E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Wildlife of British Columbia

Acanthis hornemanni (Holboell)
Hoary Redpoll
Family: Fringillidae

Species account author: Jamie Fenneman
Photo of species

© Allan Murrant  Email the photographer   (Photo ID #9318)

Distribution of Acanthis hornemanni in British Columbia.
(Click on the map to view a larger version.)
Source: Distribution map provided by Jamie Fenneman for E-Fauna BC

Species Information

Adult male
The back and scapulars are whitish with narrow brown streaking (slightly darker and washed with pale brown on the scapulars), contrasting with the unstreaked white rump. The wing feathers are dark blackish-brown with broad, bold, sharply contrasting white feather edges on the coverts and flight feathers, the former forming two broad white wing bars. The deeply notched tail is dark blackish-brown with narrow white feather edges. The underparts are largely pure white, with some faint, narrow pale brown streaking on the sides and flanks and, occasionally, a single very narrow brown central streak on the undertail coverts (undertail coverts usually pure white). The breast is faintly washed with pale pink. The head is whitish, sometimes with a faint peachy-buff tinge to the sides of the face, with very narrow dusky streakes on the hindcrown, nape, and hindneck and a prominent area of bright red on the forecrown. The lores, chin, and area immediately behind the eye are blackish, accentuating a very narrow broken white eye-ring. The iris is dark, the short, stubby, conical bill is yellowish with a tiny dark tip, and the legs and feet are blackish.

Adult female
The adult female is similar overall to the adult male, but lacks the pink wash on the breast, has darker and more extensive brown streaks on the back, scapulars, sides, and flanks, and has a more pronounced peachy-buff wash on the sides of the head.

This plumage is acquired on the breeding grounds prior to fall migration and is held throughout the first winter. Both sexes are similar in pattern to adult females, but noticeably buffier on the head, back, and scapulars (background colour creamy-grey) and have a heavier buff wash on the sides and flanks. The dark streaking on the upperparts and underparts is heavier and more extensive than in adult females, and the red on the forecrown is reduced. Furthermore, the white wing bars are slightly narrower than in adult females, the white rump often shows limited narrow dark streaking (unstreaked in female), and there is a greater tendency for the undertail coverts to show up to three narrow brown streaks (undertail coverts usually unstreaked or with one narrow streak in adult females). Immature males average brighter and whiter than immature females, particularly during the late winter, and sometimes begin to show a pinkish wash on the breast as breeding season approaches.

Total Length: 13-14 cm
Mass: 12-14.5 g

Source: Knox and Lowther (2000); Sibley (2000)



This species is very similar to the Common Redpoll in all plumages, and its separation from that much more common species is relatively complex; caution is advised with any identification of this species in areas where it does not normally occur. Structurally, Hoary Redpoll averages slightly bulkier than Common Redpoll, with a slightly shorter, stubbier bill and steeper forehead (giving the bird the appearance of having a ‘pushed-in’ face), but these structural characteristics can often be difficult to assess accurately in the field. All plumages average whiter and ‘frostier’ overall than Common Redpoll, but particularly brown females and immatures can be very similar in colouration to bright Common Redpolls. Adult males are the most easily-identified plumage, and are typically the plumage that is reported throughout most of B.C. (due to its more obvious plumage characteristics). These individuals are very white overall (often likened to ‘snowballs’ or, when in flight, ‘snowflakes’), much more so than even the palest Common Redpolls, and this feature alone should be sufficient to bring attention to a potential male Hoary Redpoll in a flock of Commons. Additional field marks of Hoary Redpoll include the virtually unstreaked white rump (rump usually streaked with brown in Common Redpoll), very narrow and much less extensive brown streaking on the sides and flanks (streaking darker, broader, and more extensive in Common Redpoll), the virtual lack of narrow brown streaks on the undertail coverts (whitest Common Redpolls always with at least a few narrow dark streaks), and less extensive and usually paler pink suffusion on the breast. Female and immature Hoary Redpolls are much less obvious than adult males, and many of their identifying field marks are much more subtle. They still average paler and ‘frostier’ than Common Redpoll however, with broader white wing bars and secondary feather edges, white frosting on the rear scapulars (absent in Common Redpoll), usually unstreaked white rump, and narrower and less extensive brown streaking on the sides, flanks, and undertail coverts (most immature and female Common Redpolls with extensive dark streaking on the undertail coverts). In addition, Hoary Redpolls tend to show a somewhat paler peachy-buff wash on the face and head the darker and more extensive buff wash over the head, breast, and sides of most immature and female Common Redpolls. Particularly dull, brown immature Hoary Redpolls do approach unusually white female Common Redpolls, however, and some individuals may be extremely difficult to separate.

