About every third winter, common redpolls can be seen scattered throughout Minnesota, including the counties in the state's southern tier. This is one of those years. The birds could appear any moment at a feeding station, relishing the provided seeds and bits of sunflower.

The common redpoll comes from the edge of the Canadian tundra, where the bird nests. It also breeds in Alaska, northern Scandinavia and Russia. In size, shape and actions, common redpolls resemble American goldfinches and pine siskins. These 5-inch-long balls of feather are grayish-brown with black chins, red caps and strongly forked tails. The males have raspberry-red streaks across their chests. When left to their own devices, they feed on seeds from trees, shrubs and plants in open fields. Redpolls favor elder and birch groves as both trees have large quantities of seeds available during the winter.

Being gregarious, common redpolls are usually seen in flocks of a dozen or more — sometimes up to 100 birds are seen at once. They like to bathe in the snow and any open water. Like black-capped chickadees, they can be quite calm when humans approach. They've even been known to take seeds from a person's open hand.

Jim Gilbert's Nature Notes are heard on WCCO Radio at 7:15 a.m. Sundays. His observations have been part of the Minnesota Weatherguide Environment Calendars since 1977, and he is the author of five books on nature in Minnesota. He taught and worked as a naturalist for 50 years.