Lesser Redpoll – Ray Colliers Wildlife in the North

Lesser RedpollIt was not that  many years ago that siskins suddenly invaded gardens after the feeders, particularly  those containing that tiniest of seed, nyjer.   Prior to that siskins were birds of woodland and were only occasionally seen in gardens.  Whether it was a change in diet from the small seeds of trees such as  birch and alder we shall never know.  It could be that there was a decline in the tree  seeds and the garden feeders were a safe option.  Whatever the reason these small, attractive birds began to dominate gardens and judging by comments from readers of this column they were, and are, very popular. Who could fail to be attracted to the adult male siskins with their overall yellow green colour offset by  a conspicuous blackish crown and a bib that is again black but varies in intensity of colour.  Siskins numbers are very difficult to count in the breeding season and the estimates vary widely from 500,000 to 3.5 million pairs breeding in Scotland.  These numbers have been boosted by the rapid  growth in the planting  of European larch, Sitka spruce and the pine forests.

Now it seems  as though another bird may be on the point of invading  gardens after the feeders and one that was half expected last winter.   I forecast that when they do they will be as attractive to people as the siskins were when they first arrived.   At  11.5 cms they are even just smaller than the siskins and it is the  lesser redpoll.     Lesser redpolls have occasionally turned up in gardens already although they are often overlooked with such small numbers.  In  the last two years a number of readers have seen them at the garden bird feeders and have E-mailed me  asking more information about them.

In my garden the lesser redpolls only turn up occasionally and then they are generally the adult males.   One will come in for a few days and then, tantalisingly, they are gone.  The males have a red forehead and, in the breeding season, a red flush  of feathers on the breast.   The red breast can vary in size and their foreheads can be brown or yellow rather than the normal red.  The triangular beak is small and quite fine which means it can easily get at the nyger seed through the tiny holes in the special feeders.   These tiny birds are very active and behave rather like the blue tits at the feeders as they readily hang up-side down to feed.

The “natural” food of the lesser redpoll is mainly birch seed but their special favourite in winter is the fine seed of alder trees.  In spring  they will take flowers and seeds of the sallow and insects attracted to the opening buds of a range of trees.   Although difficult to count it is estimated that there are around 12,000 pairs breeding in Scotland. However, they seemed to have reached a peak in the 1970s and 1980s and then markedly declined.  There is no known reason for this decline but in the last few years it seems to have halted.

I took the photograph of the male lesser redpoll in the garden on a feeder.   This is a superb male with just about as much red on the breast as they can have.  Despite being in the breeding season this bird was only seen for a few days and then went, not to be seen again.   So it is with some anticipation that we wait for this winter to materialise and see whether the numbers of lesser redpolls will match those of the siskins.  Keep looking.