Living Bird Magazine
Red CrossbillLoxia curvirostra
- ORDER: Passeriformes
- FAMILY: Fringillidae
A fascinating finch of coniferous woodlands, the Red Crossbill forages on nutritious seeds in pine, hemlock, Douglas-fir, and spruce cones. Their specialized bills allow them to break into unopened cones, giving them an advantage over other finch species. Because conifers produce seeds unpredictably, Red Crossbills sometimes wander (or “irrupt”) far beyond their usual range. They nest wherever and whenever they find abundant food, sometimes even in winter. Several types of Red Crossbill exist; they each have different calls, feed on particular conifer species, and might represent distinct species.More ID Info
Find This Bird
Within their typical range, look and especially listen for Red Crossbills in coniferous forests. Their call notes are sharp and metallic, and the birds usually occur in chattering flocks near the tops of trees. In the morning, crossbills often come to the ground to consume grit along roadsides. Red Crossbills are nomadic, especially in winter, and in some years “irrupt” far south of their normal range. At these times they may show up in evergreen forests, planted evergreens, or at bird feeders. eBird reports can help you find recent, nearby sightings.
- Piquituerto Común (Spanish)
- Bec-croisé des sapins (French)
- Cool Facts
- One of the great puzzles of bird classification is where to draw the line between species. Red Crossbills of the many “types” now described are especially puzzling because these birds do not conform well to the usual concepts of “species” and “subspecies.” Unlike many subspecies, the different types of Red Crossbills wander widely, sometimes joining up with other crossbill types. Even so, interbreeding between types appears to be very limited, suggesting that the types may be on their way to becoming full species.
- The Red Crossbill is so dependent upon conifer seeds it even feeds them to its young. Consequently, it can breed anytime it finds a sufficiently large cone crop, even in the depths of winter.
- A crossbill's odd bill shape helps it get into tightly closed cones. A bird's biting muscles are stronger than the muscles used to open the bill, so the Red Crossbill places the tips of its slightly open bill under a cone scale and bites down. The crossed tips of the bill push the scale up, exposing the seed inside.
- The oldest recorded Red Crossbill was a male, and at least 8 years old when he was recaptured and rereleased during banding operations in Idaho in 2014. He had been banded in the same state in 2007.