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Red Crossbill

These birds are known for their distinctive crossed bill and rusty orange plumage.

The specialized bill of the crossbill is efficient at removing pine seeds from pine cones. The occasional, nomadic wanderings of the Red Crossbill in winter are due to shortages of its preferred food in northern forests, pine seeds. These winter movements take place during the day, and Red Crossbills usually travel in groups.

Unlike most songbirds which have a fairly well defined breeding season, Red Crossbills can breed over a wide range of months in response to adequate food supplies, anytime from December to September. The seed diet fed to young crossbills is not suitable for Brown-headed Cowbirds, and no cases of nest parasitism are known.


Description of the Red Crossbill


The Red Crossbill has plain, dark wings, rarely with faint wing-bars, and has unusual mandibles which cross at the tip

Males are mostly reddish except for their dark wings.   Length: 6 in.  Wingspan: 11 in.


Females are mostly dull, greenish-yellow except for their dark wings.  Some males resemble females but have a yellow-orange head and neck.  Plumage variable.

Seasonal change in appearance



Juveniles are brownish above and heavily streaked below.


Red Crossbills are found in conifer forests or groves.


Red Crossbills use their distinctively shaped mandibles to pry open pine cones and feed on the enclosed pine seeds.


Red Crossbills forage on pine cones still attached to pine trees.  They often occur in flocks.


Red Crossbills breed across much of southern Canada and the western U.S., and winter over a larger area of the U.S.  The population appears stable, though it is difficult to monitor.

Fun Facts

There may be eight or nine different species of Red Crossbills, each with slightly different call notes and bill sizes.

Red Crossbills are very nomadic and irruptive in nature, depending on the bounty or scarcity of pine cone crops in a given year.


The song is a series of buzzy phrases.  Flight call notes are short and sharp, and vary slightly among the related forms of the species.


Similar Species


The nest is a cup of twigs, grass, and weed stems lined with softer materials, and is usually placed on a horizontal conifer branch.

Number: Usually lay 3-4 eggs.
Color: Greenish-white or bluish-white with darker markings.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 12-15 days, and leave the nest in another 18-20 days, though continuing to associate with the adults for some time.


Bent Life History of the Red Crossbill

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the Red Crossbill – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.


The fact that the common crossbill of the Old World has occurred in Greenland entitles it to a place on our North American Check-List. An inhabitant of the boreal conifer forests of northern Europe, it breeds from the northern British Isles eastward to central western Siberia. It winters irregularly southward to the Mediterranean region, and has strayed to Jan Mayen Land, Iceland, and Greenland (Nappasoq, Kangamuit, Angmagssalik).

Ludlow Griscom (1937) describes it as follows: “Quite different from any New World subspecies; a large Crossbill, wing (male) 98: 102 mm.; culmen 18: 20 mm.; depth of bill at base 12: 14 mm.; consequently as large as the Mexican striciclandi with a radically still deeper bill; coloration of both sexes distinctly paler in ground color than the next race, especially noticeable on belly, vent, and under tail coverts; reds of adult male paler than in any New World race except benti, the scarlet tone dulled by a hepatic or pinkish rather than the deeper brick red of our eastern Crossbill; females distinctly yellower, less olive, than our eastern Crossbill, the olive wash below more frequently tinging throat and chin, and more often extensively spotted and tipped with dusky.”

European ornithological literature indicates that the nesting habits, sequence of plumages, food, and other habits of the common crossbill of the Old World are very similar to those of the American subspecies. The following from the 1920 edition of Witherby’s “Practical Handbook of British Birds” tells the story concisely: “Haunts coniferous woods, frequently nesting in clumps or belts of Scots firs, not as a rille in thickest part, but by preference on outskirts of forest. Nests at varying heights, sometimes not more than 6 ft. from ground. Nest: Characteristic: strong foundation of fir-twigs, with superstructure of grasses, wool, etc., lined grass, rabbit’s fur, hair, feathers, etc.; somewhat flattened in shape. Eggs: Usually 4, sometimes 3 only, rarely 5. Ground greenish-white (sometimes faint reddish flush) with few bold spots and streaks of purple-red, sometimes blackish, generally at big end; in some cases markings faint. Average of 25 Norfolk eggs 22.32 X 16.06 mm. Breeding season: Irregular: some laying Jan. and Feb., mostly March and early April; sometimes also June and July.”

The Handbook lists its food as: “Normally seeds of cones of Scots fir and other conifers, but also apple-pips, rowan berries, buds, aphides, caterpillars, etc.”

Range: Europe and western Siberia.

Breeding range: T he common crossbill breeds from Ireland, southern Scotland, northern Scandinavia (from tree limit), northern Russia (Arkhangelsk), and central western Siberia to southwestern Yakutsk, south to northern Spain (the Pyrenees), northern Italy (the Alps), Rumania (the Carpathians), and central Russia (Kaluga, Kazan).

Winter range: Winters south irregularly to Portugal, southern Spain, Sardinia, Sicily, Malta, the Cyclades, and Palestine.

Casual records: Accidental in Greenland (Nappasoq, Kang~.miut, Angmagssalik), Jan Mayen, Iceland, and Tangiers.


Contributed by OLIVER L. AUSTIN. JR.

