chit-chit call, not loud, was most often, but not always, uttered in threes lasting just under a second. During flight these notes are often uttered while nearing the tops of their goldflnchlike undulations.

The variously written, interrogatory tree-uh-eee? call betokens annoyance or concern, and, according to Grinnell (1947), “is often uttered by the male when perching preparatory to feeding a nesting female. It is often reiterated at least a dozen times at intervals of about five seconds by both parents when they are anxious.” Olive P. Wetherbee (1937) thought that this “call seemed to serve two purposes, those of a danger signal and a call to food. It was uttered with peculiar emphasis when there was a cat about, but was most frequently heard early in the morning while the flock was congregating * ** before starting to feed, at which time it was voiced by many members of the flock in a more rollicking manner.”

Though this species has no territorial song, it seemed to me that the excited March flocks at Indian House Lake joined in a veritable songfest. I made note of a juncolike lay and wrote that the “junco song is very variable, always sweeter than its model, and sometimes elaborated into a near warble: dre-he-he-he-teit-teu-teu, the first part a junco-trill, the last rolling and melodious. My journal describes the voice of fledglings as raspy “catbird-like” cries. Austin (1932) describes the notes of fully fledged young as “something like the chee-chee-ehee of the old birds’ song, but delivered with a sore throat, and not unlike in quality the mew of the Catbird.”

Enemies: The redpoll is preyed upon by the usual enemies of small birds, the raptores in particular, but specific information is meager. Grinnell’s (1947) extensive survey of the literature revealed occasional predation by falcons, harriers, and jaegers. The ani-~ mosity the redpolls bore the northern shrike and the hawk owl at Indian House Lake indicates that these, too, prey upon them even though no actual chase was witnessed. Near human habitations the redpoll’s tameness sometimes makes it easy prey for cats (Wetherbee, 1937).

Losses incurred during the reproductive period are more important, though at a level normal for small birds. Grinnell’s (1943) study of a total of 33 eggs showed successful hatching of only 72 percent, and nestling losses reduced the survival of chicks at nest-leaving age to 39 percent. Despite these losses, the redpoll is a common bird in its own territory.

Field marks: The recent generic lumping by some authors of the redpolls with the goldfinch and siskin and, in Europe, with the twite, serin, and linnet emphasizes their similarities in form and behavior. In America, except for the darker, yellow-flashing siskin, a small, streaked, grayish-brown, fork-tailed finch is a redpoll; the red forehead and black chin make identification specific. Some, but not all, males have a rosy breast. The species ./lammea may be told by its brownish tone, since most feathers have a buff edging, and by the streaked rump; the congeneric kornemanni group have frosty-white feather edgings, and an unstreaked rump for the most part. Even so, excellent observation conditions are required to separate the two species, and field identification of subspecies is unsafe. Indeed, the redpolls await a thorough monographic revision.

Fall and winter: August sees the redpolls wandering about the brushy semibarrens in small family groups, slowly aggregating into loose flocks, so that by September the first migrants begin winging southward or to more sheltered locallties. At Indian House Lake throughout October there was a distinct southward flight up the valley of small flocks of 5 to 60 birds. These birds flew directly and purposefully, 30 to 50 feet overhead, and showed a preference for the narrow, semiwooded intervale that extends for miles along the lake. They called continuously as they flew southward upstream, their high note being heard long before the birds came into sight against the usual autumn background of low, ragged clouds. By whistling almost any long-drawn note it was usually possible to make them veer from their course and pass overhead. They seldom alighted though, and when they did, it was at some distance, and they took off again immediately if I approached them. This flight was a conspicuous feature of the fall migration in the valley of the George River. Harrison F. Lewis (1939) has reported a similar movement near Moosonie, Ontario.

The southward incursions of redpolls in some years are almost certainly related to conditions: whether deep snows, ice storms, or actual failure of the catkin crop: that reduce the availability of food in their breeding grounds, but our knowledge of conditions in the subarctic is still too scanty to permit correlations.

