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Red Crossbill

Loxia curvirostra ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: FRINGILLIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

A stocky finch of mature coniferous forests, the Red Crossbill is dependent on the seed cones that are its main food. Its peculiar bill allows it access to the seeds, and it will breed whenever it finds areas with an abundance of cones. It may wander widely between years to find a good cone crop.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Other Names
  • Crossbill, Common Crossbill (British)
  • Béc-croise des sapins (French)
  • Pico cruzado (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The Red Crossbill is so dependent upon conifer seeds it even feeds them to its young. Consequently, it can breed any time it finds a sufficiently large cone crop, even in the depths of winter.
  • Because this species can breed throughout most of the year, its molts and plumages vary more than those of other North American passerines. Juveniles hatched during summer molt only between late summer and late autumn (at the same time adults molt). Many (but not all) juveniles hatched earlier (from late winter and early spring) begin to molt 100-110 days after hatching and then again during the main molt period in the summer.
  • 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 Red Crossbill shows a great deal of variation in bill shape and voice, and it may in fact be composed of several different species. Eight different flight call types have been described north of Mexico, and birds giving each type have slightly differently shaped bills and prefer to feed on different tree species with differently sized cones.
  • The oldest recorded Red Crossbill was a female, and at least 6 years, 1 month old when she was found in South Dakota, the same state where she had been banded.

Habitat


Forest

Mature coniferous forests.

Food


Seeds

Conifer seeds, especially spruce, pine, Douglas-fir, and hemlock.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Egg Description
Whitish, with reddish streaks and splotches concentrated around large end.
Condition at Hatching
Helpless with sparse down.
Nest Description

Open cup of twigs, lined with grasses, lichen, conifer needles, bark shreds, hair, plant fibers, and feathers. Well concealed in dense cover on branches of coniferous tree.

Nest Placement

Tree

Behavior


Foliage Gleaner

Hangs on cones and extracts seeds with oddly-shaped bill. Feeds in flocks. Takes grit and salt from roads.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Red Crossbill is a global species. In the U.S., populations appear to be stable in most areas, though they may have experienced a decline, notably in the Northwest, between 1966 and 2014, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Nomadic movements can make population trends difficult to assess, but Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 20 million with 25% spending part of the year in the U.S., 14% in Canada, and 3% in Mexico. The South Hills Red Crossbill in Idaho is a distinct subspecies and is on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List, which lists bird species that are at risk of becoming threatened or endangered without conservation action. Rapid deforestation in the Pacific Northwest has caused declines of Red Crossbill in that area. These birds were formerly common in Newfoundland, but they are now rare, possibly extirpated because of competition with the introduced Red Squirrel.

Credits

Range Map Help

Red Crossbill Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

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An Enigma, Wrapped in a Riddle, Inside a Pine Cone: What are Red Crossbills, anyway? Story in Living Bird magazine.

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