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Redpolls, feisty songbirds of the Alaska winter, are flocking to feeders this season

Mar. 28—Common redpolls, one of few Alaska songbirds that endure the grueling northern winter, are familiar visitors to Southcentral.

But this winter, an explosion of the little scarlet-capped finches in Anchorage and throughout the region is crowding backyard feeders, sending bird food flying off shelves — and prompting even some bird lovers to wonder about a redpoll takeover.

Redpoll numbers this season burst into what's called a "mega-event": 4,180 were spotted in Anchorage during December's annual Audubon Christmas bird count, the highest tally in at least a decade. That's more redpolls than have been counted in any other Audubon "circle" in all of North America.

"This is a pretty awesome year, in my opinion," said Jim Johnson, a migratory bird biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Anchorage. "It's not unusual to see redpolls but it's certainly unusual to see them in these numbers."

This year, redpolls appear drawn to Southcentral from northern boreal forest breeding grounds by a bumper crop of the spruce cones and birch seeds they feed on.

They'll move on and pair off by May, when breeding season starts, Johnson said. "Within the next month or so, we're going to see a drastic reduction in redpolls around Anchorage."

Anchorage resident Linda Benson said the masses of redpolls in her yard are already starting to wane. But until this week, Benson said, she was going through over 40 pounds of sunflower seeds a week to feed more than 300 redpolls visiting daily.

The redpolls aren't invading from somewhere else: They breed in Alaska and tend to feed here but sometimes push as far south as the Lower 48 when food sources are more plentiful there.

Still, the sheer scale of the roving mobs has prompted at least a few avian observers to wonder if these particular birds aren't just a little ... too much.

"Some people have used disparaging adjectives," said Laura Atwood, executive director at Bird Treatment and Learning Center, an Anchorage rehabilitation facility.

Atwood has fielded a small number of calls this month from people worried redpolls are crowding out the ubiquitous black-capped chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches of the northern winter — and costing them a fortune in bird food to boot.

"All the people who have called obviously love birds because they're feeding them," she said. "That's attracting the redpolls to their feeders. Then they become conflicted because there are just so many of the redpolls this year."

Bird TLC took to social media to defuse any tension — "People being angry for birds coming to a bird feeder," as one commenter summed up the situation, with a shrug emoji — through posts reminding concerned bird lovers that redpolls are an impressive part of Alaska's winter bird scene.

The birds are "irruptive," as ornithologists say. Unlike most migratory birds with specific travel patterns, redpolls leave breeding areas in search of abundant food that varies in location from year to year, making their movements unpredictable.

Redpolls are hardy enough to handle temperatures down to 65 below. Tough and tiny, they hang upside down from branches and plunge into snow to search for seeds, and burrow into snow tunnels to sleep on cold nights.

Pouch-like sacks along their necks allow them to store food and eat while roosting at night, according to Mark Ross, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist at Creamer's Field Migratory Water Fowl Refuge in Fairbanks. Once safe from predators, the birds regurgitate, shell and swallow the seeds.

This winter's population boom, biologists and botanists say, coincides with a glut of spruce cones and birch seeds.

White spruce around Anchorage appear to be experiencing a "masting cycle" that produces huge cone crops every 10 to 12 years, according to Justin Fulkerson, lead botanist at the Alaska Center for Conservation Science at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

Paper birch go through similar cycles every other year, and that's probably happening now as well, Fulkerson said.

"It appears that the spruce and birch are both in high cycles," he said, adding that while spruce release cones at once, birch sometimes release seeds slowly through the winter.

Lisa Pajot, a retired federal ornithologist who volunteers at Bird TLC, said the arrival of redpolls can be surprising because they don't follow regular migratory patterns. It's understandable that people could think they "crowd out" chickadees and nuthatches and woodpeckers.

But don't worry about those other feathered winter regulars, Pajot said.

"They start caching food in the fall. The bird feeders aren't their only food source, but it's an easy source," she said. "I've had people ask ... they're concerned about their chickadees. 'Are the chickadees all right?' The chickadees are fine. They're probably annoyed, I'd imagine. There's enough food out there."

The customers hefting 40-pound bags of bird food into their carts at Alaska Mill and Feed are 100% happy with redpolls, according to marketing manager Brooke Martell. The store is doing well too: Mill and Feed sells a delicate blend specifically for redpolls: nyjer, the little black straws in many bird food mixes; thistle seeds; and sunflower chips.

"We're just having to make a lot more than normal," Martell said. "A lot is going out."

It's unlikely Anchorage will see another redpoll explosion soon. The birds will disperse to "various places across Alaska" when their breeding season begins in the coming months, Johnson said.

On a recent Hillside ski trip, he caught sight of a massive flock of redpolls and white-winged crossbills, a medium-sized finch that's also "super-abundant" this winter.

"It was so cool," Johnson said. "There were so many birds and they were so noisy that I just stopped and watched them go by."