by Pat Jaquith
Red Crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) are a colorful lot that spend most of their time in the tops of conifer trees where they use their specialized bills to pry open the scales of the cones to retrieve seeds. If you’re fortunate enough to get to know these acrobatic little birds, they will show you many other aspects of their lives.
This summer, a flock of Red Crossbills nested in Douglas firs near my home and were frequent visitors to the water sources we provided. As I worked in the garden nearby, I’d hear them arrive several times a day, wings making the sound of crumpling tissue paper. Talking all the while, they’d land in nearby Larch trees and take turns dropping down to get drinks. Occasionally a few would land in the garden where they would glean insects off the tenderest leaves without a trace of damage to the plants. What a valuable service!
A member of the fringillidae family, they are relatives of Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins, Finches, and Redpolls that also frequent the West Valley. A flock of Pine Siskins and some Cassin’s Finches also nested nearby and occasionally they’d all come in together.
There are several types of Red Crossbills, each with beaks that are shaped to best pry open the type of cones of different tree species. The different types appear not to cross-breed, and their vocalizations are unique to type. Ornithologists think they may become separate species someday.
Males are red/brown/orange colors; females yellow/olive green. This flock arrived as the snow was receding and grass was packed down. They fed happily on seeds that had dropped from feeders above. I also observed them feeding on Juniper berries early this spring.
Crossbills are nomadic, moving where their food sources are plentiful. They nest at most any time of year; males feed the females on the nest to enable their keeping the eggs warm. They feed regurgitated conifer seeds to the nestlings, so they aren’t dependent on insect availability. The young are streaky brown; this summer I’d see some birds at the water pan and wonder if they were big finches or siskins – unless I had the binoculars and could see the beak!
Red Crossbills are reputed to be infrequent visitors to bird feeders, but they have not been shy about taking sunflower seeds from our hanging feeders or leftovers from the ground.