In most winters, the most common bird in Fairbanks is the Common Redpoll.
The “poll” in “redpoll” means cap or top. Both males and females of this small finch have the characteristic reddish cap. Only the males have the reddish wash across the chest.
During the winter, generally after Thanksgiving, large flocks of mixed Common and Hoary Redpolls appear in Fairbanks. Mrs. WC has counted hundreds of Redpolls at our seed feeders in most winters.
But not this winter. On a good day this winter, we might muster 20-30 Redpolls, where ordinarily there would be hundreds. The Arctic Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count confirms what WC has observed: there aren’t many redpolls this year. Local populations are at a near-record low. What’s going on?
Redpolls depend upon birch seed – the technical term is “birch mast” – for food through the long, dark, bitterly cold winter. Earlier this winter, interior Alaska had a severe windstorm. That windstorm, the theory is, destroyed the birch mast that the Redpolls rely upon for food. If that’s right, then the question is whether the birds moved elsewhere to find food. Or maybe they starved. Or maybe the theory is wrong.
It’s not a crisis for the species. They have a very wide range, and they are incredibly prolific, laying 4-7 eggs. In favorable conditions they can double- or triple-clutch. Doubtlessly we’ll be back to former population levels in a year or two. But WC misses the clouds of little “pig polls” that brighten and bring a bit of life to the long Interior winter.