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Little Birds

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Two things separate the Common Redpoll from the Sandhill Crane.  First, the redpoll is a bird of the north country where it breeds in subarctic forest and on the tundra.  When low food supplies in its native territory force it to look elsewhere for its sustenance it will move south in what biologists call an irruption.  Such is the case this year, and there have been about thirty redpolls at my feeders since early December.  Now that the cranes have returned from the sunny southland the redpolls are ready to head north toward home.  Many Sandhill Cranes will also travel to the far north, in order to breed, but for them the stay will be a relatively short one.  They will head south as soon as their young are able to travel.  The redpolls may not come this far south for  several more years.

The other thing that separates the Common Redpoll from the Sandhill Crane is the fact that the redpoll weighs roughly three hundred percent less than does a crane.  The redpoll, one might say, is noticeably smaller.  At some four to five inches in length, and weighing in at about half-an-ounce, the redpoll is among the smallest of perching birds.  It is only slightly larger than the Red-breasted Nuthatch, and about equal in size to the Black-capped Chickadee, the American Goldfinch, and the Pine Siskin.  By comparison, the Blue Jay is a giant weighing eight times as much at a whopping four ounces, and a Sandhill Crane must seem like Godzilla to a redpoll.  It is hard to imagine that either species even notices the other.  They live in largely different worlds.  Both species, however, can be equally noticeable to the human observer.

The Common Redpoll is a member of the finch family, a group of birds made up of a little over a dozen species found regularly in North America.  Because it only shows up on an irregular basis in the contiguous forty-eight states, it is much appreciated and admired when it does.  People who pay attention to birds, or birders as they are called, are like most animals.  They are a competitive bunch.  When someone sees a bird that no one else has—like a redpoll—at their feeder, it is sometimes greeted with a self-congratulatory satisfaction that has little basis in reality.  The fact is, of course, the bird or birds just happened along, and their appearance has nothing to do with whoever it was tossed out the birdseed that morning.

There is, of course, much to be appreciated and admired in the Common Redpoll.  Whereas the Sandhill Crane is noticed for its majestic size and enormous voice, the little redpoll is noticed for its delicate beauty.  Though its call and song are noticeable they are not particularly remarkable.  The redpoll’s rasping call is similar to that of its cousin the Pine Siskin, and its song rather weak compared with, let’s say, that of the House Finch.  Even its appearance would be less notable were it not for the conspicuous red cap—or poll—and breast.  The bird is called a redpoll, but at its finest the color of the breast is best described as a soft rose.  The color varies from bird to bird, and sometimes is more orangish than red.  Whatever the case may be in any individual bird, it is this generally rose-red color that makes the bird so attractive.  Without it the Common Redpoll would be just another drab little sparrow-like bird, remarkable to some, but not many.  With it, the bird is simply lovely.

Perhaps the word lovely is a bit precious.  I don’t hear it much in my neighborhood.  What, after all, is the difference between a lovely bird and a pretty bird.  Pretty works all right.   I like the word pretty—pretty view, pretty woman, pretty bird, its a simple word that works well—but there is a soft and subtle aspect to the redpoll that calls for something more, I think.  I don’t think I would call a redpoll stunning, either.  Lovely implies to me a more subtle effect, like the light of a single candle in a small room.

A robin is pretty, a cardinal is stunning, and the Common Redpoll is lovely.  Even when the poll tends toward crimson the breast looks as if someone had painted it with a pastel wash of water colors, the rose color softening as it fades into the white of the belly.  Both sexes possess a sporty black bib beneath the stubby yellow beak, but the female lacks the rosy breast.  Except for such notable exceptions as the phalaropes it is the male in dimorphic birds—meaning simply that the two sexes of the same species do not look alike—that is the more colorful.  Such is the case with the Common Redpoll.  It is the male that is the more lovely.

Redpolls are not, however, any more delicate than other birds of a similar size.  Though they are tiny birds, they are members of the finch family, and finches as a whole impress me as being rather aggressive creatures.  Some people in town refuse to put out bird feeders because they are afraid they will attract House Finches who will then drive all of the other species of birds out of the territory.  Whether that might be so or not, I am not sure.  Cassin’s Finches, close relatives of the House Finch, are common around here in the summer, and it is my impression that when a Cassin’s Finch flies into the feeder everything else either moves over or leaves.  That has not, however, been the case for the twenty-five years I have lived in this house.  A dozen-and-a-half species of birds from Yellow Warblers to starlings share space around my home in the warmer months, and none has appeared any the worse for wear over the course of the years.  While I filled the feeders this morning the redpolls perched patiently in the trees that surround the back yard, waiting for breakfast, as it were.  They were like Christmas ornaments that someone had hung in the branches in the dark days that surround the winter solstice, and neglected to remove when the season had passed.  By noon they were gone.  What prompted their departure, I cannot tell.  Maybe the sun was in just the right position to trigger a response in their birdie brains.  Maybe a certain wind blew that reminded them of home.  Maybe one of them just said, “I’m tired of this place.  Let’s go home.”  It’s hard to know, but they’re gone now, nearly a week after the cranes returned.

My neighbor dropped in this afternoon.  I had last seen him a week ago at a function in town.  He looked as prim and proper as if he was at the opera.  Today he had been roping and doctoring calves, and he was covered with mud and manure.  We stood in the kitchen drinking coffee, and catching up on neighborhood gossip while watching a dozen birds and a Red Squirrel hop in and out of the near feeder.  He said there were three cranes and a bunch of Red-winged Blackbirds around his barn.  When he started to leave I mentioned that the redpolls had left sometime in the morning.  “That’s too bad,” he said, “They’re lovely birds.”

“Yep,” I replied,”They sure are.”



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