I’m out of Thistle Seed already!

The Redpolls have moved into the Crane Lake area in force.

They are mixing with Pine Siskins and are moving around the area in huge flocks. A few American Goldfinches are occassionally joining the party, but most Goldfinches have moved south.

These three birds are part of the Finch family, and Finches are seed eaters. Of the three, Redpolls mainly prefer birch seeds.

Redpolls breed up in northern Canada where they nest in open woods and shrublands. They will stay up in Canada year round, where the extreme cold winter weather doesn’t seem to bother them. But when their food supplies run low, Redpolls can irrupt south into the US. At Crane Lake, we pretty much have Redpolls here every winter, unless there is a significant crash in birch seed production. Many times during the Christmas Bird Count, which is held earlier in the winter season, the best place to find Redpolls is by scanning the Birch trees for movement. But later on in the winter season, the Redpolls will start coming into the feeders where they can eat copious amounts of seeds! They will eat black oil sunflower seeds, but they really prefer thistle seed.

Their cousins, the Pine Siskin, has a little more varied diet of seeds. They are one of the only birds that I have seen up in a White Pine eating seeds from the cones. Maybe that’s why Pine is in their name. Pine Siskins also eat sunflower seeds, and they really prefer thistle seed as well.

Pine Siskins also breed in Canada, although it is further south than Redpolls. In fact, Pine Siskins will stay in northern Minnesota all through the year if the seed crop is good. There must have been sufficient food available last summer in the Crane Lake area, because I had Pine Siskins at my feeders all summer. Early last summer the Siskins were bringing their young ones in to the feeders and feeding them! 

When a huge flock of Siskins and Redpolls descend on the ground below the feeders, their nervous behavior of always moving and pecking, makes them almost look like a bunch of mice on the ground. The streaked brown feathers of both birds really help them blend in to their surroundings.

Common Redpolls can be identified by their red cap and black goatee. The males will have a red breast.

Common Redpoll male

Pine Siskins are very streaky brown with a little bit of yellow in their wings and tail.

Pine Siskin

Sometimes the two birds can be hard to tell apart until you can see the red cap of the Redpoll. Which of the birds on the feeders below is a Redpoll?

Siskins and Redpolls 

There are two Siskins and one Redpoll in the above photo, (the Redpoll is on the lower perch)

Now, can you ID a Hoary Redpoll? The Hoarys travel with the Common Redpolls. The Hoary is much whiter and “frostier” looking. Their beaks are smaller than the Commons and they don’t have as much streaking. Hoary’s come from even further north in Canada than the Common Redpolls. And usually in a big flock of Redpolls there will be only one Hoary Redpoll. Now, if you think you have seen one, you should submit documentation to the MOU (Minnesota Ornithologists Union).

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