Common Redpoll

Acanthis flammea

By Andy McCormick

  • Length          5.25 in
  • Wingspan      9 in 
  • Weight           0.46 oz
  • AOU Band code    CORE

The Common Redpoll visits Washington in some winters in flocks ranging in size from a dozen to hundreds of birds. Because its arrival is unpredictable, it is known as one of the irruptive species of northern birds, which, depending on weather conditions and the availability of food sources, will migrate farther south in some winters. Although considered an occasional bird in Washington, they are seen about every two winters, making them a good bird to know. 

The reason for their irruption is often caused by failure of seed-crop production among high-latitude trees, especially spruce and birch trees. In Washington they are often seen in alder trees feeding on catkins. They are very acrobatic and will hang at the very end of twigs and forage while holding the catkin steady with one foot (Knox and Lowther).

Redpolls have evolved physically and socially to conserve heat in their arctic environment. Sometimes they will shake seeds loose and then feed on the snow below. Being on the ground allows them to fluff their feathers easier to retain heat. They have also developed an expandable esophagus in which they can store seeds for later regurgitation, husking and swallowing after the bird moves to a more sheltered cover such as in the denser area of conifers (Knox and Lowther). 

Nesting typically begins in May with movement north from wintering areas. Migration is limited to the northern hemisphere. The female builds an open cup nest of grass, moss and some twigs and lines it most often with ptarmigan feathers. Usually 4-5 pale green eggs with purplish spots are deposited. Incubation by the female lasts about 10 days and the young leave the nest in another 12 days. The female is fed by the male during incubation (Kaufman). 

The genus name Acanthis is from the Greek for thistle finch (Wikipedia).* The species name flammea, from the Latin flamma, a flame, references the red crown. The common name Redpoll is from the Middle English, pol, head. 

Common Redpolls are not listed as a species at risk in any Canadian or United States jurisdiction. However, population numbers vary greatly from 200,000 in North America, to 1-2 Million in Europe to between 10-100 Million in Russia. Total population of the species can vary with the abundance of the seed crop so accuracy in counting redpolls is difficult to attain. 

Photo by Mick Thompson

Photo by Mick Thompson

Black-headed Grosbeak

Pheucticus melanocephalus

By Hugh Jennings

  • Length          8 in
  • AOU Band code    BHGR

A large finch-like bird with a very large, triangular bill. This is a stocky bird, larger than a sparrow at about 8". The four letter code is BHGR.

The male has a black head with dull orange-brown breast, collar and rump. It has bold white patches on a black wing which are also prominent in flight.

The female is mostly brown, with sparrow-like streaks above. The female’s head is strongly patterned with light stripes, has a dark ear patch and the breast is washed with a buffy-brown color.
The song is robin-like, but more fluent and mellow with rising and falling passages that make the song much longer than the robin’s.
It occurs only from the western Great Plains to the Pacific Coast. The BHGR may often be seen in the Puget Sound area from mid-May to mid-Sept. It usually inhabits deciduous forests and thickets.

It eats pine and other seeds, wild berries, insects and spiders. It will come to bird feeders for sunflower and other types of seed, and fruit.

The nest consists of twigs, rootlets, flower heads is placed in the fork of a tree or shrub, 4-25’ above ground. There are 2-5 blue-white or green-white eggs with brown spots. Incubation period is 12-13 days and the young fledge 11-12 days after hatching. Both the male and female incubate the eggs and will sing from the nest

Photo by Mick Thompson

Photo by Mick Thompson

Purple Finch

Haemorhous purpurens

By Andy McCormick

  • Length          6 in
  • Wingspan      10 in 
  • Weight           0.88 oz
  • AOU Band code    PUFI

As we spread out into many rural areas this spring, we will undoubtedly hear the beautiful, bubbly song of the Purple Finch. In the early spring before breeding season begins Purple Finches will sing as a group. Once paired for nesting, male Purple Finches will sing as solitary sentries at the top of a tree defining their territory. Don’t be fooled however, by a drab looking finch that also might be singing from a similar perch. That is likely to be a first-year male that does not have its red adult feathers yet. It gets a spring season to practice its craft before having to actually attract a mate.

Purple Finches are not really purple. They are more of a rose red. That is, if it is a male that has had a good diet. The red of these finches and many birds is the result of their eating foods containing carotenoids, the source of yellow, orange and red coloration in birds. The red finches including Purple, Cassin’s, and House Finches are able to convert these pigments to red. Some birds do this better than others, so in the field we can see finches with varying shades of red. This can make distinguishing one of these three species from the other very challenging. This problem of identification is covered in many field guides and you are encouraged to study the differences among them.

The female Purple Finch looks very different from the male and has no red on it at all. It is very boldly marked on the face with bright white eyebrow and moustache stripes which distinguishe it from the female House and Cassin’s Finches. The undertail covets for both the male and female Purple Finch are white feathers with no streaks on them.

Purple Finches in Washington have a limited migration and will move to lower elevations in the winter months. Beginning in February and into May, Purple Finches will move back to the breeding range in coniferous forests and oak woodlands along streams. The nest is a compact, open cup of twigs, weeds, and strips of bark lined with fine grass, moss and animal hair built on the outer ends of tree branches (Kaufman). The eggs are a pale greenish blue with black and brown markings. Incubation lasts about two weeks and the birds take flight in another two weeks.

Purple Finches have not adapted to humans the way the House Finches have and they remain in mostly rural areas away from human development. This may be changing as Purple Finches are seen at some feeders.  Their population is considered stable in western North America, but decreases of 50% or more in central and eastern North America have been seen in areas invaded by House Finches and after the introduction of House Sparrows. 

Photo by Mick Thompson

Photo by Mick Thompson

Evening Grosbeak

Coccothraustes vespertinus

By Hugh Jennings

  • Length           8 in
  • Wingspan      14 in
  • Weight:          2.1 oz
  • AOU Band code    EVGR