Little red birds

Northern Cardinals have started singing already in my backyard, but I didn’t see any of those bright red birds on a recent trip to Sax-Zim bog in northern Minnesota. It might get a little too cold for them up there, and they might not find enough to eat in the spruce forest.  Instead, the little red birds that brighten up the forest there are Common and Hoary Redpolls and Purple and House Finches.

common redpoll

Common Redpolls are a little smaller than a Black-capped Chickadee, and are easily distinguished by their bright red cap.  Males have raspberry-tinged breast feathers.  Hoary Redpolls are about the same size but have paler (hoary) breast feathers.

common redpoll

The Redpolls, like this female, were busy little birds on a cold morning, gathering as much seed as possible.  They made a sort of buzzing “zeet” sound as a large flock moved through the vegetation.

Redpolls migrate in an “eruptive” fashion, with large flocks moving from one area to another, distant one as food supplies diminish.  They ventured at least as far south as southern Minnesota during our past two extremely cold winters, but they typically winter almost as far north as they breed.  Redpolls have phenomenal heat generation capability and can stay warm (by shivering) at temperatures as low as -65F ( or -54C).  In Alaska, they might take refuge from arctic storms by burrowing into a snowbank overnight — kind of like husky dogs would.

Purple Finches aren’t quite as tough.  They desert their Canadian forest summer breeding grounds to winter in the eastern U.S., where they unfortunately compete with House Finches and House Sparrows for food and space.

purple finch male

Purple finch males are really more raspberry than purple. They are about the size of a House Finch, but have a larger, more powerful bill that can crush larger seeds.

It can be difficult to tell them apart, but the raspberry color of the Purple Finch extends down its flanks, while the House Finch shows brown stripes in that region.  House Finches really are more red than raspberry and the bill is much thinner and shorter.

It can be difficult to tell them apart, but the raspberry color of the Purple Finch extends down its whitish flanks, while the House Finch shows brown stripes in that region. House Finches really are more red than raspberry and the bill is much thinner and shorter.

purple finch female

The Purple Finch female has that same large conical bill of the male, but no raspberry color, and sports a big brown patch over her eye to distinguish her from the female House Finch.

8 thoughts on “Little red birds

  1. Must be lots of food up north this winter… I haven’t had a single Purple Finch at my feeders this season. And singing Cardinals – I usually hear them right about Valentines Day. I desperately need to hear the sound of birdsong – my yard is much too quiet.

    • We aren’t having the winter from hell this year, so the cold hasn’t driven those finches south, I guess. I desperately need to see some sun. This has been the gloomiest winter here.

  2. Great job explaining and showing the differences betwee Finches & Sparrows.
    I am not quite as perplexed as I was… ?¿? Thank You : )

    • Thanks, Gayle! I find that I need to remind myself of the difference every now and then, because I think we all tend to call all of those little guys – sparrows. And some are definitely not.

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