Back to posting! This post is about news related to three very rare and unique parrot species.
The first story is about the Night Parrot of Australia, which I wrote about HERE. Night parrots are very elusive, nocturnal parrots from Australia. Sightings are very sporadic and therefore very little is known about them. For a long time, it was even unclear whether or not the species still existed
However, some photos and videos of a night parrot were obtained recently, and you can see some here: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-08-10/night-parrot-nature-reserve-created-queensland-endangered-bird/6680392
Since so little is known about these birds, and because they are likely very rare, a new reserve was created to protect them. The location of it is a secret, which is likely for the best so that poachers don’t go after the birds or so that large numbers of birders don’t overwhelm them. One Night Parrot was caught and radio tagged so biologists could monitor its movements.
I am a birdwatcher and biologist and am always thrilled to come across a rare species. I can’t imagine how exciting it would be to find such an incredibly rare and elusive species!
Night Parrots look a bit like miniature Kakapos (another nocturnal ground-dwelling parrot) with more yellow, but Night Parrots and Kakapos are actually only distantly related.
One of the methods being used to protect the night parrots involves setting traps for non-native, feral predators (such as cats) that could kill the parrots. There’s more about this here: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/health-science/feral-cat-grooming-traps-to-secure-site-for-rare-night-parrots/story-e6frg8y6-1227503351863?sv=f3ace50e5213b8684e9bc91145763cab
Eliminating feral cats is always controversial, but in this case, doing so may end up saving an endangered species.
For another critically endangered Australian parrot, preserving mature forest may be the key to saving it. Swift Parrots are one of two parrots species that undergo routine migrations. The other is the Orange-bellied Parrot. Both of these species breed in Tasmania and spend the non-breeding season in southeast Australia. To travel between mainland Australia and Tasmania, they have to fly across approximately 150 miles of water.
Both species are threatened by habitat loss. However, recent research suggests that preserving mature forests from logging could help conserve the swift parrot. Find out more here: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-09-10/forestry-tasmania-urged-to-save-endangered-swift-parrot/6763332
Many parrot species rely on mature forests, as old trees are more likely to contain cavities that parrots use as nests.
The Orange-bellied Parrot is also in serious trouble, in part due to habitat loss. However, disease is now threatening the species, as one adult and several nestlings have tested positive to a virus called psittacine beak and feather disease. The disease can cause deformed feathers and overgrown beaks and can be fatal, especially in wild birds.
Captive-bred Orange-bellied Parrots have been released into the wild and initially it was thought they could have been the source of the virus. However, the virus has not been found in any of the captive-bred birds released, and viruses from wild orange bellies are similar to those that have been found in wild Sulphur-crested Cockatoos. Sulphurs are rare where orange-bellies breed so the virus may have spread to orange bellies from another species.
More information can be found here: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-09-14/questions-over-disease-threatening-orange-bellied-parrots/6771828 .
The above example of camouflage in the the animal kingdom is courtesy of the Common Pauraque. A resting pauraque looks very much like a pile of dirt and leaves. During the day, they rest on an open place on the ground and remain very still so predators will have trouble detecting them. Females also build their nests right on the ground and rely on camouflage for protection.
The particular bird in the above picture was pointed out to me by a tour guide at Estero Llano Grande State Park near Weslaco, Texas. He roosts in the exact same place everyday, so has been photographed by many birders. I even saw his picture in the February 2015 issue of “BirdWatching” magazine.
The guide gave us a good tip on finding roosting pauraques – they often roost on the ground among shrubs where there are a lot of leaves. However, they don’t like to walk much (they have tiny legs) and their wingspans are about a foot and a half wide. So, they will generally be found roosting in spots they can get to by flight. Due to their wingspans, they will be found roosting in areas with suitable flight paths (over a foot wide) leading to them.
Common pauraques are in the nightjar family (Caprimulgidae), which is a family of nocturnal/crepuscular insectivorous birds that generally hunt their prey on the wing. Common Pauraques occur from southern Texas to central South America in woodland areas that have some open areas nearby for foraging. They do rely on their sight while foraging, so they are most active at dusk, near dawn, and on moonlit nights. They do most of their foraging on the wing, but can also jump from the ground to catch insects, and they may run a bit on the ground (despite their tiny legs) to catch insects.
