Among the most sought after winter finches, common redpolls and hoary redpolls can be nearly indistinguishable from one another. In fact, there is debate among ornithologists, naturalists, biologists, and birders as to whether they are really separate species or just variations of the same bird. Until that debate is settled, however, birders have to rely on subtle clues and fine details to tell these two birds apart.
Common Redpoll and Hoary Redpoll Identification Characteristics
There are small differences between common and hoary redpolls that can help birders distinguish between the two, but very careful observation is necessary to be certain. Even then, there is often overlap between the species, and because they can breed with one another some mixtures can be indeterminate. For a confident identification, focus on these characteristics:
- Bill Size: Both these finches have small, triangular, yellow bills, but the common redpoll's bill is slightly larger and more visible. The hoary redpoll's bill is stubbier and may have a pushed-back look on the bird's face.
- Flanks: The common redpoll shows heavy dark streaks on its flanks, while the hoary redpoll has much lighter, thinner streaks, or may not show many streaks at all.
- Facial Colors: Both birds have a dark mask surrounding the bill and extending onto the chin, but the common's mask is larger and more prominent. The hoary's mask is smaller and may be more well-defined.
- Underpart Plumage: The common redpoll is much more likely to show a heavy pink wash on the breast, while the hoary redpoll is much paler and often shows just a faint touch of pink, or none at all. In general, the hoary redpoll is described as having "frosty" pale plumage with much more overall white than the common redpoll.
- Undertail Coverts: While both birds can show streaking on the undertail coverts, the common redpoll will usually have heavier, more visible streaks. The finer streaks on the hoary redpoll may be very faint or not present at all.
- Rump: The common redpoll often has dark streaks or a pink wash on its rump, while the hoary redpoll is much more likely to have a paler or plain white rump.
- Wings: Common redpolls are overall darker and while they do show white wing bars, the bars are thinner and less well defined than on hoary redpolls, which have much more white in the wings.
- Crown: The most colorful field mark of both these birds is the bright red patch on the crown, but the common's patch is often larger and may extend further back on the head. The hoary's red crown patch is more compact and restricted to the front of the crown.
- Range: Both of these finches prefer northern regions, but the common redpoll is the more southerly of the two and is much more likely to appear further south during irruptions. Hoary redpolls stay further north, and while they may also irrupt to the south, those appearances are far rarer.
See the table below for quick comparisons between common and hoary redpoll characteristics.
Field Identification Tips for Redpolls
Just seeing one or two possible indications of a particular redpoll isn't always enough to be confident about the bird species, particularly when these small, active birds flit around without providing good, clear views. With so much overlap between common redpolls and hoary redpolls, it is better to take note of multiple field marks and repeated observations to be certain of the bird's true identity.
To better observe redpolls for proper identification:
- Look for birds with pink on the breast or flanks. These are males and show more distinct markings than females, including better distinction between the two species, making it easier to discern which species is which.
- Practice identifying redpolls at every opportunity, including studying photos or videos if the birds are not regular guests that you can observe in person. The more practice you have, the more confident you will become with telling the two species apart.
- Offer nyjer to finches in the winter, positioning a mesh or sock feeder to attract birds to your windows for clear, easy views. If redpolls decide to visit, you'll be glad you can see them so well and the better your view, the better you will be able to identify them.
Common redpolls and hoary redpolls are so very similar that even expert birders have difficulty telling the two species apart, but with practice you can become confident in identifying these northern finches. While you can't always be sure which one you've seen, knowing their characteristics can help you better enjoy and appreciate both of these hardy birds.
Common Redpoll and Hoary Redpoll Quick Reference
|Characteristic||Common Redpoll||Hoary Redpoll|
|Bill||Small, triangular, yellow||Stubby, yellow, pushed back|
|Flanks||Heavy dark streaking||Minimal or no streaking|
|Face||Dark mask, especially on chin||Lighter, smaller chin patch|
|Underparts||Pink wash on breast||Less pink, "frostier" overall|
|Undertail Coverts||Heavy or medium streaks||Little or no streaking|
|Rump||Dark streaks or pinkish||Pale or plain white|
|Wings||Two white wing bars||Wider bars, more extensive white|
|Crown||Bright red, larger||Bright red, front of head only|
|Range||Canada, but missing from highest Arctic regions, more likely to irrupt further south||Canada, including high Arctic areas, much less likely to be seen further south|