Once upon a time, not very long ago, I used to be content with the notion that a redpoll was a redpoll was a redpoll. All that changed just over a month ago when a mealy redpoll (Carduelis flammea flammea) joined the gang of lesser redpolls (Carduelis flammea cabaret) visiting my garden bird feeders.
I get lesser redpolls in the garden every winter, and lovely little birds they are too. But back in early January I was casually watching a few of these charming little finches jostle for position on the feeder, when I noticed one bird in particular that looked very different. It was noticeably chunkier, and much paler in appearance – more of a frosty grey-brown than the usual warm brown and buff tones of the lessers.
I dived for the books… and opened up a real can of worms. Redpoll identification, it turns out, can be a real NIGHTMARE!
After a bit of reading, comparing and some more watching… followed by more reading and head-scratching, I was convinced that the paler bird was a mealy redpoll — the nominate sub-species of the common redpoll (Carduelis flammea flammea).
The lesser redpoll that occurs much more frequently in Britain and Ireland is classed as a separate species in the UK (Carduelis cabaret) but as a sub-species of the common redpoll here in Ireland (Carduelis flammea cabaret). Confusing, isn’t it? But wait… it gets better… worse… er!
There are also two other sub species of common redpoll that could conceivably occur here: Carduelis flammea icelandica (Icelandic birds, strangely enough) and Carduelis flammea rostrata (birds from Greenland and the vicinity) — which vary in things like size (both larger), subtle plumage differences and general “jizz” or feel of the bird. It’s unlikely that either of these would be in my garden… but given the harsh winter anything’s possible. Apparently there is considerable overlap, and telling them all apart can be tricky. You don’t say!
The “lightness” of mealies and the darkness of lessers is also very variable – throwing more confusion into the conundrum. You get less-brown lessers and browner mealies – but can tell the difference, apparently, by looking closely at features like the under-tail coverts and the degree of primary projection. Which is fine… but the birds they keep a-movin’.
And then there are Arctic redpolls. At one point I half-convinced myself that the paler bird I’d seen could be a candidate for a Coues Arctic redpoll Carduelis hornemanni exilipes (there’s also the nominate Arctic subspecies, Carduelis hornemanni hornemanni, but it definitely wasn’t one of those).
For those interested, here are a couple of links I used to help me unravel the mysteries of redpoll identification… in some ways I’m more confused than I ever was, but at least now I know what it is that’s confusing me.
- A fairly comprehensive post on redpoll identification, with lots of comparison photos, on the Worcester Birding blog.
- You can download a comprehensive PDF on the separation of lesser and mealy redpolls on the UK400 bird club website.
- Some mealies may not actually look that much like mealies, says Martin Garner in the UK in this post about browner mealy redpolls getting overlooked.
There’s plenty more out there… but the above is plenty to get started. It will leave your head spinning.
Suffice it to say that I’ve spent a fair amount of time looking at redpolls of late – and I still can’t readily distinguish between them. It’s only when you see different flavours side-by side that the variations become obvious, and even then it’s a case of degrees of difference rather than absolutes. Whether you’re looking at different sub-species or just plumage variation in a group of lessers is difficult to establish. It’s all very subjective.
Most of the redpolls I see are of course lesser, but in amongst them are a couple of suspect mealies, and one almost definite mealy. I guess practice and perseverance is the key. Now, where did I put those bins.