Estero Llano Grande is a good place to see Common Pauraques. I saw a second one fairly close to the first one that was pointed out to me.
Estero Llano Grande is considered a birding ‘hotspot’ due to the wide variety of habitats found there. It’s also a good place for butterflies. Here are a few more pictures of wildlife I saw there:
There are several bird feeders around the visitor center, where quite a few different birds (such as green jays, inca doves, and black-crested titmice) could be seen. I managed to get a picture of a northern cardinal. They’re beautiful birds that I don’t get to see very often.
There were also plenty of hummingbirds visiting the hummingbird feeders. Most of them were buff-bellied hummingbirds, which can be found in the US along the Gulf Coast. In the US, they breed in southern Texas, but some of them migrate a bit north for the winter and stay along the coast in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama or Florida.
Hummingbirds can be very interesting to watch. Despite their tiny size, they can be quite territorial and often chase each other from feeders or flowers.
There’s a large viewing area by the visitor’s center where one can watch birds at a large wetland. Quite a large variety of waterfowl and wading birds can be seen there, including coots, ducks, ibises and egrets. The bird in the above picture, an American coot, looks somewhat like a duck but is actually in the rail family. Note the strange-looking feet – they are not webbed and the toes are lobed.
The ducks were also interesting to watch, as many species actually pair up on their wintering grounds, and a few males were already courting females. That’s what the Gadwall in the above picture is doing, although the female gadwalls are out of frame.
There were about seven Yellow-crowned Night Herons around “Alligator Lake.” And yes, I did see a few alligators:
Great Kiskadees were quite common. The only place to see them in the US is the far south of Texas, but they are very widespread and common in Central and South America. They can often be found perched on branches near water bodies, where they will repeatedly fly out to capture an insect or small fish.
Above is a Black Phoebe. Like the Great Kiskadee, they often perch on branches near water bodies and fly out from the branch, grab an insect, and then fly back to the same or a nearby perch.
Like the Great Kiskadee, the Altamira Oriole is a south Texas specialty. They are striking, black and orange birds that occur in Central America, Mexico, and the far south of Texas. The above picture shows an Altamira Oriole nest.
I would have liked to see the actual birds but didn’t get a chance that day. However, on the last day of my trip, I went to the Rio Grande National Wildlife Refuge, and saw one just as I was walking back to my car. He was even nice enough to perch still so I take his photo:
In my last post, I wrote about Whooping Cranes and the trip I took to see them at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. The Whooping Cranes were the highlight of that trip, but the refuge is home to many other bird species. Here are a few pictures of birds and other wildlife at the refuge:
Both species of pelican that occur in North America were quite common in the area. The smaller Brown Pelicans are coastal species and occur in the area year-round and breed there. American White Pelicans, however, are generally migratory, although there are populations in Texas and Mexico that do not migrate.
These two pelican species have different foraging styles. Brown Pelicans will dive for their food, and I frequently saw them dive straight into the water from the air. American White Pelicans do not dive like that and scoop prey from the water. They will also steal food from other species, especially cormorants.
The above picture shows three adult and one juvenile Brown Pelican. The dark brown bird is the juvenile. Note also the white necks on the adults. Adult Brown Pelicans have white necks when they are not breeding, while during the breeding season, the backs of their necks will be dark brown.
The black bird in above picture is a Neotropical Cormorant. Cormorants are frequently seen in the company of pelicans and both Neotropical and Double-crested Cormorants occur on the south Texas coast. These two cormorant species are not always easy to differentiate, although the neotropicals are smaller, have shorter beaks, and have longer tails. The shape of the gular (throat) pouch also differs between the two species.
I actually took the above photo in Lethbridge, Alberta, but it shows one structural difference between breeding and non-breeding American White Pelicans. During the early breeding season, American White Pelicans develop a round, horny disk on the top mandible of the beak. This is lost after the breeding season.
I managed to see quite a few “lifer” birds on the trip, as I’d never been to the east coast. A “lifer” would be a bird that I had never seen before. The Gull-billed Tern (seen in the above photo) and the Neotropical Cormorant were lifers for me. It’s always exciting to see a see a new species, and ever better for me if I can get a decent picture.
