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Hungry Redpolls Flocked to Wisconsin this Winter

Updated: Apr 9

Redpolls flocked to Ryan Brady this winter like, well, choose your trite analogy: moths to light, bears to honey or pigeons to bread crumbs.


Brady, an Ashland ornithologist with the Department of Natural Resources, just smiles when folks suggest he’s some kind of redpoll whisperer; a man whose magical powers cause little birds to swarm whenever he’s near.


Brady insists he doesn’t charm the redpolls with soothing words that melt their natural wariness.


“They’re probably just hungry; probably more so than most winters,” he said. “Other people had similar experiences with redpolls this winter.”


Brady said redpolls are primarily seed eaters, and they especially like the small seeds of birches, alders, tamaracks and ground plants. Redpolls tend to avoid any seeds larger.


Seed crops vary annually, of course, which drives the redpolls’ movements across North America. During good seed years, few redpolls fly much farther than southern Canada and the northern U.S. This winter, however, they showed up in big numbers from southern Wisconsin through central Illinois.


Brady documented daily flocks of 400 to 500 redpolls in his backyard near Lake Superior in late March as they started migrating to their nesting grounds on Canada’s tundra. His backyard’s record day hit an estimated 700 redpolls, a calculation Brady makes by counting the “dots” in his birdfeeder photos.


Redpoll videos that Brady posts on Facebook prove impossible for such estimates. If you only glance at those scenes, you’d think the redpolls were swarming mosquitoes from last June.


For those unfamiliar with redpolls, picture a brown and white bird that resembles the common sparrow in size and shape. Redpolls also have a small red forehead patch, a yellow bill and two white wingbars. Male redpolls have a pale rosy chest and upper flanks, as if they perched downwind of a misting machine spraying cranberry juice. That tint makes it easy to confuse redpolls with the house finch.


Brady said redpolls remain strong as a population. The latest estimates from Partners in Flight — a network of over 150 bird conservation organizations in the Western Hemisphere — put redpoll numbers at 160 million globally. PIF estimates that 22% of the world’s redpolls winter in the United States and 17% spend time each year in Canada. The species isn’t on anyone’s “watch list,” and it rates a 7 out of 20 for “Continental Concern.”


“Redpolls are generally abundant, and I’m not sure anyone claims they’re increasing or decreasing,” Brady said. “They breed and nest north of Canada’s tree line, so we don’t have good surveys, or even much anecdotal information. In Wisconsin, we really don’t encounter them except in winter, and their numbers vary each winter in any given area. They also don’t show up much in our annual Christmas bird counts, so it’s hard to truly monitor them.”


Even so, Brady has never seen redpolls more bold and friendly than they were this winter. But their behavior isn’t totally out of character.


“By nature, redpolls are more bold than any chickadees I’ve seen,” Brady said. “They’ve often come within a few feet of me. They aren’t skittish as long as you stay quiet, move slowly, and don’t have pets around. When I noticed they were even more bold this year, I broke the ice by sticking out my arm and pouring feed atop my sleeve. The more they associated me with food, the less skittish they became, and started swarming me. One time I had about 30 birds on my arm.”


Brady acknowledges he’s not the only one who fed redpolls from atop a gloved hand or sleeve this winter. “I’ve seen quite a few photos of other people doing the same thing,” he said. “It’s been a real treat. We typically get good numbers of redpolls across the Northwoods, but they usually aren’t this numerous in southern Wisconsin.”


Backyard birdwatchers generally put out thistle seed and husked sunflower seeds or chips for redpolls. Brady said if birds don’t hit your thistle seed, buy another bag and try again.


“You might have a bad batch,” he said. “Sometimes thistle seed goes bad before you even buy it. If you don’t want to take the chance, buy shelled sunflower seeds. Redpolls don’t have a big, strong bill for cracking shells, but they can chip away at sunflower seeds.”


No matter what you’re providing, Brady reminds birdwatchers to scrub their backyard feeders regularly with chlorinated water, and rake or sweep away shells and waste from beneath feeders to reduce salmonella risks.


“Admittedly, feeding birds by hand is a fine line and it’s not something I’d encourage, especially if you’re not monitoring the birds and taking precautions,” Brady said. “And with avian flu outbreaks in poultry farms and in some wild birds in recent weeks, it’s a good reminder to keep things clean. Redpolls are especially susceptible to salmonella outbreaks, especially when it’s wet and messy.”


A highly infectious strain of avian flu was detected in late March in bald eagles, shorebirds and waterfowl throughout the country. In mid-March, avian flu was detected in domestic poultry in Jefferson County. For more information, visit https://dnr.wisconsin.gov/topic/WildlifeHabitat/disease.html.


Brady said sick redpolls tend to look puffy and struggle flying. If you see individuals stay behind when every other bird flees, study it closely. “That can be a good sign you have salmonella, and you need to take action and clean things up,” Brady said. “Stop feeding for one or two weeks to let the outbreak disappear, and then reset.”


As spring settles in across Wisconsin, expect redpoll flocks to hasten northward. When looking ahead to next year, however, don’t expect a repeat performance of this year’s big, bold numbers.


“We might not see another year like this for a while,” Brady said. “If they find enough birch seeds north of us, they won’t have any reason to fly farther.”

DNR ornithologist Ryan Brady of Ashland feeds a big flock of redpolls in his backyard.

— Ryan Brady photos

Ryan Brady fed hungry redpolls from atop his arm in recent weeks.

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