Not Your Ordinary Finch

Ornithology Collection Manager Nate Rice helps us track down a nomadic bird that visits the Philadelphia area during the winter.

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 hanging a finch feeder, available at any pet store. 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.

View more redpoll photos from Visual Resources for Ornithology.

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

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