Osprey were very common, but I also managed to see a Peregrine Falcon. Peregrines are well-known for having the fastest dive speed among birds, as they can reach speeds of 320 km/hour during a dive. The species was considered endangered in the United States during the mid twentieth century, and population declines were largely due to the use of organochlorine pesticides (primarily DDT). These pesticides caused females to lay eggs with thin shells. The species has since made a recovery due to DDT bans and the release of captive-bred birds.
Shorebirds are abundant on the gulf coast during winter, as many species that breed further north overwinter there. Shown above is a Ruddy Turnstone. They spend the winters on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the USA and breed in the high Arctic. Their breeding plumage is much sharper than their winter plumage.
Willets (one is shown above) are medium shorebirds that overwinter on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts and breed on the north Atlantic coast and inland in central Canada and the northwestern USA. They are rather plain shorebirds, but in flight, they are easy to recognize due to the sharp, black and white striped patterns they have on the undersides of their wings.
Herons were also quite common, and the above photo shows a Snowy Egret (which is in the heron family). Cattle Egrets, Great Egrets, and Reddish Egrets also occur in the area.
Dolphins were also quite common and often swam beside or behind the boat. I also saw several dolphins while on a boat trip off of South Padre Island.
I took the photo of the above bird (a Long-billed Curlew) in a field between Harlingen and Corpus Christi. A very large flock of curlews was foraging in the field. Long-billed Curlews often forage for worms in pastures and their long bills help them probe deep into mud. On coasts, where some birds overwinter, they will forage for shrimp and crabs and can often reach them in their mud burrows.
A Ferruginous Hawk and Sprague’s Pipit were also present alongside the curlews. These three species are declining in Canada (the Ferruginous Hawk is particularly scarce), so seeing all of them in one spot was quite thrilling for me. I couldn’t get a decent picture of the hawk (it was too far away), but here’s a photo of one I took near Mountain View, Alberta.
The Texas pictures were all taken with a Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70 camera. It has a 60X zoom lens, so I didn’t have to get too close to the birds to get decent pictures.
Suddenly, across one of those glimpses of eternity, there flocked the forms of two majestic birds; and from them came a far croaking trumpet sound. By their long wings, long necks, long legs and snowy plumes, I later knew they were two white cranes, the noblest thing that flies, sailing on to their northern home, and the ring triumphant of that stirring trumpet call still echoes in my heart.
Ernest Thompson Seton, on the Whooping Crane, from “Trail of the Artist-Naturalist, 1940.
Last post, I wrote about the parrots of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. My main reason for visiting Texas was to attend the Rio Grande Birdwatching Festival. I chose this festival in particular because I would get to see wild parrots, and because one of the post-festival trips featured one of North America’s rarest birds: the Whooping Crane.
The Whooping Crane (Grus americana) came perilously close to extinction during the first half of the twentieth century. Populations had been declining due to hunting and habitat destruction, and by 1941, there were only 23 Whooping Cranes left in the world. Today, there are about 600 of them, with about 400 of those being wild birds.
Increasing the number of Whooping Cranes in the wild was a very difficult task for conservationists. The breeding range of last population was not discovered until 1954, well after it had become apparent that the species was in mortal danger. The species also has a low growth rate, as Whooping Cranes do not breed until age four (at the youngest) and pairs typically raise only one chick to fledgling each year. It helps that Whooping Cranes can be bred in captivity, but ensuring the survival of large numbers of released birds is difficult because they must learn their migration routes. To get around this problem, some cranes have been conditioned to follow ultra-light aircraft, which can then escort the birds on the appropriate migration route.
Today, there is only one self-sustaining wild Whooping Crane population, which is the one that overwinters on the Gulf Coast of Texas and breeds in Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada. There are also ongoing efforts to establish a non-migratory population in Louisiana, and a migratory population that overwinters in Florida and breeds in Wisconsin. The latter population has almost 100 birds in it.