Redpolls winter throughout the subarctic from Alaska to Labrador. Periods of bad weather cause them to disappear from their usual haunts, in alder and willow thickets which remain uncovered by drifting snows, perhaps to concentrate in sheltered woodlands. But once the storms are past, they disperse again and enliven the northern scene with their incessant chatter and trim, often colorful, forms.

Range: Alaska, Mackenzie, Quebec, and Arctic Eurasia to central United States, the Mediterranean, China, and Japan.

Breeding range: The common redpoll breeds from northern Scandinavia, northern Russia, north central Siberia, western and central Alaska (Kobuk River Valley, Nulato, Circle), central Yukon (Ogilvie Range), northern Mackenzie (Mackenzie Delta, Franklin Bay, mouth of Kogaryuak), northern Keewatin, northern Manitoba (Churchill), northern Ontario (Fort Severn), northern Quebec (Richmond Gulf, Sugluk, Fort Chimo), northern Labrador (Nachvak), and Newfoundland south to the Baltic, former East Prussia, Poland, central Russia, Altai, Sakhalin Island, Kamchatka, the Komandorskie Islands, southern Alaska (Dutch Harbor, Kodiak Island), northern British Columbia (Atlin), northern Alberta (probably Chipewyan), southern Saskatchewan (casually, Mortlach), northern Manitoba (Cochrane River, York Factory), northern Ontario (Lake Attawapiskat), central and southeastern Quebec, the Magdalen Islands (Grosse lb), and Newfoundland. Has been taken in summer m southeastern Alaska (Thomas Bay) and central British Columbia (Fort George).

Winter range: Winters from the British Isles, southern Scandinavia, central Russia, central Siberia, central Alaska (Nulato, Fairbanks), southwestern Mackenzie (Fort Simpson), northern Alberta (Wood Buffalo Park), northern Manitoba (Theitaga-Tua Lake), northern Michigan (Isle Royale, Sault Ste. Marie), central Ontario (Eganville), southern Quebec (Cap Rouge, Gasp6), central Labrador (Nain), and central Newfoundland south to France, Italy, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Caucasus, China (Kiangsi), Korea, and Japan (northern Kyushu); and to western Oregon (Eugene), northeastern California (Eagle Lake), northern Nevada (Ruby Lake), northeastern Utah (Uinta Mountains), central Colorado (Colorado Springs), Kansas (Lakin, Lawrence), Iowa (Keokuk), southern Indiana (Miller), southern Ohio (Cincinnati), southeastern Virginia (Back Bay), eastern North Carolina (Hatteras), and central and southern South Carolina (Aiken, Kingstree, Bull’s Island, and Beaufort County).

Casual records: Casual on the island of Malta and at Repulse Bay, Southampton.

Accidental in Bermuda and the Bonin Islands.

Migration: Late dates of spring departure are: South Carolina: Aiken, March 4. North Carolina: Washington, March 25. Virginia: Charlottesville, February 23. District of Columbia: March 12. Maryland: Dorchester County, March 11. Pennsylvania: State College, April 15. New Jersey: Cape May, March 26. New York: Cayuga and Oneida Lake basins, May 5 (median of 13 years, April 8); New York City, May 4. Connecticut: Southport, March 25. Rhode Island: Pawtucket, April 21. Massachusetts: Danvers, April 14. New Hampshire: New Hampton, April 28 (median of 21 years, April 8). Maine: Portland region, May 19. New Brunswick: Miscou Island, May 26. Nova Scotia: Antigonish, May 2. Prince Edward Island: Charlottetown, April 13. Newfoundland: St. Anthony, April 23. Missouri: Montgomery City, April 12. Illinois: Rantoul, March 20. Indiana: Waterloo, April 3. Ohio: Toledo, March 18. Michigan: Battle Creek, March 25. lowa: Winneshiek County, April 5. Wisconsin: Green Bay, May 21. Minnesota: Minneapolis: St. Paul, April 17. Kansas: Clearwater, March 21. Nebraska: Gibbon, March 19. Manitoba: Margaret, March 20. Wyoming: Yellowstone Park, April 3. Idaho: Meadow Creek, April 4. Montana: Bozeman, May 16. Alberta: Cranbrook, April 20.

