Common redpoll (Carduelis flammea)

Also known as: Arctic redpoll, Greenland Arctic redpoll, Greenland redpoll, hoary redpoll, Hornemann’s Arctic redpoll, Hornemann’s redpoll, Iceland redpoll, lesser redpoll, mealy redpoll, redpoll, tundra redpoll
Synonyms: Acanthis flammea, Acanthis hornemanni, Carduelis hornemanni, Fringilla flammea, Linota hornemanni
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPasseriformes
FamilyFringillidae
GenusCarduelis (1)
SizeLength: 11.5 - 14 cm (2) (3)
Wingspan: 19 - 22 cm (4)
Weight10 - 20 g (2) (5)
Top facts

The common redpoll is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

The common redpoll (Carduelis flammea) is a small, grey-brown to white finch of the high Arctic and boreal forests (4) (5). Its upperparts have extensive dark grey-brown streaking, while its underparts are whitish with dark streaking on the flanks. The tail of the common redpoll is dark brown and slightly forked, and there are two conspicuous white bars on the wings (2) (3) (5) (6).

Both the male and female common redpoll have black or blackish-brown legs and feet, and a short, stubby, conical bill (2) (3) (4) (5). The bill is horn-coloured with a dark tip during the breeding season, but light yellow with a black tip for the rest of the year (5).

The male common redpoll is distinctive during the breeding season, when the crown, cheeks, forehead, breast and rump become deep red (2) (3) (4) (5) (6). The female is similar in appearance to the male, but is usually slightly darker and more streaked, with red colouration restricted to the forehead and crown (2) (5). Both sexes have black lores and a grey-brown face with a black chin (3) (4) (5) (6). The common redpoll is paler in winter, with pale buff feather tips (3) (5).

The juvenile common redpoll is similar in appearance to the adult female, but has more buffy upperparts and lacks the characteristic red crown (2) (3) (5) (7). The bill of the juvenile is dark at first, becoming yellow after the first autumn moult (5).

A number of subspecies of common redpoll have been recognised, which vary in range, size and colouration, as well as in diet, habitat preferences and migratory behaviour (2) (3) (4) (5) (7).

However, the taxonomy of the common redpoll has been much debated, and this species has commonly been split into two separate species, the common redpoll (C. flammea) and the hoary redpoll (Carduelis hornemanni) (4) (5). In general, the hoary redpoll is paler than the common redpoll, with more frosty white plumage, and has a shorter, stubbier bill and an unstreaked rump (3) (4) (5) (7). Some scientists have also treated the smaller, darker subspecies Carduelis flammea cabaret as a separate species, the lesser redpoll (Carduelis cabaret) (8). However, all redpolls are variable in appearance and the different forms are now generally thought to be a single species (8) (9) (10).

The common redpoll has a range of vocalisations, including a distinctive, metallic ‘chuch-uch-uch-uch’, an energetic ‘errr-errr’ and a rising ‘tsooee’. The song of this species consists of varying combinations of repeated call notes, ending in a long trill, and may be given from a perch or during a flight display (2) (3) (4) (5) (7).

The common redpoll has a widespread distribution across northern parts of Europe, Asia and North America (2) (3) (4) (5) (8). It breeds across Scandinavia, Russia and Siberia, in northern North America, and in Greenland and Iceland (2) (4) (5) (8). The common redpoll has also been introduced to Australia and New Zealand, and sometimes occurs as a vagrant in the Caribbean islands of Jamaica and the Bahamas, as well as in parts of southern and eastern Europe (8).

This species is a partial migrant, with some individuals remaining in the breeding areas year-round, while others move south in winter. The common redpoll may winter as far south as northern and central Europe, China, Japan and the United States (2) (3) (5).

Each subspecies of the common redpoll is known to occupy a distinct range, although individuals from different subspecies may mix at wintering grounds (7).

The common redpoll breeds in a variety of habitats, including tundra, heaths, ravines and slopes with stunted bushes and trees, as well as in open coniferous and broadleaf forest and scrub. It is often associated with species such as birch (Betula spp.), willow (Salix spp.), spruce (Picea spp.), alder (Alnus spp.) and other low shrubs (2) (3) (4) (5) (11).

Outside of the breeding season, the common redpoll is found in open woodland and scrub, along field edges, and sometimes around towns and villages (2) (4) (5) (11). In Greenland, this species winters in valleys and on slopes of the drier interior of the country, only occurring around the coast when snow thaws (2) (5).

The common redpoll occurs from sea level to elevations of around 1,350 metres in Alaska, 450 metres in Canada and Greenland, and 1,300 metres in Kamchatka, Russia (2) (5).