In Mr. Bent’s files was found the following introductory paragraph to his history of this crossbill, which he was the first to recognize as distinct from other North American populations of the species and to describe accurately:

“While visiting with Dr. Leonard C. Sanford at his camp on Fox Island River in Newfoundland, on June 10, 1912, I noticed two crossbills which he had recently collected there, which were apparently different from any crossbills I had ever seen from eastern North America. At my suggestion he collected 11 more and loaned them to me for study. After comparing these with what specimens I could find in the museums at New York and Washington, I decided to describe and name the Newfoundland bird as a new subspecies. I (1912) named it Loxia curvirostra perena and assigned to it the following subspeciflc characters: ‘Similar to Loxia curvirostra minor (Brehm) but considerably larger and with a much larger and heavier bill; slightly larger than Lozia curvirostra bendirei Ridgway; but somewhat smaller than Loxia curvirostra stricklandi Ridgway. In general coloration darker than any of the American subspecies of Loxia curvirostra; the reds deeper, richer and more brilliant and the greenish yellow shades richer and brighter than in similar plumages of the other forms. Whereas in the summer plumages of other American forms we find only a few of the most highly colored birds with reds equalling flame scarlet, and most of them show only orange chrome or duller shades of red, wit.h less brilliant greens and yellows; we find in Loxia curvirostra percna scarlet, scarlet vermilion, vermilion, poppy red or even geranium red of the most brilliant, glossy shades, with various brilliant shades of greenish yellow.’ (Names of colors taken from Ridgway’s Nomenclature of Colors, edition of 1886.)” I suspect that Mr. Bent typed this paragraph 10 years or more before his death and left it to complete later when more information might become available about the subspecies’ habits and life history. He certainly wrote it before the A.O.U. Check-List Committee officially recognized Gloger’s prior name in 1944, and probably before two revisers of the complicated taxonomy of this often perplexing group (van Rossem 1934, Griscom 1937) pointed out that Gloger’s pusi/2a, proposed a century earlier in 1834 for an apparent migrant with no more specific type locality than “eastern United States,” was available for and probably applicable to the Newfoundland race.

The 1957 A.O.U. Check-List retains pusilla for the red crossbills breeding in Newfoundland and adds that the subspecies “Wanders, chiefly in winter, west and south to western Iowa (Woodbury County), eastern Kansas (Burlington), northern Illinois (Chicago), northern Indiana (Michigan City), southern Ontario (Toronto, Ottowa), northern Virginia (Four-mile Run), and eastern Maryland; casually to Georgia (St. Mary’s, Stone Mountain) and Bermuda.”

No ornithologist has as yet made an intensive study of the red croesbills in Newfoundland. Peters and Burleigh (1951) characterize its status there as “Resident, fairly common locally in summer but uncommon in winter. Erratic and local in distribution. Common in Codroy Valley in September, indicating a southward migration.” They add it “frequently occurs in mixed flocks with the slightly larger White-winged Crossbill in Newfoundiand. In spruce forests we often see or hear flocks of crossbills flying overhead when the species cannot be determined.” They also make the following observations of interest:

The Red Crossbills often cut the cone from the branch and carry it in their claws to a better perch before breaking it open, while the White-winged Orossbills usually break the cone open while it is still attached to the tree.

Crossbils are quite erratic birds, possibly because they must continually search out supplies of cones for food. They are often very early nesters, sometimes nesting in January or February and at other times not until mid-summer. Perhaps the available food supply influences their breeding cycle. They commonly move southward in the winter but as long as proper food is available some will remain during even the coldest weather.

Crossbills are usually unsuspicious, and when a flock is feeding they may be approached rather closely. A flock feeding on the cones clustered in the top of a ******* climb around the branches like small parrots, using both bills and feet. One may hang by its beak or one foot while reaching for a nearby cone. When frightened one may swing beneath a twig where it is partially concealed by thick foliage. If the flock is thoroughly alarmed it may fly to a considerable distance, but if the tree in which they were feeding contains a considerable supply of food they often return to it. After they have fed they frequently alight in a tall tree-top, and often sing from such an elevated perch.

Of its nesting the same authors write: “Nests in conifers, building a nest of twigs, rootlets or strips of bark, and lining it with mosses, hair or fur. The 4 or 5 eggs are pale greenish-blue, spotted with brown and lavender. They may nest at any time from January to July.” Mr. Harris supplies the following egg data: The measurements of 19 eggs average 21.2 X 15.4 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 22.5 X 14.5, 21.0 X 16.7, 19.6 X 15.2, and 22.1 X 14.1 millimeters.”

For field marks Peters and Burleigh (1951) give the following characteristics, which are equally applicable to all races of the species: “Adult males are brick-red; young males are yellow, and females are yellow-gray. This parrotlike finch is unmistakable if you are close enough to see its crossed bill. Absence of white on wings separates it from [the white-winged crossbill].”

The same authors say of its voice: “Song is a finch-like warble. Call note is a sharp Icip-kip-kip or jip.jip-jip.”

Otherwise its habits and behavior probably do not differ markedly from those of its better-known close relatives elsewhere.

Breeding range: The Newfoundland red crossbill breeds in Newfoun4land.

Winter range: Wanders, chiefly in winter, west and south to western Iowa (Woodbury County), eastern Kansas (Burlington), northern Illinois (Chicago), northern Indiana (Michigan City), southern Ontario (Toronto, Ottawa), northern Virginia (Four-mile Run), and eastern Maryland.

Casual records: Casual in Georgia (St. Marys, Stone Mountain) and Bermuda.


This is the well known crossbill of eastern North America. Ludlow Griscom (1937), in his exhaustive study of this species, designates this race (under the name neogoca) as “a medium-sized Crossbill with a bill of medium length, but relatively slender, the tip of the upper mandible greatly prolonged beyond the end of the lower; wing 86.5: 91; culmen 15.5: 17.5; depth of bill 9: 10.”

He says of its normal breeding range: “Chiefly the Upper Canadian zone of North America, east of the treeless areas. Breeding birds examined from Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, northern New England, northern New York, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota. * * * Breeding most commonly in late winter and early spring, less often in September and October, and still more rarely in May, June and July, such cases involving stray pairs only, never a large population.”

Of vagrant breeding, he says: “At irregular intervals invading the Lower Canadian zone and breeding in numbers after southward flights. Has bred in numbers at long intervals in the Berkshire Mountains, Mass., the Catskill Mountains, New York, and the mountains of Pennsylvania (where there is as yet no final evidence of a permanently resident population). Still more rarely breeding in the Transition zone (numerous occasions eastern Mass.), twice in southern New York, once in Maryland, Indiana and Ohio. Abundant in the mountains of North Carolina for several years after two great ifights, and may have bred there.”

