FAIRBANKS (AP) - The redpolls have arrived early and in force this year in Fairbanks. And, as usual, they're hungry.
''Stock up on sunflower seeds if you see a sale,'' advised John Wright, a biologist at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who specializes in birds and waterfowl. ''In a big redpoll year, oftentimes by March you'll have a couple hundred redpolls visiting a house. We've only got about 80 at our house now. It will only get worse.''
Redpolls are famous for their voracious appetites and aggressive feeding habits.
The feisty finches with the red caps have showed up at local feeders earlier than normal this year and in prolific numbers.
With the influx of redpolls at local feeders, Wright advises people to clean their feeders on a regular basis to prevent salmonella poisoning.
''In a normal year, you'd expect them in January or February,'' said Susan Sharbaugh, a biologist at the Alaska Bird Observatory.
''This year, they were here in November.''
Actually, Wright had redpolls coming to his feeder as early as October.
Mark Ross, who is responsible for feeding the birds at the Creamer's Field farmhouse, has already seen flocks of 30 and 40 redpolls at the farmhouse feeders.
''I don't usually see that here until mid- to late February,'' he said.
Judging from what local birders have seen at their feeders so far this winter, this could be a big year for redpolls in next weekend's Christmas Bird Count.
''It looks like this is going to be one of the up years,'' said Gail Mayo, who coordinates the Christmas Bird Count.
Last year's redpoll count of 728 was the lowest since 1992, when only 631 redpolls were counted. The biggest count in the last 14 years was 7,164 in 1997.
The number of redpolls recorded from year to year in the annual Fairbanks Christmas Bird Count fluctuates wildly. For example, while only 728 redpolls were counted last year, 4,877 were counted the year before.
For several years in the late 1980s and early 1990s, redpoll population counts followed a distinctive up-one-year-down-the-next-year pattern but that pattern ended in the late 1990s, when the disparity in numbers from one year to the next leveled off.
''That pattern sort of fell apart and it has been unpredictable since,'' said Wright. ''This isn't an unusual event; it's a periodic event.''
When redpolls aren't gorging at feeders, they're sitting in birch trees eating birch seeds, their preferred food.
Judging from the amount of seed found under birch trees around town this winter, it appears it was good birch seed crop this summer, even though it was the driest, hottest summer on record in 100 years in Fairbanks.
''A lot of trees put out better seed crops when they're stressed,'' Wright said. ''This was a good spruce cone crop year this year.''
As for why the redpolls showed up early in Fairbanks this year, that too is up for speculation.
''Maybe the fires, maybe they got burnt out of an area,'' Sharbaugh said, referring to Alaska's record fire season last summer that burned more than 6 million acres in the Interior. ''Who knows what's pushing them around?''
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