For the Birds Radio Program: Red Crossbills

Original Air Date: March 28, 1988

Laura has Red Crossbills visiting her feeder for the first time. (3:24)

Duration: 3′25″


(Recording of a Red Crossbill)

A couple of weeks ago I looked out at my bird feeder and there was a flock of Red Crossbills. Although crossbills are not really rare, there’s something exotic about them that makes any sighting exciting for me. And though I’ve occasionally seen Red Crossbills in my yard, I’d never had them at my feeder before, so it was a banner day for me.

Red Crossbills, like other northern finches, are an irruptive species. They aren’t anywhere near as common in these parts as their close relative, the White-winged Crossbill, which can be abundant during some years. Red Crossbills appear in normally small flocks in the Northland during migration and some winters, and a few probably breed in coniferous forests some summers. But they’re so erratic that no real patterns are evident. There’s only one record of a Red Crossbill nest in Minnesota–in Clay County in 1967. There have been records of juveniles just out of the nest in several Minnesota counties, which is pretty good proof that they do nest at least occasionally.

Red Crossbills are bigger than siskins and redpolls but much smaller than Pine Grosbeaks–about 5 1/2 to 6 1/2 inches long. They weigh in at 3/4 of an ounce. Females and immatures are yellowish with a distinctive greenish cast from their solid, olive-green wings. Males are usually a unique shade of reddish orange with solid dark brown wings and tail, but occasionally males are yellow like females. To be absolutely certain of the sex of a yellowish crossbill, look at the throat. It’s always colored in males, and always grayish in females.

Red Crossbills eat conifer seeds mostly. Their oddly shaped beak is perfectly designed for forcing and holding open cone scales while the tongue lifts the seed out. The Red Crossbill’s beak is slightly larger than the White-winged Crossbill’s, which allows them to specialize–Red Crossbills in Europe eat mostly spruce seeds while White-winged Crossbills eat mostly larch. But both crossbills can also eat a variety of other seeds, the tender green buds of spruce trees, and even some insects. They’re attracted to salt–there are probably more sightings of them at salted roadsides than anywhere else. They’ve been known to scrape mortar from brick walls for calcium, and have even been recorded coming to hands for pounded dry mortar.

Red Crossbills, like other irruptive finches, can start breeding in winter if food is abundant. They lay their eggs anytime between January and August. The bill isn’t crossed yet when a fledgling leaves the nest.

Red Crossbills are found throughout much of the Western and northern United States, and are even expanding their range in the southeast–there are now nesting records as far south as Georgia. They’re also found in mountains throughout the southwestern United States and from Mexico down to Honduras and Nicaragua. In spite of their plumage, Red Crossbills aren’t particularly political. I trust that not even our government’s red-baiters could mistake them for Sandinistas.

(Recording of a Red Crossbill)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”