Interview with a common redpoll

Common Redpoll. Photo by Scott Heron. Creative Commons.

Amelia: Goodness, it’s cold out today! I’m glad I wore my snow pants. I’m always amazed to see how active birds can be in these frigid temperatures. Look at that flock of house sparrows, chittering and flitting about in that tree, like it isn’t -20°C!

Common redpoll: Sounds like someone needs an attitude adjustment. Winter is fantastic! And we’re not sparrows by the way. We’re common redpolls. Easy mistake.

A: Oh right, now that you’ve come down from the tree-top I see you have a little red spot on your forehead. But if you’re so “common“ why haven’t I seen you before?

CR: You just haven’t been looking in the right places. There are 150 million of us worldwide, so we’re hard to miss. Have you taken any trips to Northern Canada lately? That’s where we usually hang out.

A: Nope. Airfare to those places is kind of pricy. Also, it’s really cold!

CR: Oh right, your obsession with avoiding the cold. I really don’t know what you’re whining about. You get to stay in a warm house and drink hot beverages. I stay outside all day and all night, and you don’t hear me complaining.

A: True enough. I’ve often wondered how tiny little birds like you manage to survive the winter. Can you enlighten me?

CR: Sure, but I can’t speak for everyone. I may be the most cold-resistant songbird out there. I’m pretty happy up to -50 °C. In fact, I would have stayed up North this winter if there was enough food.

A: You actually like spending the winter in Northern Canada? You don’t fly South for the winter to be somewhere warmer like many birds do?

CR: That’s right! Unlike other songbirds, our migration patterns aren’t based on our hormones, but on how much food is available. This is called “irruptive” migration. We spend most winters in Northern Canada, but if there is a drought, fire, or disease that wipes out or food sources up there, we fly South until we find more food.

A: So the only reason I’m seeing you now is that there wasn’t enough food up North this winter?

CR: That’s right! But we won’t be here for long, so drink us in while we’re here. My little flock and I flick about from tree to tree, always in search of our next meal. In May we’ll head back North to our breeding grounds.

A: Ooh, romantic! Do you have a territory you return to year after year?

CR: Nope. Unlike most songbirds, we’re not territorial. In fact, we’ll probably build our nest right next to another common redpoll’s. It’s nice to have neighbours, right?

A: I suppose. Will your mate be waiting for you when you arrive?

CR: Nope, I’ll have to find a new one. Our pair bonds only last one breeding season.

A: So what are you looking for in a mate?

CR: Um, it doesn’t really matter what I’m looking for, because the females are the ones who do the choosing. The males are more dominant in the winter when we’re foraging, but once the spring arrives, it’s lady’s choice. The females also choose where the nest will be built.

A: I guess that system makes sense if territory isn’t a big deal for you. For a lot of other songbirds, it’s the male’s job to find and defend the best territory with the most food.  

CR: Yeah, we don’t really go in for that kind of thing. I’m more interested in bringing food to my mate while she’s on the nest incubating the eggs.

A: How long does she sit on the eggs?

CR: Usually for 11 days. Once the chicks hatch, she takes over feeding them. Then a dozen days later, they’re out of the nest and following us around as we forage. It’s pretty adorable. But they grow up fast. A month after they hatch, they’re fully independent, and then it’s on to round two of eggs.

A: Wow. Even though you’re nesting in the coldest part of the country, you have two batches of babies a year?

CR: Yes, if there’s enough food. We need to do our bit to keep the common redpoll population going. There are certainly enough falcons, owls and crows that like eating tiny songbirds.

A: True enough. How have you avoided predators so far?

CR: Travelling in flocks helps a lot. With more eyes on the lookout, we can see predators before they attack, and will call to warn the others. Sometimes we’ll mob the predator, which can convince them to get their food elsewhere.

A: Impressive! So when you’re not getting chased by predators, what kind of things do you like to eat?

CR: Seeds! We’re all about those birch, alder, and willow seeds. Particularly in the winter, that’s what we mainly eat.  

A: Wow, I don’t even know what a willow or birch seed looks like.

CR: That’s because they are tiny! The seeds are hidden in cone-like structures called catkins. We have to perch on the tippy-tip of the branches to pull out all the seeds. Sometimes we even have to do this upside down!

A: Wow, that sounds amazing! Is it hard to digest when you’re eating upside down?

CR: What kind of amateurs digest while they’re eating?

A: Well…I know I do, I think most animals do.

CR: Oh, I forgot – you don’t have a pouch in your throat where you can store food to digest later, do you? You poor dears. However do you manage?  

A: Um, we’ve done alright up until now. What’s wrong with digesting your food right away?

CR: Digestion takes a lot of energy. If we’re going to survive the cold, we have to be smart and conserve energy. My throat pouch can hold about a quarter of the calories I’ll need for the day. After I’ve stuffed it full, I’ll retreat to a sheltered place out of the wind, take a perch, and focus on resting and digesting. If I eat a bunch of calorie-rich seeds right before I go to bed, it will keep me warm all night.

A: Wow! What else do you do to stay warm in the winter?

CR: Well, my winter feathers are twice the weight of my summer coat. That certainly helps. Sometimes when it’s really cold out, I’ll make a tunnel in the snow to sleep in.

A: Sleeping in the snow? Don’t you freeze?  

CR: Nope, snow is great insulation. It’s much warmer under the snow than out in the winter air.

A: That makes sense, I guess. How do you make a tunnel in the snow?

CR: Well, I drop from a tree branch right into a snowbank. That puts me about 4-6 inches under the snow. Then I burrow horizontally for about a foot before turning in for the night.

A: What happens when you wake up?

CR: I burst out of the snow, bright eyed, bushy-feathered and ready for another glorious, frigid winter day!

A: You are a deeply weird bird. But incredibly Canadian at the same time.

CR: Hey, your country has no claim on me! Only 17 percent of the global population ever sets wing in Canada. We’re found all over the world, if you go far enough North.

A: I think that’s the problem – not many humans want to live in places that cold.

CR: I really don’t see that as a problem. You’re cute, but humans aren’t great news for most species. Well, I’ve got to dash to the next tree. If you’re lucky and put out shelled sunflower seeds for us at your feeder, we may come visit next year. But no promises!


About Amelia

I am passionate about communicating great ideas, particularly science and health ideas.

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