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A Bird in Hand

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Crossbill Crossbill


Crossbills—Wow, what happened to your beak, dude? Have you looked in the mirror?

Crossbills are one of the few birds I can think of that are named for their beak, and well they should be. Except for the upside-down filter-feeder of the flamingo or the extend-o-matic pouch of the pelican, few birds have as strange or specialized a beak as that of the crossbills. As the name suggests this bird’s bill crosses itself into a shape that looks like it might require some serious remediation by a plastic surgeon. They may look defective, but are the very opposite. These crossed bills are conifer cone-shredding machines, as these birds are able to pry open even the greenest cone in search of seeds.

There are two species of crossbills in our area, one frequently seen and the other less frequently. The Red Crossbill seems to be the more common of the two, whereas I encounter the White-winged Crossbill only on occasion. Let’s look at each specie individually.

The Red Crossbill is a typical finch in size, meaning it is roughly the size of a large sparrow, though a bit less tubby. I encounter the Red in both large flocks and in smaller groups of twos and threes. I suspect that these smaller collections are simply part of some larger flock that has dispersed in search of conifer cones, the bird’s primary food. The coloration of the male birds gives this specie its name, as it ranges from bright red to a rusty-orange. Coloration also tends to be bit muddled, as when a painter tries to cover too much area with too little paint. The females are yellow; also in that same splotched color pattern of the males. The wing primaries and tail feathers of both sexes are normally a contrasting dark color, such as gray, brown, or slate. It is important to note that the Red Crossbill does not have white bars on its wings.

In the field I find the mix of these reds and yellows fluttering among tree branches as a means of locating the flocks of these interesting birds. A quick sweep of the binoculars directed at some particularly close specimens will confirm the bill, which is the bird’s most definitive field mark. It is the combination of the twisted beak and the lack of white coloration on the wings that will allow you to finally scribble the Red Crossbill into your life-list of identified birds.  

For all intents-and-purposes the White-winged Crossbill is the same as the Red Crossbill, except for a pair of distinctive white bars on the wings. Now that is not to say that this bird isn’t otherwise distinctive from its all red or yellow cousin—it is a separate specie. But when separating crossbill species in the field all a person really needs to ascertain is the presence of bright, white bars on the wings. The presence of these markings will identify the bird as a White-winged Crossbill. Aptly named and as simple as that. Both the red male and the yellow female white-wings sport these same service stripes.  

My experience is that, in our neck of the woods, the White-winged seems to be the less common of the two species. But you might never know that because you never really find crossbills. They find you! Encountering crossbills is serendipitous. They are notorious wanderers and will range far and wide searching for their favorite food, which are cones of all sorts. Douglas fir, spruce, pine, hemlock, whatever, though White-wings do seem partial to larch cones. Granted, both crossbills do eat insects in season, occasionally indulge in some frozen fruit in winter, and might even show up at your feeder. And you might hear their noisy, but soft chattering before you see them. But typically you come upon them accidentally in a certain place and it might be years before they come that way again. They are truly here today, gone tomorrow.  

Crossbills are also quite acrobatic. They often feed upside down on the cones as they quickly dismember them to draw out the hidden seeds. Allegedly crossbills can eat up to three-thousand seeds in a single day! I think what is most amazing about that fact is someone actually counted. And don’t be surprised to see crossbills flying from treetops to the ground and back again. I am not sure what they are doing, but I suspect that they are gobbling up gravel for their stomachs. Then again, I have heard that some species of crossbills eat dirt to improve the digestion of certain types of seeds.   

Just for the record, the number of crossbill species in North America might be greater than the currently recognized two.  There seems to be patterns across the continent of differences in bill sizes among specific populations. This would allow different groups to not compete with others, thus both being able to effectively exploit the same area. Even more, if these different groups do not interbreed, they might very well be separate species. Time will tell if this proves to be true.   

By the way, have you seen any odd birds this winter? The first week of January I saw a couple of male robins hanging out with a flock of starlings. And there is still a handful of intrepid Double-crested cormorants on the south end of long bridge. If you’ve seen anything odd or interesting, drop a comment on the River Journal web site. It would be fun to compare notes. Happy birding!

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birds, outdoors, crossbill, red crossbill, white-winged crossbill

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