Source: Sibley (2000); Rosenberg (2006b)

Although subtle differences in voice do exist, the vocalizations of Hoary Redpoll are considered more or less identical to those of Common. Furthermore, this species usually occurs as one or a few individuals within a larger flock of Common Redpolls, thus the minor differences in vocalizations are unlikely to be audible amongst the overwhelming chatter of the surrounding Common Redpolls.

The male’s song is a series of short, repeated notes and short trills, usually incorporating call notes: che, che, che, tchrrrrr, chit, chit, chireeee. This species abandons its wintering grounds early in the spring, however, and singing males are unlikely to be detected in this province. The commonly-heard call is a series of short, dry notes (sometimes given singly), each note with a slightly descending pattern: chif, chif, chif, chif; this call is very similar to Common Redpoll, but may average slightly lower-pitched and softer. It also gives a wiry, drawn-out, nasal juwee with a rising inflection; this call is very similar an analogous call of the Common Redpoll, but averages slightly lower-pitched and simpler.

Source: Knox and Lowther (2000); Sibley (2000)

Breeding Ecology

The Hoary Redpoll is a non-breeding winter visitor to British Columbia.
Foraging Ecology

Foraging habits are almost identical to those of Common Redpoll, with which it is usually found in B.C. During migration and winter, the Hoary Redpoll forages almost entirely on the small seeds of certain trees, shrubs, weeds, and grasses. In forested habitats, it appears to prefer the seeds of birch and alder catkins, although it also extracts seeds from willow catkins and, occasionally, conifer cones. When foraging in trees, it often occurs near the tips of the branches where it extracts seeds from fruits and catkins. It often feeds acrobatically, hanging upside down, and is very active during foraging periods. It also picks seeds from the ground or clambers among the stems of grasses and weeds to extract seeds from the spent flowering heads. It sometimes visits bird feeding stations in suburban and rural environments, usually in the company of larger flocks of Common Redpolls.

Source: Knox and Lowther (2000); Campbell et al. (2001)


The Hoary Redpoll occurs in a wide variety of forested and open habitats, occurring primarily in areas where there is an abundance of small seeds that are available. It regularly occurs in open habitats such as agricultural areas, orchards, roadside thickets, hedgerows, weedy field edges, and weedy railway tracks. In forested habitats, it tends to prefer areas with birch and alder shrubs and trees, although it also occurs in aspen copses, riparian woods, and along brushy forest edges. It also sometimes occurs in suburban parks and gardens, particularly those with some mature trees (again, tending to prefer areas with birch trees).

Source: Knox and Lowther (2000); Campbell et al. (2001)


Global Range

Circumpolar. This species breeds in high arctic areas across northern North America, from western Alaska east to Baffin Island and extreme northern Quebec, as well as farther north throughout the Canadian arctic islands and Greenland. It also breeds across arctic areas of Eurasia. Wintering birds remain at high latitudes, ranging regularly only as far south as central B.C., the Canadian prairie provinces, and the extreme northeastern United States, with many birds remaining in taiga and even tundra habitats of northern Canada. It also winters in boreal and arctic regions of Eurasia.
BC Distribution

Wintering populations of this species are extremely variable from year to year throughout the province, and observations in most areas occur only during years of high abundance of Common Redpolls. Identification difficulties have likely led to under-reporting of this species, however, and recent evidence suggests that it may be more regular throughout much of B.C. (particularly the interior) than the few records would indicate.

It occurs regularly in winter only in northeastern B.C., where it is a variably uncommon or fairly common to, in some years, common winter visitor in the Peace River lowlands but is rare to uncommon elsewhere east of the Rocky Mountains. West of the Rocky Mountains, it is generally rare to uncommon throughout the northern and central interior west to the Coast Mountains, but is very rare to rare across the southern interior. It is also casual to very rare along the coast, with multiple records for Vancouver Island, the Lower Mainland, and the Queen Charlotte Islands. In some years it is apparently virtually absent throughout the province except for populations east of the Rocky Mountains.