Spring: Although crossbills undoubtedly deserve their reputation for irregular movements, the following note by Wright and Allen (1910) on the regularity of their appearance at Ithaca, N.Y., in June, is of interest:

In all we have about 40 records for the species. Of these, none have been made during the fall migration, but six during the winter, five during the spring, from the middle of March to the first of May, and thirty during the month of June.

The first record was made June 16, 1889, by Mr. L. A. Fuertes who with us in recent years has noticed the regularity of their occurrence. In 1900 and 1904 records were also made in June. In 1906 a flock of 10 were seen on the Cornell Campus from June 21 to 24. In 1907 they were first seen on May 28 when twelve were recorded, and they continued common until June 24. In 1908 they were daily noted from June 10 to 17. In 1909 a flock of fifteen appeared June 6 and the species remained until June 14.

In reply to my enquiry, Dr. Allen writes to me in June 1951 that the crossbills have not been reported there in June during recent years. William Brewster (1906) says: “In the neighborhood of Cambridge, where they have been seen during every month of the year, I have repeatedly known them to appear suddenly and rather numerously in May or June **~~” These are good examples of the erratic and unaccountable movements of these nomadic birds, rather than true migrations.

Courtship: Mrs. Louise de Kiriline Lawrence (1949) writes: “By the middle of January the pairing of the Red Crossbills became an established fact. Birds then began to appear in single pairs rather thaninfiock,orinsmallgroupsof2or3pairs. ”

“Courtship-feeding was first observed on February 3 when a male offered his female salted grit. I also noted it on February 22, and this time the male tendered his mate an aspen bud. During early March several pairs of crossbills were apparently establishing territory in a certain place on the south shore of Pimisi Bay near the mouth of the river and here I eventually found 4 nests. The birds were seen flying around in the tops of the trees with much singing, calling and chasing. It was here also, I first witnessed males in ifight song. Around the female, usually sitting nibbling cone seeds in the very top of a tree, the male rose on vibrating wings in circle after circle, his brick-red plumage sparkling in the sun, uttering, at first, loud whistled notes which presently ran into an enraptured melody of clarion-like song. The performance usually ended with the female’s sudden departure to another tree and the male in hot pursuit after her.”

Nesting: Probably the first authentic nest of the red crossbill to be recorded in North America was found by Eugene P. Bicknell at Riverdale, New York City, late in April 1875, when be discovered a female building a nest that contained three eggs. He (1880) describes it as follows:

The nest was placed in a tapering cedar of rather scanty foliage, about eighteen feet from the ground, and was without any single main support, being built in a mass of small tangled twigs, from which it was with difficulty detached. The situation could scarcely have been more conspicuous, being close to the intersection of several roads (all of them more or less bordered with ornamental evergreens), in plain sight of as many residences, and constantly exposed to the view of passers-by. The materials of its composition were of rather a miscellaneous character, becoming finer and more select from without inwards. An exterior of bristling spruce twigs loosely arranged surrounded a mass of matted shreds of cedar bark, which formed the principal body of the structure, a few strips of the same appearing around the upper border, the whole succeeded on the inside by a sort of felting of finer material, which received the scanty lining of black horsehair, fine rootlets, grass stems, pieces of string, and two or three feathers. This shallow felting of the inner nest can apparently be removed intact from the body of the structure, which, besides the above mentioned material, contained small pieces of moss, leaves, grass, string, cottony substances, and the green foliage of cedar.

The nest measured internally two and one half inches in diameter by over one and a quarter in depth; being in diameter externally about four inches, and rather shallow in appearance.

A few years later, A. H. Helme (1883) reported a nest that he found near Millers Place, Long Island, on Apr. 10, 1883. It was “on a horizontal branch of a pine, about thirty feet from the ground * * This nest was composed of fine shreds of chestnut bark and moss, contained a few pieces of caterpillar’s silk, and was lined with moss, two or three feathers of a great horned owl, and several of the crossbill itself. Dimensions were 4~4 inches in breadth by 3 inches in depth. The cavity was 23~ inches in breadth by 1~ inches in depth.

A nest found near Marblehead, Mass., on Apr. 22, 1917, was brought to William Brewster (1918). It had been placed about 18 feet from the ground on a branch of a pitch pine. In the lining of the nest were “a few Crossbil feathers at least one of which, brick red in color, must have come from an adult male bird. Their presence affords, of course, convincing evidence as to the original ownership of the nest, thereby, indeed, it is ‘selJ-identiJying.’ From the more normal breeding range of the species we have numerous records and plenty of information. The first Nova Scotia nest was recorded by Thomas J. Egan (1889b), a well known and reliable Halifax taxidermist and naturalist. He found the nest on Mar. 30, 1889, in “a pine and spruce wood” near Halifax. “The tree on which the nest was found was a large spruce about seventy-five feet high. The nest was on the end of a branch about thirty feet from the ground. A small branch had been partly broken at some time and had turned back on the main branch. It had continued growing, and had formed a snug, well-sheltered clump. In the little bower formed by the secured branch, the Grossbills had built a neat nest of fine grass and moss.”

Harold F. Tufts (1906) published an interesting account of the nesting of this and the white-winged crosshils in Nova Scotia. He says:

“The first nests discovered were those of the American Crossbil (Loxia curvirostra minor) Jan. 31, three in number. Of these, two contained young just hatched. The others [sic] held three eggs, advanced in incubation. * *

The sitting female carefully watched my movements as 1 approached the nest and upon my reaching out to touch her raised the feathers on her crown, opened her bill, and in short made herself look quite ferocious. Finally sliding off the nest, she flitted about within a few feet of me, keeping up an angry chirping, in which she was soon joined by her mate.”

