Smith: Redpolls are providing a winter gift to Wisconsin bird watchers – Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The wildlife activity is typically brisk each morning at a feeder in a pocket garden on our home’s north side.
It’s Wauwatosa mind you, not Whitefish PointSax-Zim Bog or Ngorongoro Crater, so the parade of feathered and furred animals isn’t exotic or endangered.
But after 25 years of living here and maintaining a feeder at the spot, the common visiting species have become as familiar and welcome (mostly) as family.
The simple station features a “squirrel-proof” housing that holds about a gallon of seed, has a 16-inch-wide perch bar and sits atop a 5-foot tall pole. I typically fill it with a mix of black oil sunflower and safflower seed.
More:Smith: Only one choice for securing a future for prairie chickens in Wisconsin
More:Smith: Three extremely rare birds help ring in the New Year in Milwaukee
Black-capped chickadees, northern cardinals, house finches, house sparrows and goldfinches are with us year-round.
Dark-eyed juncos move in for a stay of several months each winter. And for a couple of  weeks during spring and fall migration, white-throated sparrows and white-crowned sparrows hang out here, too.
Of course the gray squirrels in the neighborhood also frequent the spot and attempt to hog the booty. Cottontail rabbits mosey in occasionally, too, and in recent years wild turkeys have showed up to scratch, dust and strut. 
And rarely, a Cooper’s hawk, coyote or red fox will make a rush through the feeding zone. The predator sightings make sure we don’t forget that even in the suburbs the ecosystem retains some of its wildness.
This winter’s observations had offered more of the same for us at the feeder.
Until last week, that is.
On Jan. 27 we received another important reminder courtesy of a tiny, feathered visitor: Always leave open the possibility that you haven’t seen it all.
More:Outdoors calendar
At about 9 a.m. the ground under the feeder was bristling with the normal flock of house sparrows and a few juncos.
A male cardinal confidently dined on the west corner of the feeder while a trio of chickadees took turns to fly in to the opposite end to quickly grab a seed, dart off to the nearby shrubs to break their snack open and eat it, then repeat.
The morning sun highlighted the scene and, even though I’d seen it hundreds of times, I was engrossed in this slice of side-yard wildlife viewing.
A kerfuffle on the ground drew my attention and when the feathers cleared I saw something for the first time since we put up the feeder a quarter century ago: There among the common neighborhood birds was a petite, brown-and-black streaked bird with a bright red cap on its forehead.
It was enough to make me spit out coffee.
It looked like a common redpoll, I thought. I grabbed a camera and took a few documentary photos and then consulted a bird guide.
Sure enough it was. We had a new “yard species.”
I shouldn’t have been so surprised. The winter of 2021-22 is an irruption year for several species, including snowy owls and a handful of finches such as the common redpoll.
The common redpoll is about the size of a goldfinch and breeds in the taiga of northern Canada and Alaska and winters in southern Canada and northern U.S.
Every so often its favorite wild foods such as birch and alder seeds are in short supply and the birds fly farther south than normal.
This is one of those times, said Ryan Brady, conservation biologist in the Bureau of Natural Heritage Conservation at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
“We’re having a super year for finch sightings in Wisconsin,” Brady said. “This irruption has actually even pushed the birds down into Illinois and Indiana, so it’s a remarkable winter in that regard.”
Brady said birders in Wisconsin are reporting pine siskins, also a finch, but the common redpolls were arguably “the stars.”
Since redpolls often travel in groups, some Wisconsin birders have had 25 to 50 or more of the birds at their feeding stations at once this winter, Brady said.
“It can be quite the spectacle,” Brady said.
Three redpoll species are currently recognized: common, hoary, and lesser (a Eurasian species). But research in 2015 discovered that genetically all three of these species are nearly identical, offering some support for the idea that they could be considered a single species, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Redpolls are active feeders and, sort of like chipmunks, can store seeds in throat pouches called diverticula. This physical trait allows redpolls to scarf up seeds and, if necessary, fly to a safe spot where the food can be regurgitated, husked and eaten.
They are definitely a joy to watch.
After I spotted the first redpoll, three others joined the flock jostling for position on the ground in our garden.
It became impossible to miss the red caps among the brown heads of sparrows and dark gray domes of juncos.
Any bird with a red hat will get a warm welcome in the Badger State, won’t it?
Since that first sighting redpolls have visited our feeder at least once a day.
Brady said birders anywhere in Wisconsin could be seeing redpolls this month. And they will likely be around until at least April.
The DNR has feeding tips for redpolls (thistle seed is also good) and other birds, including suggestions for watching for signs of disease and infections among birds at feeders, on its website at
“It’s exciting, it’s fresh,” Brady said about the redpoll irruption. “That’s kind of what makes birding fun. Every day is different and it’s often unpredictable.”