Early dates of fall arrival are: British Columbia: Arrow Lake, November 22. Alberta: Glenevis, October 12. Montana: Fortine, October 30. Idaho-Priest River, October 23. Wyoming: Albany County, November 8. Colorado: Weldona, October 25. Saskatche.. wan: Eastend, October 20. Manitoba: Treesbank, October 20. North Dakota: Fargo, October 4. Kansas: Clearwater, October 15. Minnesota: Kittson County, October 4; Minneapolis, October 19. Wisconsin: Eau Claire, September 23; New London, October 15. Iowa-Sioux City, November 10. Michigan: McMillan, October 15. Ohio: Ashtabula, October 20. Indiana: Carroll County, November 5. Illinois: Glen Ellyn, November 6. Missouri: Mt. Cannel, November 4. Prince Edward Island: North River, October 4. Nova Scotia: Pictou, October 13. New Brunswick: Scotch Lake, October 14. Quebec: Gasp6, October 20. Maine-Phillips, October 5. New Hampshire-New Hampton, October 12 (median of 13 years, October 28). Massachusetts: Waltham, October 16. Connecticut: Hartford, October 2. New York: Cayuga and Oneida Lake basins, October 17 (median of 6 years, November 3). New Jersey: Elizabeth, October 18. Maryland: Allegany County, December 6. Virginia: Back Bay, December 5. North Carolina: Arden, October 29.

Egg dates: A]aska: 124 records, April 4 to August 17; 62 records, June 2 to June 19.

British Columbia: 1 record, May 26. Labrador: 13 records, June 9 to July 27. Manitoba: 4 records, June 19 to June 29.

Newfoundland: 4 records, June 1 to June 19.


(For further details on the life history of the greater redpoll, see Salomonsen (1950)– Editor.)

This is the other large and dark colored redpoll, previously mentioned as being difficult to recognize in the field.

It breeds on Baffin Island, Iceland, and in Greenland, where Hagerup (1891) called it the “most numerous of the smaller birds found in the vicinity of Ivigtut.” He says further that: “In 1886 it was first observed on May 6, and was common on May 17. On September 24 the majority had migrated southward, though a few were met with now and then during October. * *

“In 1887, the first were seen on April 24, and on April 30 a few single individuals, besides three together flying toward west-northwest, about one hundred feet high. On the 6th of May several appeared in the valley, and by the 10th of the same month, they were common.”

Of its status on Ungava, Lucien M. Turner says in his unpublished notes: “Rather common in winter. None to be seen from May 15 to September 1 of each year.”

The greater redpoll ranges southward more or less irregularly in winter to southern Canada and the northern United States, as far west as Manitoba and Montana and as far south as southern New England, Colorado, and northern Illinois.

Ridgway (1901) describes the greater redpoll as similar to kolboelli, “but much larger and with a relatively thicker and more obtuse bill; coloration rather darker and browner, with the dusky stripes on sides and flanks usually heavier and broader; adult male with the pink or red of chest, etc., apparently less extensive as well as less intense.”

Hagerup (1891) gives us the following information on its nesting and other habits:

These birds usually build wherever a bunch of bushes may be found, but rarely over five hundred or six hundred feet up the hillside, although I have met examples on the higher lands during the mating-season. I discovered eight nests with eggs and young. Three of the nests had the full number of eggs in May, the others in June. The earliest newly-laid eggs were found on May 20, the latest on June 26. One clutch consisted of four eggs, another of six, and the remainder of five eggs or young.

These nests were in willow bushes, generally in the lowest branches, close to the ground, and never higher than three and one half feet. An exception was a nest built upon one of the seats in an old boat which lay beside a thoroughfare within the town of Ivigtut. * * *

The nests which I found were made chiefly of dried grass and roots, the inside being lined with white plant-wool, and often with a few Ptarmigan feathers, so that it looked altogether white.

At the end of June, when the willows are in leaf, the young forsake their nests. During July and August and the first half of September, both old and young used to come about the houses, gathering in flocks on the refuse heaps outside the brewery, and, if then a cage with a decoy bird was placed near them, they were easily caught in a net. * *

During the summer they live to a great extent on insects, and one which I shot on the 2d of July had its oesophagus full of small flies.

