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Speaking of Nature

Speaking of Nature: Hints of things to come

The pine siskins that arrived so suddenly at my feeders have disappeared. One day, they were simply here, creating quite a hubbub as they wrestled and jostled with each other (and any other bird for that matter) for a prime position at my feeders. Their nomadic wanderlust may have gotten the better of them, or they may simply be out scouting the entire area for different sources of food, but whatever the reason, they are gone.

That brief period of excitement has added to the rather empty feeling of a time of year I have come to refer to as “the barrens.” It seems as though all of the birds are sluggish, though why I use the words “all the birds” is somewhat odd. There are in fact very few birds around at the moment and it struck me as so odd that I actually grabbed my field journal from last year to see if there was anything strange going on after all. It turns out that this decidedly unnatural feel is in fact quite normal.

The entry for December 10, 2011, read, “A small flock of birds at the feeder this morning. Because there are so few, I am going to start keeping track of the numbers of each species.” Of course the scientist in me needed more evidence so I checked my journal from 2010. The entry for December 11 read simply, “Sparse birds today.” That was enough of a trend for me.

So it was with open eyes and ears that I sat on my porch Sunday afternoon and took advantage of a sunny hour to try and confirm the quiet that I had perceived from indoors. The sun was warm and the 40-degree air was still enough to make sitting tolerable. I sat out there for almost an hour and was able to confirm all of my suspicions: it was very, very quiet.

One or two chickadees came by and there was an occasional appearance by a downy woodpecker. A flock of mourning doves flew overhead at one point, but never made even the slightest movement in the direction of what must at this point be the fairly well-known feeders on my porch. It was almost dead calm and … well … barren. I finally retreated into the house when my stomach reminded me that Sunday dinner wasn’t going to cook itself.

As I set about the task of cutting vegetables and getting all of the various spices and seasonings figured out, I would occasionally peek out the window to see if I was missing anything. The sun would still shine for another hour or so and I know that there is always an end-of-the-day surge in activity when the birds try to get one last snack before retiring for the evening. There were a couple juncos, a couple house finches, and of course the pair of chickadees, but for the most part, it remained quiet.

Then, all of a sudden, there was an interesting development. Between a junco and a house finch (who were both feeding and eyeing each other with obvious animosity) there was a new arrival; a bird small enough to be overlooked if not for the distinctive patch of red on its cap. It was a female common redpoll and I had been wondering when this bird might show up.

As I made a move for my camera, I was delighted to see that the redpoll was not alone. There were in fact three redpolls — all female — that had suddenly appeared. The best thing about this development was that the light could not have been better. The sun was dipping toward the horizon and throwing light horizontally onto the birds. There was perfect side lighting with no shadows and, better yet, there was a male house finch nearby for comparison. It was at that very moment that this week’s column became a no-brainer.

At just over 5 inches in length, the common redpoll is only slightly smaller than the house finch. I continue to use the house finch as a go-to comparison species because it is so widespread and so easy to see at almost any feeder that is put out. In this case, it is also a good species because of the red feathers that can be found on both birds.

The red cap of the redpoll has a little shimmer to it when seen in real life, almost as if the feathers were actually cut out of shiny plastic and glued to the bird’s head. The deep cranberry color is really quite lovely and adult males have a wash of pink across their breast feathers as though they were not paying attention and dumped a glass of cranberry juice on themselves. Immature males resemble the females, while immature females lack any red at all.

But there is another field mark that can be instrumental in identification and it is one that young artists can glom onto quite easily. If you look closely at the photo of the redpoll, you will notice that the bird has a goldenrod-yellow beak. The beak of the house finch is a medium gray that looks like polished horn, but the redpoll has a yellow beak. It’s amazing how very few birds have yellow beaks, but every child artist seems to grab a yellow crayon for bird beaks.

At a glance, the rest of the redpoll’s plumage is actually quite similar in color and appearance to a house finch. Both species are sort of a grayish-brownish with darker streaks of grayish-brown on their breasts. Both species have fairly similar blackish-whitish wings, although the redpoll has a more prominent patch of white on its folded wings.

Both birds will come to birdfeeders, but their tastes in food definitely differ. House finches prefer sunflower seeds whereas redpolls have a definite weakness for thistle seed. At this time of year, I usually mix my own blend of food that I spread out on the railings of my porch. It’s a simple mixture of white millet, black-oil sunflower and striped sunflower seeds, to which I add a little thistle and a few peanuts. Doves, jays, nuthatches, titmice, chickadees, cardinals and finches can all find something they like, but when redpolls show up, I add extra thistle to keep them coming back.

Common redpolls spend the summer in the great Canadian north. In fact, they are found so far north that Santa Claus himself probably has them on his bird list. Up that far, they nest in the open tundra and line their nests with ptarmigan feathers and caribou fur. They will eat insects if they are abundant, but they specialize on seeds, which is great for those of us who offer seeds during the winter.

In fact, redpolls have become so specialized on food that they have developed what anatomists call an “esophageal diverticulum.” To those of us who speak English it might be better described as a special pouch in which redpolls can store gathered seeds for later consumption. In this way, the little birds can load up on food when the feeding is good and then save some for a midnight snack in case the weather gets really bad. This is particularly important for a bird that must contend with the extended hours of darkness that come with the Canadian winter.

Even though we are currently in “the barrens,” there is good reason to keep your eyes glued to your feeders. There isn’t too much to look at just yet, but there are definite hints of things to come; hints that tantalize the imagination with flocks of rare visitors from Canada. For all we know, they are on the North Pole payroll; innocently perching by our windows and eating our seeds while all the while watching to see who is naughty and who is nice. Maybe Santa knows those birds better than we imagine.

Bill Danielson has worked as a naturalist for 16 years, as a national park ranger, a wildlife biologist and a field researcher. He currently works as a high school chemistry and biology teacher. To contact Bill, or to learn more about his writing, visit www.speakingofnature.com

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