Dr. Tufts’s brother, IRobie W. Tufts, of Wolfville, has sent me data and interesting notes on the nesting of this crossbill in Nova Scotia, in which the following nesting dates are given: Aug. 4, 1896, nest containing three young birds; Feb. 25, 1906, nest with three eggs; Feb. 28, 1906, two nests with four fresh eggs each; and Mar. 31, 1906, nest with three fresh eggs. About the nests he says:

“The nests were all bulky affairs and usually were placed well out on a horizontal branch of a thick, bushy spruce tree. Elevation ranged from about 10 feet to say 40. Other nests were found in hemlocks, but when that tree was used, the nests were invariably placed close to the trunk and concealed by a cluster of thick twigs which often sprout at the point where the branch starts. I recall several nests which we found in dead spruce trees. In such cases the nests were always remarkably well concealed among the beard (Uanea) moss which hung from the branches in profusion. Nests were almost invariably discovered by watching the male carry food to the sitting bird. He was accustomed to feed nearby and was conspicuous by his loud and incessant chirping and singing. On one occasion I sat close by the sitting female and waited for him to come to her, so that I might see the manner of his feeding. He soon appeared and, taking no notice of me, was seen to place his bill inside her open mouth. 1 well recall the regurgitory movements of his throat and I could see what looked like thick cream being swallowed by the female. This was, of course, nothing else than the seeds of the conifers.

“The nests were bulky, being composed of twigs and plenty of decayed wood and beard moss (Usn~ea). The lining was sometimes of feathers, but I recall that more often it was made up entirely from the silky fibres which the birds extracted from the seed-pods of the fireweed (Epilobium angu.stijolium) which often was to be found near the nesting colonies.”

In Ontario, Mrs. Lawrence (1949) found four nests at Pimisi Bay, which she describes as follows:

* * * Nest A was located in a lone white pine which stood on the crest of a high point overlooking Pimisi Bay. * * * It was saddled on a horizontal branch 8 feet out from the trunk and 6~ feet from the end. The distance from the ground was 23 feet. The nest was made of pine twigs and some spruce twigs on the outside, next dead grasses, green moss and strips of inner hark of white cedar. Inside it was lined with hairs and feathers.” This nest was found on April 3, and was abandoned later.

Nest B was discovered on April 6 about 1000 feet north of Nest A. It was built in a red pine about 35 feet from the ground. * * * This three (sic) stood on the periphery of a clump of tall trees on a slope about 30 feet from the lake. This nest was also saddled on a horizontal branch, about 3 feet out from the trunk and 1~ feet from the tip of the branch. * *

Nest C was discovered on the same date. This nest was located between Nest A and B at a distance of 300 feet from Nest B. It was built deeply seated in the fork of one of the middle branches of a white spruce, very well concealed in a clump of small bushy branchlets. It was at a height of 28 feet from the ground, 4 feet 5 inches from the trunk and 3 feet 9 inches from the tip of the branch. * *

Nest D was discovered on April 9 when the calling of the birds, presumed to belong to Nest B, was heard continuously during a watch at Nest 0. Going to investigate, I found this nest in a white spruce which stood 75 feet south of Nest B. It was placed 4 feet out from the trunk and 3~ feet from the tip of the branch, at height of 32 feet from the ground. This nest was beautifully made with an outer structure of dry spruce twigs, a pattern found in all the nests collected. Next came strips of the Inner bark of cedar intermingled with green moss and Usssea.

The inner lining was made of a few pine needles, a thick layer of hairs from the white-tailed deer and Usnea.

The measurements of these four nests did not vary greatly. The outside diameter varied from 5Y~ to 5% inches; the inner diameter was uniformly about 2 inches; the outside depth varied from 3 to 3% inches; and the inside depth was from 1%. to 1’9{~ inches.

Dorothy E. Snyder (1951) located a nest at Andrews Point, Cape Ann, Mass., during March 1950. This nest, “about 30 feet up in a pitch pine * * * was saddled on a branch three feet from the tip where the foliage was dense, and only a short distance from the upper windows of a summer cottage.” The nest was blown down later and the eggs were broken.

The same observer (1954) found a partially completed nest in northeastern Massachusetts on Mar. 4, 1952, in a large group of exotic Japanese black pines (Pinus fhurbergii). The latter were fruiting abundantly and provided a convenient food supply. The nest, completed by March 18, was 16 feet 2 inches from the ground: 24 inches below the summit of the tree: and saddled in a thick tuft of needles and cones on a branch a half-inch in diameter, only 2% inches from the trunk. Miss Snyder believes the first egg was laid on this date, but she intentionally kept away from the nest until March 27. On that date it proved necessary to poke the female off the nest. The bird would go to the nearest twig and return as soon as possible to the nest. The three young seen in the nest April 3 were believed to have hatched the previous day. The young were able to hold up their heads and had a gray down covering on April 5, and apparently vacated the nest on April 17. Incubation was performed only by the female. She was fed on the nest by the male while the nestlings were small (up to 4 or 5 days), and then fed the young by regurgitation. Later, both parents fed the young directly. Both parents swallowed the excreta until the last week of occupancy of the nest, after which the outside became whitened. Records at the nearby Coast Guard station indicated an average temperature of 38 degrees F. for the overall period, with extremes of 17 and 51 degrees; during the April period there were 11 days of fog or rain.

Eggs: The red crossbill usually lays three or four eggs, occasionally five. E. P. Bicknell (1880) describes the eggs very well as follows:

The fresh eggs are in ground color of a decided greenish tint, almost immaculate on the smaller end, but on the opposite side with irregular spots and dottings of lavender-brown of slightly varying shade, interspersed with a few heavy surfacespots of dark purple-brown. There is no approach in the arrangement of these to a circle, but between the apex of the larger end, and the greatest diameter of the egg, is a fine hair-like surface line; in two examples it forms a complete though irregular circle, and encloses the principal spots. In the other egg, which is the largest, this line is not quite complete and the primary blotehes are wanting, but the secondary markings are correspondingly larger and more numerous. In another egg there are two perfect figures of 3 formed on the sides by the secondary marks, one of them large and singularly symmetrical. The eggs measure respectively .74X .56, .75X .58, .78X .59.

