Redpolls are very entertaining to watch as they feed, as they reach catkins and cones using acrobatic, agile movements, reminiscent of tits. In addition, they can use one foot to hold onto a stem, a bunch of seeds or catkin to reach the seeds more easily, like goldfinches. They can apparently store up to 2 g of seeds in a expandable pouch in their throat, to eat later in less exposed conditions. Redpolls have been seen 'bathing' and burrowing tunnels in the snow. These tunnels have unclear function, as they don't appear to use them to shelter from low temperatures, rather, they appear to fulfill a social role, or just be a form of play.
Redpoll flocks have erratic, nomadic, movements in winter in search of seeds, often travelling in the company of Siskins. They also have 'irruption years', following failures on the seed crops on which they rely, or high population densities after a good crop year, often spurred by cold weather. One of the largest irruption years were in the winter of 1995-96, where Arctic and Common Redpolls arrived in the UK in good numbers.
The taxonomy of Redpolls has been very fluid, with three species, Arctic, Common and Lesser -each with various described geographic subspecies- recognised, but at some point six were described. The browner, small and very streaked 'Lesser Redpoll' breeds in the UK. Diagnosis was based on the lightness and amount of streaking in the plumage and also bill shape and size and overall size. However identification is often difficult, as there is a lot of variation, and many individuals would fall in between the 'classic' species descriptions, resulting 'in much collective head-scratching' in the words of Riddington and colleagues.
A recent study by Nicholas Mason and Scott Taylor from Cornell University, sampled 77 Redpolls from around their distribution range and looked at the diversity across their genomes, niche differentiation, morphological diversity and gene expression patterns. Surprisingly, all Redpolls were extremely similar genetically, with barely any genomic differentiation between 'species'. The different colour patterns and bill shape can be explained by different gene expression patterns (e.g in response to temperature), but the authors did not find a clear-cut morphological differentiation between species, as many individuals were intermediate. Although recent adaptation to particular local conditions, for example the dominant available seeds) might have happened, it is likely that the nomadic migratory movements of Redpolls result in a lot of dispersal and gene flow between populations and incipient regional varieties, preventing differentiation and subsequent speciation. Perhaps we should just enjoy Redpolls as a delightful bird on its own, and worry less about tidying individuals away into imaginary boxes.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Cool Redpoll Facts.
Riddington, R., Votier, S. C., & Steele, J. (2000). The influx of redpolls into Western Europe, 1995/96. British Birds, 93: 59-67. Pdf here.
Mason, N.A. and Taylor, S.A., 2015. Differentially expressed genes match bill morphology and plumage despite largely undifferentiated genomes in a Holarctic songbird. Molecular ecology, 24: 3009–3025. Here.
Collins, J. E., & Peterson, J. M. (2003). Snow burrowing by Common Redpolls (Carduelis flammea). The Kingbird, 53, 13-22. Here.