Efforts to establish a “Rocky Mountain” population that would breed in the northern Rocky Mountains and winter in New Mexico was not successful. This is because the population was started by placing Whooping Crane eggs in Sandhill Crane nests. The Sandhill Cranes raised some Whooping Crane chicks, but as adults, the Whooping Cranes did not try to mate with each other but courted Sandhill Cranes instead.
There is also a small population of non-migratory Whooping Cranes in Florida (about 20 birds) and these are the descendants of captive-bred individuals that were released into the wild. No more captive-bred birds will be released into this flock as it has suffered from a high mortality rate.
Despite the difficulties inherent with conserving them, Whooping Cranes are no longer in imminent danger of disappearing and can thus be seen as a conservation success story (albeit one that is still ongoing, as they are still endangered).
I live in Alberta, and part of Wood Buffalo National Park, where Whooping Cranes breed, is in Alberta. However, the Whooping Cranes there are (apparently) very difficult to see and tend to nest in some very inaccessible muskeg areas. So, to have a chance at seeing these rare cranes, I headed to Texas.
The Whooping Crane tour group I was with stayed in the Rockport Area, and took a boat ride into the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge to see the cranes. It was a grey and chilly day, but that didn’t matter, as I managed to see 19 Whooping Cranes, including some juveniles. This year had been a particularly good one for the population, as at least thirty-two chicks were raised to fledgling.
The above photo shows an adult pair with their offspring, which is the one with some rust-coloured feathers. The young stay with their parents during their first winter.
That adult Whooping Cranes are territorial was apparent from seeing them in the wild. Each pair or trio (pair with young) had its own feeding area located at least a few hundred meters from other cranes. Birds would sometimes get too close to each other, which would result in some vocalizations and a threat display.
Cranes would sometimes erect their ‘bustle’ feathers (as seen above) and call out to each other. These calls presumably help the cranes maintain their territory boundaries. Cranes have unusual and distinctive-sounding calls because they have very long tracheae. In most birds, the trachea goes straight from the pharynx (back of throat), down to the syrinx (which is just above the lungs), and then it branches to form two bronchi that connect to the lungs. In a crane, the trachea is not straight, but forms a long, looping coil along the sternum (breastbone). Their long, coiled tracheae allow Whooping Cranes to produce resonating calls.
Occasionally, a pair of Whooping Cranes would engage in a courtship display, where they would open their wings and leap up and down, facing each other. It was a wonderful thing to get to see, and I managed to get a picture:
Sometimes, a bird would start a courtship display while its partner just foraged or gazed into the distance.
Although I did get to see their courtship displays, the cranes spend most of their time foraging. They are omnivorous, but eat more animal than plant matter. Blue crabs are one of the most important sources of food for them at the Aransas refuge, but they will also eat other crustaceans, molluscs, plant matter such as berries, and small vertebrates.
As can be seen in the above pictures, many Whooping Cranes have leg bands so that biologists can track the activities of individual birds. However, not all cranes I saw were banded, and biologists often avoid banding them now, as being captured and handled can be stressful for a wild bird. This does not mean that biologists cannot identify individual birds, as cranes can be identified by their voices. Cranes can be difficult to differentiate by just listening to them, but by recording their calls and making a digital ‘voiceprint’ for each crane, individual birds can now be recognized and studied.
That these graceful and stately birds can still be seen living in the wild is due to the hard work of multiple generations of conservationists, both amateur and professional. I am very grateful that I had the opportunity to view them in the wild, and I hope that future generations will be able to as well.
I recently traveled to Harlingen in south Texas to attend the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival. One of the highlights of the festival (for me) was getting to see wild parrots, both with one of the festival tours and on my own.
People attending the festival could sign up for a ‘parrot tour’ of Harlingen. There are Mexican Red-headed Amazons (AKA Red-crowned Parrots, Amazona viridigenalis) and Green Conures (AKA Green Parakeets, Aratinga holochlora) living right in the city. During the parrot tours, three vans would head out in search of the parrots and the first van to find the parrots would let the other two know where they were. The festival occurs outside of the parrot breeding season, which means the roosting flocks would be quite large. When parrots are breeding, they will roost in or around their nests; thus they won’t form these huge flocks.
