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Common Redpoll: Gift of the Birches

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

I looked out the window on January 27 to see a pink chickadee dangling in the gray birch. From its behavior, I knew right away what I'd see when I raised the binoculars. A common redpoll!

I was flabbergasted. We've only had redpolls once before in twenty years. What is it with our yard and terrific birds this year?

Blame it on the birches. Phoebe and I sat up in the tower room today and reflected on all the gifts that these simple gray birches have brought us: spring warblers, sapsuckers, Garrett the red-headed woodpecker (who made his home in a dead birch snag); siskins and goldfinches and now this beautiful visitor from the far north.

Hands down, gray birches are the single best bird attractant we have.

Birches are quite simply a year-round smorgasbord for birds. The seed cones persist from late summer through to spring, quietly dispensing food. They leaf out early and are immediately attacked by aphids, caterpillars, loopers, and many other insects, which brings in the spring warblers, tanagers and orioles. Sapsuckers bang holes in them in the fall, and by then the seeds are ripe, and they feed finches all winter. When the seeds fall to the snow the juncos and tree sparrows eat, too.

They're beautiful, emerald green in spring and summer; stark white in winter, rich gold in fall.

They die young and woodpeckers love that, too. You let the snags stand and plant more right beneath them.

Perhaps you would like to know where I get my birches. Try Burgess Nurseries.  This link will take you right to the birch page. They're selling them as Betula papyrifera, white or paper birch, but that's not what you'll get. You'll get gray birches, B. populifolia, and I guarantee you will adore them. And so will the birds in your yard. And the price is right: a little over $2 per tree. 

As we gazed out the meadow I hatched a plan to dot the entire thing with clumps of birches. We could do that.

Lood at the seeds flying out of this cone as the redpoll attacks!

The bird's tiny bill is perfectly suited to extracting them. By its behavior, I could see this redpoll had no idea what bird feeders might be. It has never shown the slightest interest in the niger or sunflower chips that most redpolls eat with gusto. It's a naive bird, probably a young male, born this spring in the firs and spruces of far northern Canada.

Neither did it show the slightest concern about us as we walked right under it and fired away with our cameras.

I feel a special attachment to redpolls, because Bill Thompson III called me up and talked me into painting a cover for Bird Watcher's Digest in the fall of 1990. I didn't want to paint redpolls; I hadn't seen them for several years. But he talked me into it. The painting appeared on the Jan/Feb 1991 issue. By that time, I couldn't wait for him to call me again. 

That was two kids and 22 cover paintings ago.

Thank you for staying around, little redpoll, and letting me remember.


I've tried the river birch, said to be disease resistant. They died of disease. I have a gorgeous white birch, 37 yrs. old and riddled with sapsucker holes but it survived our drought of '88.
I had never heard of the grey birch.
So Burgess says it's a white birch but you'll get a grey birch?

Beautiful. I live in northern Wisconsin now, and this winter has been the first time I've gotten to see these little pink charmers - the first flock I saw was in a birch, too! I especially love your action shot of the flying seeds.

What a lovely little fellow he is, and the pictures are so clear. My first and only looks at a redpoll weren't nearly this good. Thanks!

Kathy in Delray Beach

I'm ordering mine today! I doubt I'll get Redpolls, but I'm always looking for more bird friendly plants to add to the property. Thanks for the recommendation!

What about yellow birches? Are their seeds as good?

@ Pickles: Yep, you'll get a gray birch even though Burgess claims it's a paper (white, or canoe) birch.
@Julie: Yay! You'll love them.
@Terry: Can't imagine why they wouldn't be just as appealing to redpolls. Lovely tree. I've no experience growing it, but I know it's extremely willing, coming up on windthrown stumps in New England forests.

Wow. Love that blue sky behind this gorgeous little guy. Pink chickadee...I like it! Great post as always. Hope you are away from the OH snow this week!

Thank you for the posting about redpolls. When we lived in Holiday Valley ( a subdivision near Enon, Ohio) in February of 1978, seven redpolls visitied our yard for several days. There was snow on the ground,and as it melted in sunny spots, the redpolls bathed in the puddles. Just lovely. Once again, thanks for the memory nudge. Linda in Texas

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