Their song, which they deliver both when flying and perching, is but ordinary, and consists mostly of trills, reminding one of the song of Fringilla chlori.s.

Winter: In the large flocks of redpolls that occasionally visit Massachusetts in winter, greater redpolls are sometimes well represented. William Brewster (1906) mentions that “at Nantasket Beach, two young collectors, by a few random shots into an exceptionally large flock of Redpolls, secured forty specimens, of which six proved to be linaria, and thirty-four rostrata!” Referring to the large, mixed flocks, he says that the subspecies and species “do not differ appreciably in notes, habits or general appearance. It is true that rostrata and holboellii may be occasionally recognized by their superior size, and exilipes by its bleached coloring, but Redpolls, as a rule, are so nervous and restless, and when in large flocks are so constantly in motion and so likely to take their departure at any moment, that a prompt use of the gun is usually indispensable to the positive identification of any particular bird * *

Range: Baffin Island, Greenland, and Iceland to Iowa, Ohio, New Jersey, and Scotland.

Breeding range: Breeds on Baffin Island (Clyde Inlet, Nettilling Fiord), Greenland (north to Melville Bay on the west coast, and to Ravnsjord on the east coast), and Iceland. Has been taken in summer on Southampton Island.

Winter range: Winters from the southern parts of breeding range south casually to Colorado (Magnolia), Minnesota (Kittson County, Minneapolis), Iowa (Iowa City), northern Illinois (Chicago area), southern Michigan (Kalamazoo), northwestern Ohio (Lucas County), northwestern Pennsylvania (Presque Isle), New Jersey (Princeton), southeastern New York (Ossining, Shelter Island), New Brunswick (Grand Manan), Newfoundland (Locke’s Cove), Ireland, and Scotland.

Casual record: Casual at Helgoland.


This subspecies breeds from northern Scandinavia across northern Eurasia to northern and western Alaska, and migrates south in winter to Germany, southeastern Siberia, and Japan. It wanders occasionally on migration or in winter to southern Canada and the northern United States, eastward to Massachusetts, Maine, and the Maritime provinces.

Ridgway (1901) describes it as exactly like the common redpoll “in coloration, but averaging decidedly larger, especially the bill, the latter usually relatively longer.~~ In the roving flocks of redpolls that are seen occasionally in New England in winter we sometimes see a few that seem larger and darker than the common redpolls with which they are associated. Unfortunately for the field observer, there are two subspecies of redpolls that are both larger and darker than the common redpoll, either one of which may occur there at that season. These two forms are so difficult to distinguish that it would seem unwise to attempt to identify them by sight in the field. But, as ilolboell’s redpoll breeds as far away as Herschel Island and as the greater redpoll breeds in Greenland, it would seem that the latter might be the form more likely to occur anywhere in eastern North America.

I have been unable to find any information on the nesting habits, food, or other habits of this subspecies, which probably do not differ very much from those of the other northern races.

The measurements of 21 eggs average 10.9 by 12.0 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 18.9 by 18.0, 16.0 by 12.5, and 17.3 by 11.9 millimeters.

Range: Scandinavia, U.S.S.R., and Alaska to Manchuria and Japan.

Breeding range: Breeds from northern Scandinavia and northern Russia across northern Siberia, western and northern Alaska (St. Lawrence Island, Barrow, Collinson Point), and northern Yukon (Herschel Island) south in eastern Siberia to Kamchatka; in general farther north than A. J. ftammea, though in unfavorable seasons supposed to colonize within the northern limits of that form.

Winter range: Winters from the southern parts of its range casually south to central Europe and central Asia; recorded in Manchuria, Japan (Hokkaido, Honshiu) central Alaska (Tanana), and the Pribilofs.

Casual records: Casual in southwestern Alaska (Kodiak Island in summer), Montana (Miles City), Minnesota (Ottertail County), Iowa (Iowa City), Wisconsin (Lake Koshkonong), Keewatin (Southampton Island), Ontario (Moose Factory, Toronto), Quebec (Quebec City), Massachusetts, Maine (North Brighton, Gorham), New Brunswick (Grand Manan), Newfoundland (Locke’s Cove), and Great Britain.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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