A. H. Helme (1883) describes the eggs he found slightly differently: “The eggs have a dull white ground with a faint tinge of blue, marked with small spots and lines of brown and black, which tend to form a circle around the larger end. There are also numerous shell markings of a dull lilac color. The eggs measure as follows: .81X.86, .82X.56, 81X55 [sic].”

W. G. F. Harris has supplied the following description: “This species lays from three to five eggs with sets of four most common. The eggs are ovate in shape with a tendency to elongate-ovate, and very little gloss. The ground is very pale bluish-white, or greenish-white; variously marked with spots and blotches of ‘cinnamon drab,’ ‘Natal brown,’ ‘bone brown,’ or ‘Mars brown,’ with an occasional spot, streak, or even a scrawl of black. Some eggs are very lightly marked, having only a few scattered spots of black or dark brown; others may be quite boldly spotted with dark browns and black, with undertones of drab. There is a general tendency for the markings to concentrate at the large end, but some may be spotted more or less evenly all over. The measurements of 37 eggs average 20.4 by 14.8 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 22.4 by 15.5, 21.0 by 16.0, 18.7 by 14.3, and 20.5 by 14.0 millimeters.”

Young: After going into the nest life and care of the young in detail, Mrs. Lawrence (1949) summarizes it as follows:

Incubation lasts at least 12 days, probably 14 to 18 days. The female alone incubates and her attentive periods are, as a rule, continuous and long. During the day she leaves the nest a few times for short periods. * *

After the young are hatched the female broods them for long periods without help from the male. As the young grow older the brooding time is gradually shortened. In the case of the nesting described in this paper the female practically ceased brooding on the 5th day. It is probable, however, that in very early nestings the brooding is continued considerably longer.

From the time incubation starts, the male’s role becomes exclusively one of provider of food for the family. Thus he practically supports the incubating female by feeding her every 2 to 3 hours. After the young hatch he feeds the young as well as the brooding female. When brooding ceases the male and the female share equally in the task of feeding the young. The parents accompany each other foraging and, as a rule, they feed the young at the same time, the male first and the female waiting until the male has finished.

Apart from the courtship feeding, all feedings of both the female and the young in as well as out of the nest, are done by regurgitation. The feeding of the female both during incubation and while brooding is accompanied by a ritual, consisting of calls and answering food calls on the part of the female which crouches in an attitude of begging while the male feeds her. As soon as the female ceases brooding the ritual is also done away with, and the birds’ comings and goings at the nest are marked by stealth and silence. Loud calling is resumed after the young leave the nest, now between parents and young, accompanied by begging and pursuit on the part of the young.

The young remain in the nest at least 17 days. When the young leave the nest their bills are not crossed but during the next following weeks the tips of the mandibles extend and cross as in the adults. The young are fed by the parents for at least two weeks after leaving the nest. There is no evidence of second nestings, not even after interrupted nesting attempts, at least not in the same territories.

When nesting was over the birds began to wander and one family group was joined by others. As flocking Increased the birds in this area moved out of their winter and nesting grounds to new, and apparently better, feeding regions.

Ora W. Knight (1908) says: “In Maine I have seen the parent birds with young not long out of the nest in March, April, May, June, July and August in various sections of the State.”

Plumages: In the juvenal streaked plumage the sexes are alike, according to Dwight (1900), who describes this plumage as follows: “Above, streaked with olive-brown, the feathers with whitish edgings, an olive-green on the back and pale buff on the rump. Wings and tail clove-brown the feathers faintly edged with pale buff sometimes greenish tinged. Below, dull grayish white thickly streaked with olive-brown.” See Griscom (1937, p. 111).

A partial postiuvenal molt occurs in summer, involving the body plumage but neither the wings nor the tail, producing the first winter plumage. Dwight describes the male in this plumage as follows: “Everywhere a mottled mixture of bright yellows, greens and reds, the former predominating and the reds dull, but individual variation is great. The colors are brightest on the head, rump, throat and side of abdomen. The posterior part of the abdomen and under tail coverts may be red tinged or yellowish or they may fail to moult and remain brown streaked.”

The first and following nuptial plumages are produced by wear which results in brightening the plumage, as in the purple finch.

Of the plumages of the female, he says: “In natal down and juvenal plumage indistinguishable from males. The first winter plumage acquired by a partial postjuvenal moult which does not include the wings nor the tail is olive-bufi indistinctly mottled or streaked with olive brown; the rump bright olive-yellow. The first nuptial plumage is acquired by wear producing little change. The adult winter plumage varies but little from the first winter, the rump perhaps brighter and the breast tinged with bright olive-yellow. Old birds sometimes show dull red tints on these areas.”

Adults and young of both sexes have a complete postnuptial molt in September. At this molt, the young male acqMires the “brick-red body plumage with vermilion rump.

Food: It seems to be the accepted idea that the principal food of the crossbill consists of the seeds of conifers, and various accounts of how the bird uses its specialized bill to extract these seeds from the cones have been published by the earlier writers. 0. A. Robbins (1932), with Winsor M. Tyler, made some careful observations at close range of a captive crossbill’s method to open the scales and extract the seeds. As their account is too elaborate to be included here, the reader is referred to the above paper for details. Their observations agree in some details with the earlier writers and differ from them in others. Briefly the method “plainly shown us by our bird, involves the use of two appliances; the bill, which forces and holds apart the scales; and the tong~ze, which lifts the seeds out.”

Crossbills eat the seeds from the cones of various pines, firs, spruces, hemlock, and larch. They also eat the seeds of birches, alders, box elders, elms, ragweed, hemp, and probably other weeds. At times they feed on the buds of birches, alders, willows, poplars, elms, and maples, as well as the tender, green buds of spruces.

