GRAND FORKS – A redpoll is bird of the week for the second time this year, which, of course, means he’s been bird of the week for two consecutive weeks.
It is unprecedented. Closely related species were consecutively Bird of the Week, as happened with Cooper’s Hawk and Northern Goshawk in December. One winter, several species of owls were successively bird of the week.
But the same species two weeks in a row? Never before in 40 years has “Always in Season” appeared in the Herald.
This happened because York the Cat and I spent some time this week studying redpolls. The cat’s interest waned when he discovered he couldn’t reach the birds through the glass of the patio door, but my interest only increased. I’ve looked at a lot of redpolls over the years, but usually only briefly. This winter, they captured my imagination.
Probably, this happened because sizerins are abundant this year. I feed more repolls this winter than in previous winters we spent at our home west of Gilby, ND.
Sure, rockfish are pretty birds, and they’re very active. It is impossible to focus on a single bird, as the birds flutter, moving from feeder to feeder and flock to flock.
Something became evident upon observing dozens of redpolls from a distance of 4 or 5 feet. Their plumage differs from bird to bird. They look very similar, but they differ in color, some darker and some lighter, in the size of the red patch, or plumage above the beak, in the amount of striping on the head and belly , and other ways.
Suddenly, I acquired a certain appreciation for these 19th century ornithologists who described up to eight species of redpolls. Their conclusions were upset by scientific advances. DNA testing has shown that redpolls are so nearly identical genetically that they can constitute a single species.
The powers that be in the bird world – a committee of the American Ornithologists’ Society – are yet to be declared, but pressure is mounting to declare that the three currently accepted species are one species, to “lump” them into one. bird watching lingo.
It would disappoint bird watchers who keep a list of all the species they have seen. Grouping redpolls together would reduce the number on their life lists.
It crossed my mind as I was studying redpolls. At least one of the 60 or so people who harassed my feeder was paler than the rest and would be considered an ash redpoll under the current classification. But many birds have shown other differences that could be equally compelling evidence of the separation. Of course, this is what tormented those birders who described a range of species, often naming them after themselves or their friends.
John James Audubon painted two of them, which he called “Little Redpoll Linnet” and “Mealy Linnet”. Elliott Coues described eight species, one of which was briefly named after him.
Audubon and Coues both visited what is now North Dakota. Audubon sailed up the Missouri River to Fort Union in 1843, and Coues, a medical officer, was a member of the expedition that surveyed the international border in 1874. He spent time in Pembina and also traveled far to the west than the Mouse River. He has published a comprehensive and densely written collection titled “The Birds of the Northwest”.
Today, the opinion of bird watchers remains divided, but perhaps not for long. Researchers at Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab looked at the DNA evidence and concluded in 2015 that redpoll variations are “gene expressions” of a single species, much like red hair is gene expression in the man.
Ironically, perhaps, hours of close-up observation suggested that this conclusion is correct, as variations in plumage are so prevalent among the birds I have seen. This conclusion is reflected in the labels of the consecutive drawings. Last week’s redpoll was tagged a “common redpoll”. I dropped the adjective for this week’s bird – although I was tempted to call it an ashy redpoll.
Either way, rockfish are attractive, diverse and energetic birds. Plus, they’re endearing and looking at them is a great way to spend an hour on a cold winter morning, especially on the warm side of a picture window.
Jacobs is a retired editor and editor of the Herald. Contact him at [email protected]