All I Want for Christmas is a Lumped Redpoll

Newly-published research suggests that - at long last - we may be able to lump Hoary Redpoll, Common Redpoll, and Lesser Redpoll as one species:

Funk, E.R., Mason, N.A., Pálsson, S. et al. A supergene underlies linked variation in color and morphology in a Holarctic songbird. Nat Commun 12, 6833 (2021).

For iNat users who haven’t had the pleasure…Redpolls are tiny, antic northern finches that wander south to backyard feeders each winter. In my neck of the woods (Northwestern Ontario, Canada), Common and Hoary Redpolls are regular winter visitors I always look forward to seeing when the snow arrives. Love them.

The challenge is: the differences between Hoary and Common are often so subtle that it can be impossible to get agreement on an identification. A truly astonishing amount of time and energy has been spent debating Common vs. Hoary on who-knows-how-many Redpoll records.

I am very much in favor of lumping these Redpolls as soon as possible. My sincerest wish is that this will be the last Christmas Bird Count season I have to split Common/Hoary hairs.

What would we call the lumped Redpolls? As the birds have a holarctic distribution, Arctic Redpoll would make perfect sense. I would look forward to hearing other suggestions.


While we’re at it, can we please re-lump Western Flycatcher too?


This a frequent problem with moths, although usually it is different species that cannot be visually separated.
While I’m not a bird expert, I’m old enough to remember Red Shafted and Yellow Shafted Flickers which are now Northern Flickers. Arctic Redpoll sounds good. I have not had the dubious pleasure of having to identify them even though where you and I live are relatively close physically.


I think you had it right in your title - I have to vote for “Lumped Redpoll”. It would certainly memorialize the angst and effort it took to get to this point! :grin:


As much as I agree that the redpolls should probably be lumped, I find the ID challenge fun and I don’t want to lose Hoary Redpoll off my life list.

Disclaimer: I live far enough south that any redpoll I don’t get a good enough look at can be safely assumed to be Common, so I don’t have to deal with the ID challenge too often.


Looking at the distribution maps, there is a suspicious absence of the hoary redpoll* from the UK. There are hoary redpolls in Scandinavia, France, and other parts of Nearctic Europe, but zero in the UK, despite our local hordes of dedicated birdwatchers. I wonder if the UK community has already gone ahead with your suggestion and is lumping all sightings under the Common Redpoll name?

*Ironically shown as the Arctic redpoll for UK users

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While I generally agree with the assessment that they’re probably one species, I wish ornithologists would actually apply species delimitation methods to these questions even though those methods are often flawed. The Northwestern Crow lump, while probably valid, was never actually a hypothesis really tested- AOS just saw a large hybrid zone and lumped them. Same with the Iceland Gull lump. This particular case, however, is a little better explored and I generally agree with the assessment that they’re once species. The authors actually provide actual evidence here.

However, the rationale I often see online for wanting the lump/split is a little disappointing and myopic. Species are under no obligation to be field-identifiable. Cryptic species are real and they’re quite common. The over-application of the biological species concept is a plague; speciation is a complex process of which gene flow and morphological stasis are important components.

But maybe I’m just a grump, a poopypants, and a killjoy.


It may help to ask the corresponding author if the species are justified to merge. If they were to be merged, I’d also ask if the three species should become subspecies of one species.


The name “Arctic Redpoll” is already in use for A. hornemanni outside of North America. If all three currently recognized species of redpoll (Common, Lesser, and Arctic/Hoary) are lumped, and I do believe they should be, the common name will likely be simplified to Redpoll.


Would I be correct in assuming the scientific name of the new lumped species would be Acanthis flammea?

I think it may be Common Redpoll, which some sources already use.

Yes and it’s also the type species. But if the others are to become subspecies, they will be subspecies of this species.

@ursus_arctos I’m reading some sources already consider these only 3, 2, or 1 species. The other thing is only having 1 species would make the genus monotypic. See Taxonomy section here.

