Not Your Ordinary Finch

By Mary Alice Hartsock, with Nate Rice

Today is Bird and Bug Day, day three of All-Star Days at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Below, with the help of Ornithology Collection Manager Nate Rice, we tell you about the common redpoll, a really neat finch you may spot at this time of year. To talk with more of our staff about birds, buy tickets to join us at the museum today.

The common redpoll (Carduelis flammea) is a type of finch that appears in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware only during the winter. With a distinctive bright red cap, or “poll,” on its forehead, the redpoll has brown and white streaked feathers, a white belly, white wingbars, a short, pointy, dark yellow beak, and a black chin. The adult male redpoll also boasts light red plumage on its breast, sometimes extending into its face. These colors may be slightly duller in winter. An adult redpoll is around 5 inches long and has a wingspan greater than 8 inches—similar to a goldfinch or a small sparrow.

The common redpoll travels in a flock, spending its summers in arctic environments foraging for seeds in weeds, brush, conifer forests, and small trees. Unlike traditional migrants, many of which journey south in winter to specific warm climates rich in fruits and insects to eat, the common redpoll travels to a variety of locations. The redpoll moves when its food supply declines or is threatened by extremely harsh weather conditions. Some years this bird moves a great distance if food supply is low in its normal winter range. Lucky for those of us who live near Philadelphia, extreme weather in Canada or New England may improve our chances to spot the common redpoll in our backyards.

Rice recommends that you try visiting Fairmount Park in January and early February to catch a glimpse of a visiting redpoll, especially if northern weather is inclement. Arrive by sunrise, and remain very still to hear and observe the day’s first bird calls. Look closely at any finch flocks near scrubby habitats, birch trees, and willow trees—the common redpoll may be among other types of birds. A startled finch is unlikely to return to a threatening area, so if you spot one, be very quiet and move slowly.

Try drawing redpolls to your backyard, balcony, or fire escape by making your own finch feeder. Place it near shrubs or bushes if you can, and then be sure to stay more than 10 feet away from the bird feeder—even if you are indoors—so the birds feel safe. Only refill your bird feeder at night when birds have gone to roost.

MAKE A FINCH FEEDER

You will need:
One old stocking or pair of panty hose
Two chopsticks, wooden skewers, or wooden dowels
String
Scissors
Thistle seeds

Fill the toe of a stocking with about two cups of thistle seed, which you can purchase at any pet store. Tie the stocking off with string, and cut it off about a foot above the seed ball. Holding the bag very still, have an adult puncture the seed pouch with skewers, running the skewers across the pouch through to the other side of the bag. The skewers should be perpendicular to each other. Then make a series of tiny snags or runs through which the birds can grab seed. Use your string to hang the pouch from a sturdy tree branch!

This article originally appeared in the winter 2014 issue of Academy Frontiers.