The tours started at 4 pm, which is when the parrots begin forming large roosting flocks. The parrots often forage and rest in smaller groups during the day but before nightfall they congregate in large groups. This is a very noisy process – the parrots will start calling noisily, and once a flock is assembled, they would all fly around, calling, until it was dark and they had found a suitable spot to sleep for the night. The parrot flocks would roost in slightly different locations each night so a bit of searching was needed to find them. The searching was done with the windows of the vans open, as conures and Amazons are very noisy, which makes them easier to find. The conures and the Amazons stayed in separate flocks.
The groups first went out in search of the Green Conures. The tour group I was with located a flock of them quite quickly. Most of the conures were perched on power lines, although a few were up in palm trees. Most were calling to each other and a few pairs were busy preening each other. Even though it was outside of the breeding season, mated pairs would stay close to each other.
A few of the Green Conures had some red feathers on their heads, but that is normal for the species. Green Conures do breed in the Rio Grande Valley so the population is self sustaining. They begin breeding in March. It is unclear whether the population was established from birds who dispersed in naturally from Mexico or from pet birds who escaped or were released (or both). As Green Conures do occur in northern Mexico, it is certainly plausible that they occur naturally in the Rio Grande Valley. The same is true for the Mexican Red-headed Amazons.
After locating the Green Conures, the groups went in search of the Amazons. When I did the tour, the group of Amazons was located along power lines and in trees in a residential neighbourhood. Their loud calls helped us find them. Tour leaders brought out spotting scopes so we could get better looks at the birds, and many people took photos, including me (although mine did not turn out very well). At one point, the entire flock of birds (about eighty or so) flew away as though something had startled them. We did later find the flock perched on power lines next to a church.
I later headed out to the Valley Nature Center in Weslaco (about a 20 minute drive west of Harlingen), as I read that parrots can be found in that area. I looked through the nature center and took a walk on the trails. I asked one of the staff if parrots frequent the area and she told me to stick around the park by the nature center at 5:00 pm or so because a large flock of Amazons generally roosts in the area. At about 5, I drove around the area (with the car windows open) and found a very large flock of Amazons about a block away from the nature center. This flock was composed primarily of Mexican Red-headed Amazons, but I did count about five Red-lored Amazons in the bunch. There was also a Double Yellow-headed Amazon with them.
The flock was incredibly noisy and more and more birds kept arriving from all directions. The birds would call, preen themselves, preen their partners, or squabble over positions in trees or on the wires. They were very amusing to watch.
At one point they got up and flew to another location about a block away. They settled there for a bit and then the entire flock circled around the neighbourhood before settling to roost in some large trees in someone’s front yard.
I enjoyed watching them so much that I returned to Weslaco a second time to seek out the flock. Again, I had no trouble finding them – I just drove around the neighbourhood until I heard the flock. I also stopped at the Frontera Audubon Center and did some birdwatching on their trails. Several turkey vultures were circling above the trails and I managed to get the below picture of one:
I also got a few more pictures of the Amazons:
Stay tuned for more blog posts about my birding trip to south Texas. I got to see some extremely rare birds and I will be sharing pictures of them!
Back to blogging again! I haven’t been blogging too much lately as I’ve been busy with a new job (I’m a wildlife biologist for an environmental consulting firm now) and I’ve been spending a lot of time working with this guy (the white/grey one):
Onto parrots: here’s a news article about Blue-throated Macaws out of Canada. Blue-throated Macaws look similar to the much more common Blue and Gold Macaws, but they are smaller, lack the green on the head, and have ‘blue’ beards instead of black ones. The feathers on the face are also blue on a Blue-throated Macaw (they are black on a blue and gold). Blue-throated Macaws are critically endangered and have a restricted range in the wild, as they are found only in north-central Bolivia.
I hope this release works out well. I admit I’d be very hesitant to release a bird that’s been living in captivity for 14 years into the wild. Perhaps they’ll wait and see which birds seem most suitable for release before letting them go? This is certainly a very generous move on the part of the breeder of these birds.
New life for endangered macaws from Cowichan
According to the World Parrot Trust, for every blue-throated macaw in the wild, there are 3,750 African elephants, 200 rhinos, 12 giant pandas, and six mountain gorillas.
