Redpoll Challenge: 4 subspecies

Ron Pittaway


Posted to Ontbirds and ID-Frontiers on 18 December 2007


Redpoll Challenge in 2007: This is a major redpoll winter in southern Canada and the northern United States. The legendary George North of Hamilton once saw all four North American redpoll subspecies (races) in the same flock on 23 March 1958 (Curry 2006). Fifty years later this could be the winter to do it again. On 15 December 2007, Ron and Doug Tozer found a big "snowball" Hornemann's Hoary Redpoll (nominate hornemanni) on the Minden Christmas Bird Count. This is the rarest redpoll in southern Canada. On 14 December 2007, I saw two "Greater" Common Redpolls (rostrata) at our feeders in Toronto and there have been several other recent reports. With these two High Arctic subspecies and probably record numbers of "Southern" Hoary Redpolls (exilipes) in flocks of "Southern" Common Redpoll (nominate flammea), we have all four North American subspecies in southern Ontario this winter. Below I summarize some basic information needed to understand and identify redpolls.

Taxonomy: The American Ornithologists' Union (1998) recognizes two species: Common Redpoll (Carduelis flammea) and Hoary Redpoll (C. hornemanni). Each has two subspecies (races) breeding in North America. Discussion about lumping or splitting redpolls has been off the "radar screen" in recent years. The four subspecies are described below.

1. "Southern" Common Redpoll (nominate flammea): This is the commonest of the four subspecies in southern Ontario. It is the standard to which the other three are compared. In most plumages, it is noticeably streaked on the sides, undertail coverts and rump. However, adult males in winter have more contrasting whiter rumps (fewer streaks and often pinkish) than on worn breeding birds. Adult males are pink-breasted. First year males are somewhat darker and often washed with light pink. Adult females usually lack pink (sometimes tinged) and first year females are the darkest and most heavily streaked of the four age/sex classes.

2. "Greater" Common Redpoll (rostrata): This large and dark subspecies breeds on Baffin Island and Greenland. Greater Redpolls are a winter visitor in small numbers to the southern parts of eastern Canada from Ontario to Newfoundland (Godfrey 1986) and to the northeastern United States. Greaters are more frequent than Hoarys in some winters (Pittaway 1992). The Greater is larger (averages 14.0 cm compared to 12.5 cm for flammea) and heavier. Other field marks are the Greater's thicker bill and somewhat darker and browner coloration with conspicuous heavy streaking on the underparts usually extending to the undertail coverts. Adult male Greaters have "red of underparts less extensive and less intense" than flammea (Godfrey 1986). Males lack red on the malar area,
which flammea males usually have  (Beadle and Rising 2006). Some observers describe Greaters as House Finch-like. See the excellent identification article on Greater Redpoll by Beadle and Henshaw (1996) in Birders Journal 5(1):44-47, illustrated by Beadle. The differences between the two Common Redpoll subspecies are usually obvious when the two are together for comparison (Peterson 1947).

3. "Southern" Hoary Redpoll (exilipes): This subspecies breeds in the Low Arctic and much of its range overlaps that of the "Southern" Common Redpoll (flammea). It is the much commoner Hoary subspecies, and is similar in size to the flammea Common Redpoll. During redpoll flight years, it is usually possible to find a few classic adult male exilipes Hoarys. Compared to the "Southern" Common Redpoll, they are more frosted with white rumps, have lightly streaked flanks and very lightly streaked to pure white undertail coverts. Adult females and especially first year females can be noticeably streaked. Exilipes Hoary is similar in size to flammea Common, but may look slightly larger because of its whiter plumage. Hoarys have shorter, more obtuse (stubby) bills imparting a distinctive "pushed in face" appearance. Many females are identifiable by overall paler coloration and bill shape. Individuals appearing intermediate between exilipes and flammea are best left unidentified.

4. "Hornemann's" Hoary Redpoll (nominate hornemanni): This is the largest, palest and rarest redpoll. Hornemann's breeds in the Canadian High Arctic Islands and Greenland and is a great rarity in southern Ontario and Quebec. Hornemann's is larger (averages 14.0 cm) than "Southern" Hoary (exilipes) which averages 12.5 cm. It is whiter with less streaking on the sides and flanks and has immaculate white undertail coverts. Adult males have less pink than exilipes, some showing only a trace of pink suffusion on the breast. Females and first year birds are recognizable if compared directly to the two small subspecies, flammea and exilipes, by their larger size. See the excellent article on redpoll identification by Czaplak (1995) in Birding 27(6):446-457. His photo of Hornemann's on page 448 is correctly identified in my opinion. Note larger size of the Hornemann's in the photo in American Birds 42(2):239, which is reproduced on Jean's website link below. See also Doug Tozer's photo and Ron Tozer's detailed description of the recent Ontario "Hornemann's" on Jean Iron's website link below. See David Sibley's website link below.

A. Why is there so much plumage variation in redpolls?  A flock of one subspecies of the Common Redpoll (flammea) will show four plumage types: adult males, adult females, first year males and first year females. Since there are four redpoll subspecies, a large flock potentially could have 16 plumage types, plus considerable individual variation.

B. What is the Greenland Redpoll? Historically, the name Greenland has NOT been used in North America to describe the rostrata "Greater" Common Redpoll (Peterson 1947, Todd 1963, Bent 1968, Terres 1991, etc.). However, Greenland Redpoll is the European name for "Greater" Redpoll (Newton 1972, Jonsson 1993, etc.). Most North American publications use Greenland Redpoll for "Hornemann's" Hoary Redpoll (Nash 1905, Macoun and Macoun 1909, Taverner 1953, North 1983, etc.). The name Greenland causes confusion. Most of our Hornemann's and Greater Redpolls are coming from Canada, not Greenland. To avoid confusion, it is preferable to include the subspecies scientific name after the common name, particularly when first mentioned: (flammea), (rostrata), (hornemanni), and (exilipes).

TAKE THE REDPOLL CHALLENGE: This is the first winter in decades to match George North's Ontario record of four redpoll subspecies in one day. Even more amazing, all four were in the same flock. I am not aware that North's record has been matched in southern Canada or the northern United States. However, Roland C. Clement saw all four subspecies on 12 March 1944 at Indian House Lake in northern Quebec (Lat 56 15' 0 N / Long 64 42' 0 W) south of Ungava Bay close to Labrador. Clement in Todd (1963) reported "a feeding flock of mixed migrants that contained ten rostrata, thirty flammea, two hornemanni, and about six exilipes."

Three websites with redpoll information and photos.

1. (Three photo pages of redpolls: "Southern" Common Redpoll - subspecies nominate flammea; "Southern Hoary Redpolls - subspecies exilipes; "Northern" Common Redpolls - subspecies rostrata)

2. (One page of photos)

3. "Hornemann's" Hoary Redpoll, "Greater" Common Redpoll and Redpoll Challenge

Acknowledgements: I thank Michel Gosselin of the Canadian Museum of Nature for information on redpoll taxonomy and identification. Doug Tozer kindly provided the photo of the recent "Hornemann's" Redpoll in Minden. Jean Iron and Ron Tozer made many helpful suggestions.

Literature Cited: I can supply full references. Email

Ron Pittaway
Minden and Toronto ON