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  • Writer's pictureRoo

Redpolls: Whatever species, they're gorgeous!

I think the Redpoll is one of my favourite, if not the favourite finch I get to enjoy in Britain. Siskins are lovely, but there’s something about a Redpoll that just seems special. The males have a beautiful pinky-red breast, but its the combination of the red crown and black face that I find most appealing. Even the drabber, browner females are a striking bird, with dark face and red crown, but lacking the makes colourful breast.

Male Lesser Redpoll (Carduelis cabaret)

We have been lucky to see Redpolls in out garden most winters, but the winter of 2019/20 was an exception, with no sightings of Redpoll, or another species we usually see in colder weather, the Brambling. So we were overjoyed to get them back this winter, with three birds seen in January, a male and two females.

Female Lesser Redpoll (C. cabaret)

To be technically correct, the Redpolls we see in Britain are mostly Lesser Redpoll (Carduelis cabaret), a full species split by the British Ornithological Union in 2000. And that’s where it all gets messy. Redpoll taxonomy is a decidedly messy affair! Some might argue there are just two species seen in GB, Common Redpoll and Arctic Redpoll, the latter a rare but annual winter visitor primarily to the north and east of the UK. However others would argue there are no less than six species: Lesser Redpoll, Icelandic Redpoll, Greenland Redpoll, Mealy Redpoll, Coues’s Arctic Redpoll and Hornemann’s Arctic Redpoll. It doesn’t help that DNA studies have shown that genetically these six are all the same, so maybe there’s just one species: Redpoll!

But it depends how you define a species (and who you believe!!), the phylogentic species concept argues that, put simply if they look and/or sound different then they are separate species. The biological species concept argues that to be separate species they must be reproductively isolated from one another, hence unable to produce viable offspring. Such debates have long raged on many “species” like the Hooded Crow / Carrion Crow.

The male Lesser Redpoll this winter has been getting a hard time from both females, getting pushed off the feeders all the time!

Basically its likely that the Common Redpoll is made up of a clinal range of maybe three species: Mealy Redpoll, C. (f.) flammea; Icelandic Redpoll C. (f.) islandica; Greenland Redpoll, C. (f.) rostrata. These species are found in northern Europe, Iceland and Greenland respectively. Then there is Lesser Redpoll, C. cabaret, in Britain and Ireland through to central Europe. Lastly the Arctic Redpoll is likely made up of Coues’s Arctic Redpoll (C. exlipses) in northern Europe and Honermann’s Arctic Redpoll (C. hornemanni) in Greenland.

I was fortunate when living in Norfolk and Suffolk to see Mealy Redpoll on many occasions and also caught up with a few Coues’s Arctic Redpoll (although back then it was just Arctic Redpoll!). However I struggle with splitting all but the most obvious of each species. This was highlighted by a fourth bird that arrived in our garden for a single day this week: notably larger than the other birds, heavier billed, pale grey face and mantle, pale un-streaked rump with pinkish wash, pale wing bar, white undertail coverts and pale flanks. That all points to Mealy Redpoll.

Mealy Redpoll (C. (f.) flammea) possibly? Or just a worn spring Lesser Redpoll?

I guess really its just a case of letting evolution take its course as these species likely diverge from each other. Whatever, I just love Redpolls!

Competition at a busy feeder! Siskins, Lesser Redpoll and a Greenfinch.

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