It hasn’t happened yet, as I write these words on the doorstep of March, perhaps because it’s been an unusually cold late winter. But I’m confident that sometime soon, those of us who pay attention to such things will begin to hear the cheerful choruses of the common redpolls who’ve taken up seasonal residence in Anchorage’s neighborhoods.
In my experience, as the days lengthen (we’re now gaining about 40 minutes of daylight every week, a reason to celebrate whether human or bird) and temperatures warm in late winter, redpolls begin to more actively raise their voices, particularly at the start of the day. Quiet for much of the winter (except when alarmed or engaged in food disputes), these small, red-capped and black-bibbed finches are suddenly garrulous creatures.
My working theory is that the redpolls aren’t as compelled to immediately fill their bellies with food when they stir from nighttime’s slumber, whether that food is the seeds of native trees and bushes like birches and alders, or the breakfast offerings of sunflower seeds that humans put out in their yards.
Instead of morning gorging (both at feeders and high in birch trees), many seem content to slowly awaken to the day, while filling the air with trills and cheeps.
I first noticed this sweet seasonal redpoll chorus when I lived on the Hillside, and soon after moving to West Anchorage, happily discovered that their cheering voices also brighten the day’s beginning here, until the birds begin to disperse with the move into spring. No doubt many other parts of our city are similarly blessed, wherever redpolls gather for morning meals.
This year could be a good one for eventually enjoying the redpolls’ serenade, because substantial numbers of them seem to have settled in our city. Considered an “irruptive” sort of songbird, common redpolls are among the species that range widely in winter during their search for food. Sometimes their journeys bring them to Alaska’s urban center, other years they largely avoid the city, for reasons that likely have to do with some combination of food supplies in wilder environs and weather conditions.
Among the tiniest and hardiest of songbirds to inhabit the north, redpolls vaguely resemble sparrows, but are distinguished by their red-feathered head patches and small black “bibs.” At this time of year, male redpolls also have handsomely bright pinkish-red breasts, a signal of their breeding season’s approach.
On the best of these late-winter mornings, neighborhoods may vibrate with the chatter of hundreds of redpolls. At their peak, I’ve found that I don’t simply hear the birds; it’s as if my body is wrapped in their voices as I walk slowly through the yard to fetch the morning paper or stroll neighborhood streets with Denali, stopping now and then to savor the music.
The first time I experienced this, it seemed that I’d been transported to a tropical forest filled with the voices of birds. How wonderfully strange that my own northern yard could be so alive and bursting with song, in winter no less.
Actually, I’m not sure that what the redpolls are doing on these mornings technically qualifies as song. The principle sound they produce is more of a guttural trill that reminds me of a purring cat or bear cub. (Yes, cubs actually purr when contented, an amazingly delightful behavior that I discovered firsthand many years ago; but that, of course, is a story in itself, perhaps one I’ll share some day in a City Wilds column.)
Interspersed among the gentle trills are high-pitched cheeps. Both, to me, are the voices of contentment. This may simply be my own projection, but the birds’ behavior suggests otherwise.
Perched on trees and bushes, late-winter trilling redpolls typically have shown no anxiety when I’ve approached and greeted them with my own whispered hellos or soft whistles. In my experience some sit quietly, while others spread and flutter their wings much like a human might stretch and shake his limbs upon waking. Still others casually preen their feathered bodies, while a few engage in swift chases through the yard. One following the other, the redpoll pairs weave among the branches and streak along the snow-covered lawn. The start of seasonal romances, perhaps?
Sometimes when the day has been mild (by winter standards) and the air still and alive with birdsong, I’ve simply stood in the yard a while, eyes closed and mouth spread in a grin. And I’ve let the redpolls’ soft murmurings caress and enliven my own still-waking body. There’s no mistaking the contentment that fills my own being in such moments, the lifting of my spirit.
I can’t help but wonder if the redpolls are welcoming the arrival of another day or the north’s accelerating rush into spring. Or maybe both. From mid-February into March is when I notice an appreciable change in the quality of sunlight that falls upon Anchorage. I know the change is actually a gradual one, that our days have been lengthening by 5½ minutes, more or less, each and every day for weeks. It seems only a moment or two ago that we had less than six hours of daylight; now we’ll soon zoom past 12 hours, eventually to reach more than 19. And with that rapid lengthening comes a brightening, as the sun moves steadily higher in our sub-arctic sky.
The sun is high enough, and on clear days bright enough, that I can plainly feel its warmth on my body, something that didn’t seem true on the sunniest days in December and much of January.
Some threshold has been passed that both my skin and spirit notice. After a tough few weeks in deepest winter, when my psyche occasionally seemed lost in the darkness, I now sometimes notice myself whistling, or even singing aloud. Others, too, seem in a lighter mood. The people I meet on daily walks are more likely now to smile in greeting.
I’ve come to relish these late-winter days, when the season’s deepest cold and darkness have departed (though this year the cold has stubbornly stayed with us), but before the months of around-the-clock lightness have arrived, bringing with them a kind of manic rush.
Don’t misunderstand: I love Alaska’s all-too-short spring and summer seasons. But they bring an energy that doesn’t easily lend itself to simply being, simply luxuriating in the day. All too often, summer is a time to do, do, do, as we Alaskans try to squeeze in as much adventure and play as possible, before the long darkness returns.
I wonder if that’s what I sense from the redpolls, too. Soon they’ll be building nests, then raising and feeding large, hungry families. And there will be little, if any, time for simply sitting and trilling and welcoming the glorious light of day.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at email@example.com.