- spectacular control in the Netherlands of a Mealy Redpoll ringed in China in 2005
- overview of Chinese Mealy Redpoll recoveries in Europe up till 2017

Figure 1. Mealy Redpoll, adult female, 13 November 2005, Meijendel, Wassenaar: to this date this still is the only bird with a Chinese ring ever recovered in the Netherlands 

2005 brought a fantastic Mealy Redpoll (Acanthis flammea flammea) invasion. On 13 November something unimaginable happened: one out of the 184 individuals we trapped, an adult female, was already ringed. With an unfamiliar copper coloured, more or less triangular shaped ring. Can you imagine the disbelief when my colleague Wijnand Bleumink read the word C H I N A?


421324 was also something we understood, everything else was in Mandarin. The next day one of us went to a Chinese restaurant (!) with pictures of the ring, just to get a translation (it was the stuff you'd expect,  like the ringing scheme).  

The bird appeared to be ringed as an adult female on 14 November 2004 (a year minus a day earlier) at Heilongjiang. The latter was even a bigger surprise, since this is in northeast China, 7115 km away from Meijendel as the redpoll flies (Figure 2). Note that in the original publication (van der Spek et al 2007) 8515 km was measured, but back then I made a classic mistake: I drew a straight line, without taking the earth's curvature into account. Over 7k is still impressive, though!

Figure 2. The ringing site in Heilongjiang, NE China and the control site in Wassenaar, the Netherlands. As the other controls (the dots on the map) indicate, this is by far the most out of range Mealy Redpoll ever controlled in the Netherlands (map: 

Other European records of redpolls ringed in China - and vice versa

I'm aware of seven records of Mealy Redpolls that have both visited Europe and China (Figure 3). 


1. A bird ringed in Eastern Finland on 30 March 1985 was found dead in Heilongjiang on 25 October 1986 (Valkama et al  2014). Distance: c. 5150 km. Time passed: 1 year, 6 months, 25 days (574 days). 

2. A bird ringed at Ghlin, Belgium on 15 December 1996 was re-trapped at Heilongjiang on 23 November 1998 (record found here; if anyone knows a publication, please let me know!). Distance: c.7300 km. Time passed: 1 year, 11 months, 11 days (708 days). 


3. A bird ringed at Troms, Norway in September 1998 was recovered in November 2002 near Jilin City in E China (Bakken et al 2006). This is the only record away from Heilongjiang I came across (so far).  Distance: c.6100 km. Time passed: c. 4 years and 2 months.

4. One ringed in October 2001 at Heilongjiang  was controlled at Jelöya, Moss, Östfold (50 km south of Oslo), Norway on 10 February 2003 (see here). Distance: c. 6200 km. Time passed: c. 1 year and 4 months.

5. A bird ringed at Heilongjiang on 22 March 2003 was re-trapped on 29 December 2004 near Stockholm, Sweden (6670 km) (van der Spek et al 2007; see here; I lost the original source: anyone?). Distance: c.6000 km. Time passed: 1 year, 9 months, 7 days (648 days).


6. An adult female ringed at Heilongjiang on 14 November 2004 was controlled in Wassenaar, the Netherlands on 13 November 2005 (van der Spek et al 2007). Distance: c.7100 km. Time passed: 364 days.

7. On 24 December 2017 a Mealy Redpoll with a Chinese ring was controlled in Skagen, Denmark. The bird was ringed at Heilongjiang on 3 November 2016. Distance: c. 6950 km. Time passed: 1 year, 1 month and 21 days (416 days).

A Mealy ringed in Michigan was recovered near Okhotsk in Siberia, some 10 200 km from the ringing site (Troy 1983). Though neither in Europe, nor in China, this is to my knowledge the longest proven distance any redpoll ever covered (precise  ringing details not included in the article).

Figure 3. Ringing recoveries of Mealy Redpolls in Europe and China. The large dot in NE China is Heilongjiang, the small dot represents the single recovery from Jilin City. 

Figure 4. Redpoll trapping device used at Gaofeng Nenjiang Forest Park, Heilongjiang, China, 2012. There's a  redpoll decoy visible on the top floor of the cage (Jan Visser)

Discussion (the ramblin' men and women)

What does this tell us? Well, that a species that weights less than 15 grams is capable of covering amazing distances! It's remarkable that six out of seven records are connected to one area in NE China (Figure 4). It's tempting to speculate that if the number of ringing sites in China would have been as high as in  Europe, the number of redpoll controls would have been much higher, too. My point being: this series of records suggest that exchange between China and Europe is certainly not an incident.   

On the Internet, these recoveries tempted birders to speculate that this puts the discussion about escapes vs. true vagrants in another perspective. I'm the first to acknowledge that birds do amazing things, but redpolls have in IMHO nothing to do with the vagrancy potential of, say, Daurian Starling or Elegant Bunting. The ecology of Mealy Redpolls differs from most other species. They are irruptive by nature, they roam around in the pursuit of favourable conditions. They are the ramblin' men and women amongst the passerines, a strategy that fundamentally differs from migration. Within the species' entire range, individuals can change both their breeding and wintering sites. In Norway, their abundance as a breeding bird for instance differs greatly from year to year, ranging from 100.00 to over 2 million pairs. Surely, redpolls can cover vast distances within one season, with e.g. a juvenile that moved between Finmark, Norway and Novosibirsk, in Asiatic Russia in 67 days (Bakken et al 2006), a distance of c. 3200 km - but the Chinese recoveries are still twice as far away. Redpolls do not breed in China. They are uncommon or even erratic on passage in the northeast (Clement 2018).  Heilongjiang is part of their winter range only, so it's certain that these birds bred elsewhere. Note that with one year between the time it was ringed and the control, "our" bird in Wassenaar was the fastest of all recovered birds (and the Danish record is the only other recovery with only one summer between the ringing and the control date). Hence, none of the birds were controlled during the same season, or even the same year they were ringed. The time that passed between the ringing dates and the controls therefore strongly suggests that these birds moved between China and Europe (and vice versa) in steps. Though this is speculation, it seems likely to me that these birds bred (far) closer to the control sites in the summer(s) before they were re-trapped.

The overall movements are still impressive, though. And I feel privileged that I've been part of one of the most spectacular Dutch ringing recoveries to date.



Petteri Lehikoinen kindly posted the details of the Finnish bird, Fridtjof Ziesemer put me on the trail of one of the Norwegian birds and Irina Würtele sent me an additional source.  


Bakken, V., O. Runde & E. Tjørve (2006). Norsk Ringmerkingsatlas. Vol. 2. Stavanger Museum, Stavanger, p. 379-381.


Clement, P. (2018). Redpoll (Acanthis flammea). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from on 17 January 2018).   


Newton I., 2006. Advances in the study of irruptive migration. Ardea 94 (3): 433 - 460.

van der Spek, V., M. Verrips & Vrs Meijendel, 2007. Grote Barmsijs met ring uit Noordoost China in Meijendel. Dutch Birding 29 (1): 77

Troy D.M. 1983. Recaptures of Redpolls: movements of an irruptive species. J. Field Ornithol. 54: 146–151

Valkama J, Saurola P, Lehikoinen A, Lehikoinen E, Piha M, Sola P et al. 2014. The Finnish Bird Ringing Atlas, Volume 2. Helsinki: Finnish Museum of Natural History.