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Hoary Redpolls

February 10, 2011

If we haven’t crossed paths for a while, Syl, a longtime friend of mine, almost always asks me if I’ve seen any Rosy-breasted Pushovers lately. This is a typical non-birder to birder joke; birds with “funny” names often provoke snickers and bad jokes. Once when I told him I’d just seen a rare Hoary Redpoll, his reply was: “Whoring Red Poles? There are actual birds with that name? That’s obscene!”

Well, they’re not obscene; in fact they’re not even seen all that often – at least not in my neck of the woods (Manitoba). If there are redpolls around, and they usually show up sometime during the winter, the first thing I do is check for Hoaries. It’s a knee-jerk reaction. Any Hoares in that flock? If I’m lucky, I’ll get one or two or three Hoaries per winter. I’d say that over ninety-five percent of the Redpolls here are Commons.

For some reason, this year it’s different. Like many of my birding friends, I’ve been amazed to find that the Hoaries outnumber the Commons this year. In the one flock of fifty or so that I encountered, the usual percentage was completely reversed. I was hard-pressed to spot a Common Redpoll in the bunch! In Marathon, Ontario (relatively nearby, north of the Great Lakes), Michael Butler reports the same phenomenon: Percentage wise, at least 70% Hoary to 30% Common.

What this has done is make me a more observant birder. If in an average winter you only see one or two of these little puffs of white with the jaunty red cap tilted forward, you’re happy to just say “Hoary”. You take them all for granted when you shouldn’t. But if you see fifty, you start to look for variations.

In fact, there are two subspecies of Hoary Redpolls. I guess in years past I saw examples of Carduelis hornemanni exilipes, the expected subspecies of the area. This year people have been seeing the bigger and paler version as well – the Carduelis hornemanni hornemanni. I think I may have seen one as well. But the flock was so jumpy that they flitted off from the birch tree they were in before I could get a fully positive read.

I’m participating in what’s turning into an irruption year for Hoary Redpolls. (That sounds even more obscene, Syl!)

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