This species is associated with the depths of winter throughout the province, and even in northernmost areas of B.C. it is does not begin to arrive until October or, more commonly, November. The few individuals that occur in southern B.C. are usually not recorded until December (rarely in November). This species has essentially left the province by late March (southern interior) or mid-April (northern areas); the latest individuals have been recorded in northern B.C. into late April.

Source: Campbell et al. (2001)


Population and Conservation Status

The Hoary Redpoll is generally rare to uncommon throughout most of its range in B.C., with significant interannual variation in abundance. For example, in peak years it can be fairly common, or even common, in the Peace River region of northeastern B.C. and uncommon elsewhere across the northern and central interior. At such times, small numbers are also regularly observed in the southern interior, with a very few individuals sometimes ranging into coastal areas. At population lows, however, this species can be virtually absent from the province except for areas of northeastern B.C., where it is remains uncommon. Like Common Redpoll, it appears to follow a two-year population cycle.

Its true population status in the province remains uncertain due to the ease at which it is overlooked. It is very similar to the Common Redpoll, particularly female and immature individuals, and typically occurs as singles or small groups that are associated with much larger flocks of Common Redpolls. As a result, this species tends to be chronically overlooked except by observers who are familiar with the subtleties of its identification and who spend time sorting through flocks of Common Redpolls (many of which number well into the hundreds, or occasionally thousands, of individuals) looking for the one or two Hoary Redpolls that may be with them. Recent efforts in parts of central and southern B.C., however, have shown that this species is often a regular (albeit scarce) component of wintering redpoll flocks in these regions. Similar efforts have even turned up occasional individuals in coastal parts of the province.

This species is considered secure in B.C., and is placed on the ‘yellow list’ by the B.C. Conservation Data Centre (CDC). It is not recognized as a federal species of concern by COSEWIC (Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada).


Two subspecies of Hoary Redpoll are recognized, although only the southern and western subspecies (A.h.exilipes [Coues]) has been definitively recorded in B.C. Anecdotal reports from northeastern B.C. suggest that the other subspecies, A.h.hornemanni, may have occurred on at least one occasion in that region of the province. This subspecies breeds in high arctic areas of eastern Canada and Greenland, but rarely occurs even as far south as southeastern Canada in the winter. It is significantly larger (50% larger) and whiter than A.h.exilipes, but there is overlap in plumage characteristics between whiter A.h.exilipes (i.e., adult males) and buffier A.h.hornemanni (i.e., adult females, immatures). Thus, its presence in B.C. can only be speculative based on the anecdotal evidence that has been provided.

Hoary Redpoll is very closely related to the more southerly Common Redpoll, and the two species have been considered conspecific in the past. These two species overlap extensively in breeding range, however, with little or no direct evidence of interbreeding. Furthermore, they differ significantly in ecology, migratory behaviour, wintering range, size, calls, and other factors, all of which support their recognition as distinct species. Other taxonomic arrangements have even suggested that the two subspecies of Hoary Redpoll may constitute separate species (perhaps each being more closely related to its counterpart subspecies in Common Redpoll than to the other subspecies of Hoary Redpoll), but this arrangement has not been widely accepted or investigated.

The redpolls were formerly lumped with numerous other small finches in the genus Carduelis; however, in 2009 the American Ornithologists Union resurrected the traditional genus Acanthis for the redpolls and their allies, leaving the genus Carduelis to refer to a handful of Old World species. Similarly, the New World siskins and goldfinches were also moved out of Carduelis and into the genus Spinus.

Source: Knox and Lowther (2000); Sibley (2000); Campbell et al. (2001)

Status Information

Origin StatusProvincial StatusBC List
(Red Blue List)
NativeSUNUnknownNot Listed
BC Ministry of Environment: BC Species and Ecosystems Explorer--the authoritative source for conservation information in British Columbia.

Additional Range and Status Information Links

Additional Photo Sources

General References

Recommended citation: Author, Date. Page title. In Klinkenberg, Brian. (Editor) 2021. E-Fauna BC: Electronic Atlas of the Fauna of British Columbia [efauna.bc.ca]. Lab for Advanced Spatial Analysis, Department of Geography, University of British Columbia, Vancouver. [Accessed: 2024-07-15 3:55:42 AM]
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