Perley M. Subway (1923) says: “The Crossbills eat the seeds from the birch catkins in two dillerent ways. Sometimes they cling to the terminal twigs where the cones are attached and bite out mouthfuls of seeds, often standing with head down in their endeavors to reach the catkins, and detaching seeds with their crossed, forcep-like mandibles, and many seeds fall wasted to the ground. Usually, however, they bite off the cones one at a time, holding them against a branch with their feet, and munch on it in ~ leisurely manner.”

Prof. 0. A. Stevens of Fargo, N. Dak., writes me in a letter: “A number of people reported the birds, usually feeding on sunflowers. We had a few sunflowers in the garden. Once I saw a cat jump up and seize one of the birds as it clung to a sunflower head about two feet above the ground.”

Orossbills also eat insect food: caterpillars, plant lice, larvae of insects, beetles, ants, etc. Ora W. Knight (1908) observed “several Crossbills engaged in eating larvae of Vaneesa ar&tiopa and the small green lice which were numerous. I have also seen them picking apart the cottony colonies of lice which are always found in bunches of alders in late summer, and most certainly eating something they took from the cottony bunches.

“Lumbermen have told me of instances where the Crossbills were seen feeding on the material left in salt pork barrels thrown outside of the camps.”

P. A. Taverner (1934) writes: “They seem specially fond of the little woolly aphis. It was very interesting to watch a captive specimen open galls on poplar leaves. Seizing the fleshy tissue with the bill tips so that the points crossed within the mass, it gave a little twist of the bead that split the gall wide open and the aphides within were removed with the tongue.”

The well-known fondness of crossbills and other birds for salt and salty substances was noted by Mrs. Lawrence (1949) when the roads were being sanded with chiorided gravel. She writes: “The Red Crossbills ate not only the grit but the snow half melted by the salt both on the highway and at the saitlick. They put their crossed bills sideways and lapped it up with their tongues. * * * At the feeding place the Croasbills also ate coal ashes on which salt had been thrown. They showed great liking for soapy dishwater, as previously mentioned, and the snow discoloured by the dog’s urine.

“Owing to their crossed mandibles, the Crossbils drank by putting their bills sideways to the water and then lapping it up with their * * * ‘, tongues Behavior: Crossbills are not particularly shy and can usually be approached closely with a little caution. While feeding in the trees they move about quietly and deliberately; they are said to resemble pan~ots in their movements, probably in part because they may use their bills in climbing. While feeding on fallen seeds or cones on the ground, they are apt to be more restless, flying occasionally up into the trees and then down again to the ground.

Their flight is undulating, suggesting that of a woodpecker or a goldfinch, though the dips and bounds are not so pronounced and the flight is swifter and often more prolonged, sometimes at a very considerable height.

William Brewster (1938) noticed the following behavior on cold October mornings in Maine: “Early every morning Crossbills come in numbers to the brick chimney of a shop here and cluster about its top, many clinging to the sides but the majority ranged about the top where they are enveloped in smoke in which they dance up and down with quivering wings in evident enjoyment.”

Val Nolan, Jr., writes to me of watching a flock near Indianapolis, md., on Dec. 31, 1950, at 2:30 on a sunny afternoon. The flock, containing two males, had been extremely restive, active, and wild, not permitting close approach. Finally, by twos and threes, they all flew to a solitary jack pine about 15 feet high. Investigating after a few minutes, he found the flock scattered throughout the tree, resting, and so tame he came within two feet of a bird while it watched. Some of the birds had turned their heads and inserted their bills in the feathers of the back; a few had closed their eyes.

Voice: Mrs. Lawrence (1949) describes the vocal performances of the red crossbill as follows:

At the time of the pairing the male apparently comes into song. As far as my observations show he has two songs, one a perching song and the other a ffight song. During the height of courtship the one song is sometimes protracted into the other and thus a rather prolonged vocal effort is produced that lacks nothing in fervour and melodiousness.

The perching song is loud and rather short. * * * J~ consists of whistled notes more or less interspersed with warbled phrases. The flight song is rather liquid, a passionate utterance of love by an exalted being. * *

The Red Crosabil’s characteristic location note is a very loud rhythmically whistled note ~plittplitt * * * plittplitt.’ It was with this note that the male announced his arrival during incubation, while the female was brooding, and after the young left the nest, and the female answered with the same note. * * * Besides this location call they hAd a similar but much softer note, ‘whuittwhuitt * * * whuittwhuitt’, which was of a conversational nature and which the birds used constantly as they travelled together, as they fed, as one waited while the other was feeding. It was this note that the female used when she perched in the top of the nesting tree and called to her young the day they left the nest.

The alarm note was a monosyllabic whistle, very soft, ‘lu * * * lu * * * lu’, given between rather prolonged intervals. * *

As mentioned, the female’s food call was a continuous ‘tehetetetetetetetet’, which she uttered practically without interruption from the time the male arrived to feed her until he departed again during incubation and brooding. * * *

Francis H. Allen writes to me of a note he heard in Maine in August: “A common phrase of the irregular and disjointed song was tsi-whir’ree, whir’ree, with a slight pause between the two dissyllabic notes.”

Dorothy E. Snyder (1954) describes songs heard before the nest was completed as pit-pit, tor-r-ree, tor-r-ree, and as whit-‘whit, zzzzt, zzzrt, zzzzt, with the last notes low and rasping. The usual song, however, during the first weeks was r-z-zt in twos, threes, or fours, all on the same note. On April 16, perhaps two days before the young left the nest, and on the 17th, there was a new song, whit-wheet and wheet, wheet, wheet, changing pitch frequently and using doublets and triplets, with single notes interspersed. The arrival of either bird in the vicinity of the nest was always signaled by Teip-pip. The female’s tones were lower and deeper than, and not as soft as, those of the male.

