OPINION: Welcoming spring with a redpoll serenade

One of my great and simple pleasures in the waning weeks of winter and the earliest weeks of spring is the morning walk to retrieve the daily newspaper and then take my mixed collie, Denali, for a short stroll.

Not that there’s anything unusually inviting in the paper these days. What makes these forays through the front yard to the street especially delightful are the common redpolls that have taken up temporary residence in my Turnagain neighborhood. Quiet for much of the winter (except when alarmed or engaged in food disputes), these small, red-capped finches are suddenly garrulous creatures.

With morning temperatures gradually warming — though of course in fits and starts — and daylight hours growing rapidly here in Southcentral Alaska (40 minutes each week) the redpolls aren’t as compelled to immediately fill their bellies with the breakfast offerings of sunflower seeds placed by birdwatchers in neighborhood yards.

Instead of morning gorging (whether at feeders or high in birches and other 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 I’ve been happy to learn that their cheering voices also brighten the day’s beginning here in West Anchorage. No doubt many other parts of our city are similarly blessed, wherever redpolls gather for morning meals.

This year is an especially good one to enjoy the redpolls’ serenade, because unusually large numbers of them settled into Anchorage this winter (as reported in a March 29 ADN cover story). And they’ve mostly stayed around as March has given way to April.

Considered an “irruptive” 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.


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 mornings, my neighborhood vibrates with the avian chatter of hundreds of redpolls. It’s not that I simply hear them; it’s as if my body is wrapped in their voices as I walk slowly to the edge of my yard and then along the street, stopping now and then to savor the music.

The first time I experienced this, more than two decades ago, 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 principal sound they produce is more of a guttural trill that reminds me of a purring cat or bear cub. (Yes, cubs actually purr when nursing, an amazingly delightful behavior that I discovered firsthand many years ago and a story in itself.)

Interspersed among the gentle trills are high-pitched cheeps. Both, to me, are the voices of contentment. This may simply be my own projection, of course, but the birds’ behavior suggests otherwise.

Perched on bushes and trees, the redpolls show no anxiety when I approach and greet them with my own whispered hellos or soft whistles. 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 morning is mild and the air is still and alive with birdsong, I simply stand in the yard or street for a while, eyes closed and mouth spread in a grin. And I let the redpolls’ soft murmurings caress and enliven my own still-waking body. There’s no mistaking the contentment that fills my being, the lifting of my spirit.

I wonder if the redpolls are welcoming the arrival of another day or the north’s accelerating rush into spring. Or maybe both. From late February into March, I really notice a 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 more than five-and-a-half minutes, each and every day for weeks.

It seems only a moment or two ago that we had less than six hours of daylight; as I write these words in April we’ve exceeded 14 hours, eventually reaching 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.

I’ve come to relish these late-winter and early spring days when the season’s deepest cold and darkness have departed, 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 disperse and mating pairs will build nests, then raise and feed their 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 and wildlife-wildlands advocate 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.”

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Bill Sherwonit

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of more than a dozen books, including "Alaska's Bears" and "Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska's Wildlife."