That’s about to change, however slightly, with the release of 17 birds raised in Shawnigan Lake.
Those birds are among 27 who are leaving April Sanderson’s Shawnigan Lake aviary this week. Five breeding pairs will remain in Toronto, where African Lion Safari will take over Sanderson’s breeding program, while the majority will eventually head to Bolivia to be gradually released into their natural habitat.
It is the result of a lifetime with parrots.
“I’ve had parrots since I was a child,” said Sanderson, who will still have three blue-throated macaws – her pets – when all is said and done. “I got my first one when I was nine, and I’ve worked with them all my life.”
Sanderson started breeding parrots for the pet trade, but soon discovered that wasn’t a business she wanted to be part of, particularly since many pet parrots end up in unfortunate circumstances.
“A lot of people don’t know how to care for parrots,” she noted.
Not wanting to give up working with the birds altogether, Sanderson decided to breed them for the World Parrot Trust’s conservation program.
That has involved an extreme amount of permits and contracts, and the birds have all been quarantined at her aviary for the last five years, with no contact with other parrots or even other parrot owners.
It has also required at least three hours of labour a day, seven days a week, limiting family holidays, and cost hundreds of dollars a month to keep them fed and sheltered.
“It has been hard for my family to understand,” Sanderson admitted.
Sanderson’s five breeding pairs represent nine different bloodlines, probably one of the most diverse breeding groups in North America, which will help prevent inbreeding in the wild.
Parrot release programs are controversial, which Sanderson readily acknowledges.
“There are two teams,” she explained.
“One wants to protect the existing population, and the other wants to release more birds.”
The wild population of blue-throated macaws is estimated at around 125, within an area roughly the size of Vancouver Island. Breeding pairs usually have just one chick per year. The survival rates of those few chicks are low, and Sanderson believes releases are necessary.
“With numbers so low, I don’t believe they can recover without human intervention,” she said.
The efforts in Bolivia are modeled after the successful Ara Project, which has helped reintroduce two species of macaw in Costa Rica.
The birds are closely watched, and will begin their time in South America in huge aviaries, where they will be able to build their flight wings, transition to the wild diet, and get accustomed to the climate.
Despite all her hard work, and that of everyone involved in Toronto and Bolivia, Sanderson has accepted that there won’t be a 100 per cent survival rate once the birds are released, but still feels it’s worth it.
“They’re not all going to make it,” she said.
“I’m not being naive about it. I know some of them are going to die, but what are the species’ chances? Our generation could be the last one to see them.”
© Cowichan Valley Citizen – See more at: http://www.cowichanvalleycitizen.com/news/new-life-for-endangered-macaws-from-cowichan-1.1324494#sthash.DMPaZCoB.dpuf
Where I live (Alberta), the bird diversity decreases quite dramatically during the winter. Warblers, flycatchers, thrushes, shorebirds, and most waterfowl head south for the winter. However, the birds that do stay behind include chickadees, creepers, woodpeckers, nuthatches, waxwings, ravens, grouse, most owls, jays, and magpies, so the birding is still good. Some finches, merlins, juncos and kinglets stick around too. Common Goldeneyes, Mallards, and Canada Geese will also tough out the winter in areas where there is open water, such as where treated sewage effluent keeps areas of rivers and lakes warmer than normal. A few Bald Eagles will stick around and hunt the waterfowl, and eagles hunting ducks and geese can sometimes be seen right in Lethbridge, Calgary, or Edmonton.
There are also some species that show up in Alberta only in the winter and they make winter birdwatching quite interesting. These northern birds nest in the Arctic and often head south in winter in search of food. Such birds include Snowy Owls, Rough-legged Hawks, and redpolls. Redpolls are members of the finch family and there are two species: the Common Redpoll and the Hoary Redpoll. The two species look alike, although hoaries are paler overall and have white rumps.
Redpolls are birds of the north. Common Redpolls breed in Alaska, Nunavut, the Northwest Territories, the Yukon, and northern Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba. In Nunavut, they breed on the mainland and southern Baffin Island. Hoary (AKA Arctic) Redpolls nest even further north, in northern Alaska, Greenland, and the northern parts of Canada’s three territories, including northern Baffin Island and Ellesmere Island (the northernmost of the Arctic islands). Common and Hoary Redpolls also occur in northern Europe and Asia.
