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  • Merri-Lee M.

Crossbill Encounters

Updated: Jan 18

Crossbills, both White-winged and Red, were sighted frequently in our area last Winter. This year, so far, I have not seen any of these fascinating birds,..... but it's only January, and some may still appear. (Here's hoping!) The photos in this blog were taken in late Winter and early Spring of 2021.


From mid-March through April, small flocks of Crossbills (mostly Red) were being seen regularly, feasting on seeds of Pine and Spruce cones that hung heavily on the trees. The birds usually stayed high in the mature trees, feeding, calling, and moving from tree to tree in groups.

We would often see a flock flying in and sitting for a short time, with the males perching high. A few males would vocalize, and survey the location briefly before joining the rest of the flock in a feeding frenzy.

This pair of White-wings landed in a Spruce tree, and the male sat above the female for a few minutes, calling, while the female (look closely -- she blends in!) waited below. Then both birds dove into the cones.


Sometimes the flocks were mixed: the bottom bird is a Red Crossbill (juvenile female?), and the top one is a male White-winged Crossbill.


White-winged Crossbills fed on the softer Spruce cones, but Red Crossbills, with their larger bills, were enjoying seeds from both Spruce ...



and the (much harder to open) Pine cones.


In goes a tongue to pull out the delicious seed! Apparently a Crossbill can eat up to 3000 seeds in a day.



The three Red Crossbills pictured below were seen together for more than two weeks, even when we were seeing no other Crossbills in the area, making us wonder if perhaps we were seeing Dad, Mom and a youngster. These amazing birds will nest at almost any time of year, as long as there is an adequate food supply --- and in 2021, there was certainly plenty to eat in the treetops.

Adult Male Red Crossbill

Female Red Crossbill


The third bird of the trio was a blend of soft oranges, peaches, yellows, and gray-brown, and was likely a young male. According to the "Wild Bird Store" website, Crossbill chicks hatch with straight bills. Over the course of 3 weeks or so, while they are in the nest, their bills begin to cross, as they ready themselves for fledging and learning to feed themselves.



The adult male Red Crossbill was stunning in the early morning sunshine.




His call was a single or double "Chip" sound, and he was the only one of the three that was vocalizing .


The female was quiet, and blended into her environment when she was high in the trees eating cones. When she sat out in the open, though, her subtle yellow-and-gray patterning was beautiful.




Later in April, we were seeing a real variety of shades and colouring on the Red Crossbills. When the sun hits their feathers, these birds are exquisite!






In the muted forest light, the Red Crossbills were pastel-soft.





Often when eating, Red Crossbills hang upside down on the Spruce cones. Unless the light is on them, or they are relatively low, they can be difficult to see.


These beauties were on the sunny side of the Pine trees -- still pretty high, but feeding in one place long enough for me to catch a few shots! It is interesting to see the wings on the backs of these birds; not only do they have crossed bills, they also have crossed wings when they are at rest or feeding.

Male Red Crossbill

Female Red Crossbill


While most of their time was spent seed-eating in the tall trees, the Red Crossbills did occasionally come down into some small deciduous trees. From there, if the humans stood very still, the birds would fly down for a drink to wash all those seeds down!







A few even took time to bathe in the shallow vernal stream...


Some Redpolls joined in the water fun,


and this little Crossbill is watching a Redpoll that was a bit of a "whirling dervish!" The blur on the right is the Common Redpoll...


On one occasion, a White-winged Crossbill splashed in the water for several minutes, oblivious to his audience.


Near the end of April, on a cool, sunny morning, we watched as a flock of Red Crossbills foraged noisily among the cones.



One beautiful red bird sat for longer than usual on a low branch without moving much. Looking at his photo later, I realized that he was missing his tail feathers. He did eventually fly with the others, but it must have been tough for him to keep up with his friends. Hopefully that forked tail grew back quickly!


It was such a privilege to be allowed into the world of the Crossbills. They seemed to be fine with us watching quietly as they went about their late Winter business before heading North for the Summer months.


And they were checking us out too; a wee bit curious, perhaps, about the humans who found them so fascinating!


Hope to see you beautiful birds again soon!


 

*Most of the information in this blog is subjective, and is based on observations made during time spent with the Crossbills. Resources used include: "The Sibley Guide to Birds"; Mark Peck's article in the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas entitled, "Winter Atlassing -- Crossbills in the Crosshairs" (Dec. 2020); and the "Wild Bird Store" website.


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