Mrs. Louise de Kiiline Lawrence sent the following description of the song flight to Taber in January 1957: “February 8,1954, 9:10 a.m.: A female Red Crossbill came and perched in the top of a tall tree. The next instant a male flew out from a clump of trees in the swooping undulating flight common to crossbills. Suddenly when near the female he reduced his speed until he was almost, but not quite, stationary, beating his wings rapidly and giving forth a continuous, twittering, very sweet song. Slowly, in the apparent ecstasy of this performance, he began circling around the female. Before he had quite completed the full circle around her, he once more and as suddenly resumed his fast and undulating flight. With a fine sweep he reached the top of a tall balsam fir opposite the female and soon after, as she took off, he immediately followed.”

Enemies: Predators, furred or feathered, may occasionally kill the adult birds or rob their nests of eggs or young, but definite reports of such happenings seems to be lacking. Nuttall (1832) saw a northern shrike attack some crossbills. Their fondness for salt may lure them to death on the highways that have been covered with sand and calcium chloride. Gordon M. Meade (1942) reports such a disaster, but the evidence is not clear as to whether the birds were killed by passing vehicles or by the chloride.

The cowbird does not seem to be a serious enemy. Herbert Friedmann (1938) reported only one case of a cowbird laying in a crossbill’s nest.

Fall and winter: Ludlow Griscom’s records show (1937) that after the breeding season is over red crossbiils wander northward “apparently rarely, into the Hudsonian zone.” But southward, “irregularly to Florida (once), Georgia (several times), South Carolina (at least three times in numbers), Tennessee (several times), Alabama and Arkansas (two sight records each, subspecies presumed); western limits, eastern North and South Dakota, eastern Colorado and Kansas. About twice as common in southern New York as Virginia, about four times as frequent in Massachusetts as southern New York. Further west, reaches Missouri more commonly than Kentucky and Virginia, but very much rarer in the Great Plains. Notable flight years in the Atlantic States were 1850, 1870, 1875, 1882, 1884, 1887, 1896, 1900, 1903, 1907, 1919, and 1932.”

Range: Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia to Missouri and northern Florida.

Breeding range: The red crossbill breeds, and is largely resident, from northern Minnesota, central Ontario (Lake Manitowick, Canoe Lake, Pakenham), southwestern Quebec (Grand Lac), New Brunswick (Bathurst), and Nova Scotia (Wolfville) south irregularly to northern Wisconsin (Burnett County, Kelley Brook), southern Michigan (FIi]lsdale), southern Ontario (Toronto), West Virginia (Pocahontas County), eastern Tennessee and western North Carolina (Great Smoky Mountains), Maryland (Laurel), southeastern New York (Bronx, Miller Place), and eastern Massachusetts (Marblehead, Cape Ann).

Winter range: Same as breeding range except for sporadic wandering northwest to central southern Mackenzie (Fort Simpson, Fort Smith), west to southeastern Saskatchewan (Indian Head) and eastern Colorado (Limon), and south to Missouri (Shannon County), Georgia (Fulton County, Midway), and northern Florida (Sumner).

Migration: The data apply to the species as a whole. Late dates of spring departure are: Florida: Sumner, February 13. South Carolina: Mount Pleasant, May 26. North Carolina: Highlands, June 17. Virginia: Blacksburg, June 12. West Virginia: Gaudineer Knob, Pocahontas County, June 15. District of Columbia: June 5. Maryland: Salisbury, May 30. Delaware: Lewes, May 19. Pennsylvania-State College, May 19. New York: Cayuga and Oneida Lake basins, June 9 (median of 7 years, May 22); Suffolk County, June 3. Massachusetts: Martha’s Vinyard, June 20. New Hampshire: Concord, June 7. Quebec: Rawdon, May 31. New Brunswick: Scotch Lake, June 13. Louisiana: Mandeviile, March 27. Arkansas: Clinton, May 5. Tennessee: Nashville, June 20. Missouri: Shannon County, May 1. Illinois: Beach, June 1. Indiana: Burlington, April 23. Ohio: Columbus, June 18. Michigan: Oakland County, May 30. Ontario: London, May 24. Iowa: Sioux City, May 2. Wisconsin: Madison, June 2. Minnesota: Nisswa, May 28. Texas: El Paso, May 10. Kansas: northeastern Kansas, April 15. Nebraska: Holstein, April 25. North Dakota: Devil’s Lake, June 23. Manitoba: Trees Bank, June 11. Saskatchewan: Indian Head, June 27. Arizona: Canelo, May 6. Colorado: Fort Garland, June 7.

Early dates of fall arrival are: California: Mount Pinos, October 10. Alberta: Calgary, October 2. Montana: Libby, November 24. North Dakota: northern North Dakota, September 11. South Dakota: Milbank and Brookings, October 6. Nebraska: Bladen, October 29. Kansas: northeastern Kansas, September 25. Texas: El Paso, September 28. Iowa: Davenport, August 30. Ohio: Columbus, October 11. Illinois: Lake Forest, October 29. Arkansas: Texarkana, September 10. Connecticut: New Haven, October 11. New York: Cayuga and Oneida Lake basins, October 1. Pennsylvania: Port Clinton, October 10. Maryland: Ocean City, September 12. Virginia: Bristol, August 10. North Carolina-Raleigh, November 8. Florida: Fernandina, December 4.

Egg dates: New Brunswick: 1 record, August 6. Kansas: 1 record, March 24.

New York: 4 records, March 30 to May 1.

Nova Scotia: 6 records, February 25 to April 27. Ontario: 3 records, April 17 to April 29.


Griscom (1937) describes this crossbill as follows: “Exceedingly close to neogoea 1= minor], some individuals quite indistinguishable; both sexes averaging a little larger, longer winged and with a longer bill; the great majority of adult males bright scarlet, rather than dull brick red; both sexes often with a darker and sootier gray, less brownish mantle in fresh plumage; adult females not otherwise separable in color.”

As is true of other crossbills, this subspecies wanders widely in the nonbreeding season; it has been recorded over most of western North America but records in the East are unsatisfactory because of the difficulty of distinguishing bendirei from the eastern minor.

Nesting: The breeding habits of this crossbill in British Columbia are well described by J. A. Munro (1919), as observed by him in “a small section of timbered country close to Okanagan Landing, its topography being the familiar Okanagan type of low mountain covered with Douglas fir and yellow pine, including both original forest and second growth.

