Hoary Redpolls

There has been much debate this winter about Hoary Redpolls.  Sure a few of these birds make their way south with their ‘Common’ cousins, and the field marks of these birds have been so detailed in nearly every field guide that it seems everyone who has Redpolls this winter at their feeders has had a Hoary at some point or another.

Or have they?

I am calling into question the New York State Avian Records Committee decision to drop Hoary Redpoll from its review list from all Upstate New York areas.  No longer under any kind of review every beginning birder who sees a white rump (or in Corey’s case a Snow Bunting) thinks they have a Hoary Redpoll.

It’s not that simple.

David Sibley  chimed in on the subject and people and blogs are directed traffic to his site.  Now, birders believe that Sibely is slightly more infallible than the Pope, but he offers some interesting points.  Redpolls that breed farther north are larger and paler than those that breed further south.  Oh yeah, there are Hoary Redpolls as well.  That’s right, Common Redpolls that breed further north are larger and paler.  If you interpret what Sibley wrote, he argues for a more simplistic approach.  Northern Redpolls would become Hoary and southern Redpolls would remain Common.

Oy vey!

Common ‘Northern’ Redpolls can have varying amounts of streaking to none on the chest, flanks, rump and under-tail coverts.  They also tend to be larger and paler than those that breed further south.  Hoary Redpolls can have varying amounts of streaking to none on the chest, flanks, rump and under-tail coverts.

Uh oh.

So which one is at my feeder right now?

After looking at dozens of pictures this winter of people who photographed potential Hoary Redpolls, I felt very cautious in calling any of them Hoary’s.  90% of the time I found myself finding details which I argued did not make the bird a Hoary Redpoll, so it is of my opinion that many of these reported ‘Hoary’ Redpolls are in fact, pale ‘Common’ Redpolls.  This also means that Hoary Redpolls are still quite rare in the lower 48 states (don’t know how many Redpolls have made it to Hawaii yet).  I am also wary if these birds can be safely ID by sight or sound alone (some may think about the ‘squashed’ in look of the Hoary Redpoll’s face, this can be subjective and as a result, not a safe field mark) and may only be ID in the hand or even further by DNA.  Review committees and birdlines should take care and use caution when relaying reports of Hoary Redpolls.

Now, I’m not a Hoary Redpoll hater.  Indeed I still think at least a few of the reports are of Hoary Redpolls.  What I hope to see in the future is further research done on the subject using DNA to determine what, if any differences there are between the various species and sub-species of Redpolls.  It may all be a moot point in a few years when they discover there really is no difference and they are all just Redpolls.

Won’t that be nice?


3 responses to “Hoary Redpolls

  1. Re your posting, birds tend to speciate and hybridize very readily, so it’s always hard to be sure of species; even DNA will nnot tell you whether two birds can (or do) breed together.

    I moved to Mass in Dec and had a flock of several dozen redpolls (common, I think, males pretty heavily colored, and all with prominent dark and white markings) comingto sunflower seed, but they are fading away terribly: numbers much fewer and several seem ailing and I have one fatality on my deck. Is something going on?

    Titmice, chickadees, downies, nuthatches all seem OK.

  2. If you have sick Redpolls, you are not alone. Visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website for further information. It is most likely a Salmonella outbreak at your feeder. You may have to take your feeders down to be cleaned and also clean up seed that is spilled on the ground.

    Redpolls are more vulunerable because they tend to sit and feed in one spot. Birds such as Chickadee’s, Titmice, Woodpeckers and Nuthatches tend to fly to a feeder and grab a seed and then fly to a nearby perch to feed, thus limiting their exposure to the bacteria.

  3. So what is a Hoary Redpoll anyway? What does anyone base there view of how to identify the species on? It’s a vexing problem… only primary sources from the breeding grounds will be of any use. Examinations of winter ground birds won’t help you at all in determining how to identify the species. The same applies to a lot of gull identification. Not to diss the topics, I love them. I just want to get in the field on the breeding grounds before I will ever have much to contribute in discussions of their ID.


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