The question of age variation has come up repeatedly in redpoll discussions, so I finally tried to find an answer to the question of just how important age-related variation in plumage might be. And based on published studies the answer is … not very important.
Seutin et al. (1992) studied redpolls at Churchill, Manitoba using a character index, and found only one statistically significant age-related plumage difference (aside from the obvious red/pink breast of adult males) – flank streaking on adult males was lighter than on any other age/sex class. All other features – undertail covert streaking, rump color, forehead color, poll color, etc. were statistically the same on adult male, immature male, adult female, and immature female. This near-complete absence of age-related variation differs from what Knox (1988) reported – that in European redpolls immatures are darker than adults. I haven’t read the Knox paper, so I don’t know how different the results actually are, but regardless of what he found in Europe, the paleness of a redpoll in North America does not seem to be linked to the bird’s age, and therefore ageing a redpoll is not helpful to the identification process.
The lack of age-related variation does make sense given the lack of differentiation in redpolls at all. Going back to the species question: Seutin et al. analyzed their data on plumage variation by searching each age/sex class for any sign that the distribution of scores was bimodal; e.g., did each age/sex class show any hint of sorting into paler and darker groups on any of the measured plumage characters? Only adult males showed a tendency to sort into two groups, and that was slight. Immature males showed a suggestion of sorting into pale and dark groups only when sophisticated statistical tests were applied to the data. Attempts to sort females of either age class into pale and dark groups failed completely.
Combining this with Troy’s similar finding that redpolls form a continuum from pale to dark, and Troy’s data showing that intermediate-colored birds were also intermediate in skeletal measurements, implies that observers should expect to find lots of intermediate birds that cannot be confidently assigned to a species.
It’s possible that characteristics not measured by Seutin or Troy – like scapular color, or forehead fluffiness, or voice, or something else (?) – might lead to better separation of two groups, but their inability to distinguish two clear groups does not bode well for identification of non-adult-male redpolls.