They would absolutely just make the name Redpoll, there would be no reason to bother with another word in front of it.


Some already treat this as one species or plan to do so. From the genus About page:

“Global lists currently support either two species (the common and hoary redpoll) or a single species (the common redpoll).”

Also currently/previously redpolls refer to a group of species, so no individual species would be named after a group. Analogous to how Australian Magpie can’t be named Magpie.

Another issue with Australian Magpie would be that there are multiple species of Corvids that use that name, in Europe, Asia, and North America. At least with respect to North American birds, the rules that govern common names aren’t well-established at all. Oddly enough (by the standards of some more recent proposals, in any case) the 2016 proposal to lump the Redpolls didn’t provide a recommendation for a common name.

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Unless there are additional Redpoll species not included, I say just plain Redpoll. Common names do not have to be binomial.

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This was my frustration with the (disappointingly named, in my opinion) Short-billed Gull as well.

My understanding is classifications which reduce the number of species to 3, 2, or 1 have made the non-retained species into subspecies. If so, each subspecies could retain the name of the species which previously corresponded to it. In this case the subspecies will also have utility to differentiate different geographic populations. Since there would be multiple common names and redpolls originally referred to a group of bird taxa, it seems unlikely that the merged species would be named only Redpoll, although it’s a good question to determine. The Wikipedia page for the genus (citing literature) indicates some sources merging the species already use Common Redpoll. It would be ideal to ask authors of the genetic study and other related publications these questions (to merge, subspecies, common name), since we would be mostly referring to the changes they’re making.

We can have one species and call it “The Redpoll”…that’ll be memorable.

For the record I find lumping of these species curious. The current species and their subspecies clearly have geographic trends that support them as distinct taxa, regardless of how different their genetics is. Difficulty of field ID to species should not be any support for their lumping, ever. Golden-winged warbler also comes to mind. I think it’s time people stop using genetics as the sole deciding factor.


I think it’s the one-two of clinal variation in phenotype coupled with the clinal variation in the supergene Funk et al (2021) found that does it, not just genetic work. Redpolls can be pretty difficult to distinguish in the field (at least Hoary/Common can, I don’t have experience with the other taxon) because of that, it’s a symptom. To me, this seems like a case of local adaptation rather than speciation (or maybe like, genic speciation).

Toews et al (2016) found six areas of the genome that were differentiation and tightly tied to plumage variation- to me, this suggests a mode switch from genic to genomic speciation. I think that’s the difference. At least, that’s the difference for me.

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wrote “A latitudinal gradient in ecotype distribution suggests supergene driven variation in color and bill morphology are likely under environmental selection, maintaining supergene haplotypes as a balanced polymorphism. Our results provide a mechanism for the maintenance of ecotype variation in redpolls despite a genome largely homogenized by gene flow.

What that says about taxonomic relationships depends on how you define the word species. The problem is that all the definitions of species begin from the assumption that the perception of species is rooted in fact not illusion. After over a century and a half of attempting to find a species concept that covers every instance of a living thing perceived to be species there is still no unitary definition.

The evidence is strong that the notion of species is, in fact, a generalization based in large part on religious/cultural traditions like the Biblical story of the flood and Noah’s ark. It is not, or at least not yet, an empirically derived category rooted in the scientific method. Words have power, but part of their power is the power to obscure. Trying to shoe-horn a 5,000 year old notion of how nature works into a scientific definition is a mug’s game. The insistence that nature must conform to all the assumptions embedded in an English-language word rooted in cultural artifacts from a time when people believed that the sun went around a flat Earth is hubris. Nucleic acids do weird things and a few of them don’t fit with the cultural baggage of our language.

Will we ever have a universal definition for species? There isn’t a simple answer, at least not in English. The beautiful, rich, poetic Russian language has one - авось. It sort of means maybe/maybe not/I hope so all at once. Personally, I doubt it.

@Marina_Gorbunova .