The diet of the common redpoll is primarily composed of small seeds, such as those of birch, willow and alder, as well as conifers, grasses and weeds. It also eats other plant parts, including buds, shoots, leaves, fruit and catkins, as well as some invertebrates in summer (2) (3) (4) (5). Nestling common redpolls are fed mainly on soft-bodied invertebrates, although in some areas they are reportedly fed almost entirely on the seeds of cottongrass (Eriphorum species) (2) (5).

The common redpoll commonly feeds in trees, often at the outer extremities, where it hangs upside-down to reach buds and catkins (2) (4) (5). It also searches trees and shrubs for insects, and may cling to thin stems in low vegetation to reach seeds (5). In winter, the common redpoll often feeds on the ground (2) (5) and will also visit bird feeders (4).

As an adaptation against harsh northern environments, the common redpoll is capable of storing food in an expandable area within its throat, providing a reserve that can be consumed later in a more protected spot or during long winter nights (2) (5). The common redpoll’s dense, fluffy plumage provides good insulation (4) (5), while its body is feathered in areas that are bare in most other birds, giving further protection against the cold (4). In winter, the common redpoll sometimes tunnels into snow to roost, with the snow insulating the bird against the cold night air (4).

A gregarious species, the common redpoll is usually found in pairs or small to large flocks (3) (4). At popular roosting sites, flocks of around 1,000 individuals have been known to form (5), and several pairs of common redpolls often nest quite close together (3) (5) (11). The common redpoll has an ‘irruptive’ population cycle, becoming more abundant at the southern edge of its wintering range around every two years. Such irruptions are generally associated with seed availability in this species’ normal range (5).

The common redpoll is generally monogamous, with the male attracting a female by performing an aerial display and feeding the female as part of courtship. The nest is built by the female and consists of an open cup of coarse grasses, plant fibres, roots, plant down and twigs. It is lined with fur, feathers and fine plant material, which is added to throughout the nesting period (2) (4) (5) (11). Although the common redpoll may breed on the ground in open tundra, it usually builds its nest in a rocky crevice or in a low shrub or tree, often near to or over water (2) (4) (5). When suitable nest sites are unavailable, it has also been known to nest in cavities in driftwood (4).

The breeding season of the common redpoll is relatively short, from late May to the middle of July (2) (5). Usually only a single brood of chicks is raised each year, although in some areas pairs may raise two (2) (5).

The female common redpoll usually lays a clutch of four to six smooth, shiny eggs, which are bluish-white and spotted with red or purple (2) (4) (5) (11). Incubation usually takes between 10 and 13 days and is carried out entirely by the female, during which time she is fed by the male. The young common redpolls leave the nest after 12 to 15 days. This species starts breeding from about a year old (2) (3), and has been recorded living for up to seven years (4).

The common redpoll is abundant and very widespread, and is not currently considered to be at risk of extinction, although its overall population is believed to be declining (8). It is reported to be quite tolerant of humans, often occurring in towns and villages, and its breeding areas are generally remote and largely unaffected by human activities. As it rarely winters in the same places from year to year, the common redpoll is also unlikely to be seriously affected by local habitat loss (5).

The common redpoll’s boreal and tundra habitats may be under threat from the effects of climate change, but the potential impacts on this species are not yet known (4).

The common redpoll is protected in North America by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, as well as by various national and state laws (5). No other specific conservation measures are currently known to be in place for this small, hardy bird, although it may benefit from further investigations to clarify its taxonomy (5).

Find out more about the common redpoll:

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  1. IUCN Red List (July, 2012)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Christie, D. (2010) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 15: Weavers to New World Warblers. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
  3. Clement, P., Harris, A. and Davis, J. (1993) Finches and Sparrows: An Identification Guide. Christopher Helm, London.
  4. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - Common redpoll and Hoary redpoll (July, 2012)
    http://www.allaboutbirds.org/
  5. Knox, A.G. and Lowther, P.E. (2000) Common redpoll (Acanthis flammea) and Hoary redpoll (Acanthis hornemanni). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
    http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna
  6. Brazil, M. (2009) Birds of East Asia. Christopher Helm, London.
  7. Peterson, R.T., Mountfort, G. and Hollom, P.A.D. (1993) Collins Field Guide: Birds of Britain and Europe. HarperCollins Publishers, London.
  8. BirdLife International (July, 2012)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=112651
  9. Troy, D.M. (1985) A phenetic analysis of the redpolls Carduelis flammea flammea and C. hornemanni exilipes. The Auk, 102(1): 82-96.
  10. Marthinsen, G., Wennerberg, L. and Lifjeld, J.T. (2008) Low support for separate species within the redpoll complex (Carduelis flammea-hornemanni-cabaret) from analyses of mtDNA and microsatellite markers. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 47(3): 1005-1017.
  11. Kaufman, K. (2001) Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston, Massachusetts.