Many redpolls do head south in winter, not necessarily to escape the cold but to search for food. Many spend the winter in central and southern Canada. However, some still overwinter as far north as central Alaska, the Yukon and Northwest Territories. In years where redpoll numbers are high and there is a lack of small tree seeds (such as birch seeds) up north, they may start to show up as far south as the central United States in search of food. These influxes of redpolls into the central USA are referred to as “irruptions.”
When and where the redpolls show up varies from year to year. While many migratory birds breed and overwinter in the same areas each year, redpolls are wanderers. A redpoll that overwintered in the north one year may head thousands of kilometers south the next year and some will fly thousands of kilometers in one year. For example, a Common Redpoll banded in Belgium was later captured in China, 8350 km away. Another Common Redpoll banded in Fairbanks, Alaska during one winter was recaptured 5000 km away in Montreal, Quebec the next winter – a very impressive journey for such a small bird!
Redpolls will happily visit feeders and they particularly like black Nyger (or “Niger”) seeds. So, if you live in Canada or the northern US and want to see redpolls, try putting out a feeder stocked with Nyger seeds in winter. If there aren’t any redpolls in the area, you may still attract other finches, such as Pine Siskins. Like redpolls, Pine Siskins are finches that wander North America and migrate in response to varying food supplies.
Redpolls are very tough birds and can tolerate extremely low temperatures. After all, temperatures can dip to -45 C even in their ‘southern’ winter ranges. This is particularly impressive since these birds are small – without the feathers, they’re about the size of a human thumb. They also have to go twelve or more hours without eating during long northern nights. Most small birds need to eat frequently because of their high metabolic rates. So, how do redpolls withstand northern winters?
First, to help them make it through long nights, redpolls have an extra pouch in their throats (besides the crop) to store seeds in. The seeds can then be used as a fuel source throughout the nights. A redpoll can store up to 2 g of seeds in its pouch, and considering that redpolls are only 10-12 g, that is a lot of food! Besides Nyger seeds from feeders, they often feed on birch, alder, or aspen seeds.
Redpolls and other northern finches can also reduce the amount of energy they use at night by undergoing a process called ‘controlled hypothermia.’ During the night, redpolls with low fat reserves may also undergo a drop in body temperature by about 10 °C. Chickadees and House Sparrows do this as well. The reason they drop their temperatures is to conserve energy. The birds will use less energy to maintain a body temperature of ~ 30 C than a body temperature of ~ 40 C. The disadvantage is that they cannot move around well with such a low body temperature, but that doesn’t matter too much when they are sleeping.
Redpolls and many other small northern birds will also ‘clump’ together in tree cavities – or snow tunnels – to conserve heat. Redpolls in particular often tunnel into the snow to stay warm. On very cold days and nights, the ‘subnivean space’ (area under the snow) may be many degrees warmer than the area above the snow. Ptarmigan and grouse will also rest underneath the snow to stay warm. At rest, redpolls will also fluff up their feathers to trap air between them. The extra air trapped between the feathers does add some extra insulation. Additionally, redpolls will grow very thick coats of down before the winter season.
For me, redpolls mark the coming and going of winter. They tend to show up where I live in December, and head out by March or early April. I usually manage to see some every year and some years they absolutely inundate my backyard feeders. They definitely make winter birdwatching much more interesting as they can only be seen in the winter in many areas.
(Jan. 12 2014 edit: This year does not seem to be an irruption year. Very few redpolls showed up on bird counts in Alberta and some regions had none at all!).
Groth, J. 2001. “Finches and Allies.” In: The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior.” Elphick, C., Dunning, J. B. Jr., and Sibley, D. A., Eds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY.
Newton I. 2006. Advances in the study of irruption. Ardea. 94: 433-460.
Reinertsen R. E. 1983. Nocturnal hypothermia and its energetic significance for small birds living in the arctic and subarctic regions. A review. Polar Research 1 n. s. 269-284.