A female taken on August 5, and another taken on August 18 [19151, had the worn abdominal patch of breeding birds and a third female in breeding condition, was taken on February 24, 1916.”

Munro watched some crossbills on March 1 that were apparently building a nest on a ridge overlooking Okanagan Lake. He continues:

On March 19, while hunting on the same ridge, a neat in process of construction was found, about one hundred yards distant, and I concluded that its owners were the same pair as had been under observation some two weeks earlier. The nest was saddled on a thin branch near the top of a forty foot Douglas fir about fourteen inches from the trunk and was so well concealed as to be all but invisible from below. The female was under observation for half an hour, while she carried material to the nest, moulding the interior with her body after each trip, while her ‘~nate remained at the top of a nearby tree chirping excitedly.

Absence from the district prevented my return to the neat until April 9 and it then contained a newly hatched chick, and two eggs on the point of hatching. The ground color of the eggs was pale bluish green lightly flecked with lavender and with a wreath of lavender and ruddy-brown spots around the larger end. No measurements of the eggs were taken and unfortunately I was not successful in preparing them. The nest which is a very handsome one was presented to the Provincial Museum at Victoria. The body of the nest is composed of black tree moss (Alectoria jubata), dry grass and weed stalks; the outside, of fine fir twigs, those selected for the rim being decorated with little tufts of vivid green lichen (Evernia vulpina). The inside is well felted with black tree moss and contains a few pieces of fine grass and one breast feather of a Red-tailed Hawk. It is 110 mm. in diameter with an outside depth of 60 mm. and an inside depth of 30 mm.

Two other nests were found on March 18. One was in a second growth fir, “on a lower branch ten feet above the ground and ten feet out from the trunk, in plain view from the ground. The female was sitting on one egg * * *ï” The other nest, containing four young, “was in a tall rugged fir growing on the edge of a rocky bluff. The nest was situated eight feet from the trunk on a stout limb forty feet above the ground and was quite invisible from below.”

J. W. Preston (1910) gives an interesting account of the nesting of this crossbill in the vicinity of Spokane, Wash., illustrated with photographs of two nests. He says: “The nest building began about the 10th of July and finish about the 20th.”

Earlier he says:

“The nest is built of dead tamarack twigs for a foundation and outer walls, interwoven with much fine grass and a few dry pine needles. The lining is an abundance of long, black moss from tamarack trees, and a few soft feathers, making a good, warm nest, placed in the divergent small branches of a horizontal branch from four to eight feet out from the tree-trunk. One was directly in the center of a heavy bunch of long needles at the very tip of a ninety-foot pine and was so concealed by the denseness of the growth that the nest was not visible. * * * Outside diameter, four by five inches; inside, two and one-half. Outside depth, three; inside, one and one-half.”

Dawson and Bowles (1909) describe a nest taken near Tacoma, Wash., on Apr. 25, 1899, that “boasts an inner quilt of felted cow-hair nearly half an inch in thickness.” The female had to be lifted off the nest.

Eggs: J. W. Preston (1910) describes his three sets of eggs as follows:

These eggs are plainly much larger than those of the eastern bird. Set number one contains four splendid eggs, measuring as follows: .85 X .60, .86X .61, .87X .62, .88X .62. All are of quite uniform size, all plainly and plentifully markt about the larger end with irregular, kinky strokes and spots, varying from faint purplish to dark chestnut, over a dull greenish white ground somewhat clouded by the weak chocolate flush, which is present in some of these specimens. One egg of this set has the marks somewhat lengthwise giving it a waved or marbled appearance; with no marks darker than cinnamon brown. These extend well over the surface except the point. Three eggs of this set have the subdued purplish at the larger end approaching a wreath.

The eggs of set number two have a clear, bright greenish-white ground color, uniform over the entire surface. They measure: .79X.57, .85X.5S, .83X.58. One egg is almost plain at the point, with small specks and spots of faint cinnamon over the larger part of the surface. The other two are almost alike, being sparsely fleckt with cinnamon, with little of this below the center, but heavily speckt with seal brown in an irregular wreath at the larger end. There are also a few kinky lines of the same color. **

The eggs of set number three measure as follows: .86.X 62, .87X.62, .90X.60, being decidedly elongated. The ground color is a dull greenish, with the markings mostly at the larger end, consisting of splashes and specks of faint chocolate and cinnamon, forming a washt surface in form of a broad, dull wreath about the large end which is bare at the point, except in one egg in which the blotches extend over the entire surface. Then there is on each of these three eggs a delicate chocolate hair line encircling a small portion of the larger end. Hanging on these lines are a few tear shaped dots of black. In all these sets there is a resemblance to eggs of the Orchard Oriole. In several eggs there is a faint flush of subdued purplish stain.

All of the above measurements are in hundreths of an inch.

Three eggs taken by J. A. Munro (1919) measure 15X20, 15X20 and 14X19 millimeters.

The measurements of 40 eggs average 21.1 by 15.2 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 2~2.8 by 15.3, 20.5 by 16.1, and 19.0 by 14.0 millimeters.

We seem to have no information on the period of incubation, which is apparently the duty of the female alone. Nor do we know anything about the care and development of the young, except that adults have been seen feeding fully grown young that have left the nest.

McCabe and McCabe (1933) discuss in some detail the possibility of young crossbills nesting the same year they are hatched and conclude that evidence confirms this extraordinary departure at times from usual passerine habits.

Plumages: T he molts and plumages correspond to those of the eastern bird.

Food: The traditional food of this and other crossbills consists of seeds of coniferous trees, the specialized bill being well fitted for extracting the seeds from the bases of cone scales. They also eat the tender buds and soft green cones of these trees. Miss Ruby Curry writes to me that “While at Tuolome Meadows last summer, we were interested in the activities of the Sierra crossbills, which were hanging like chickadees, working on small fresh cones of the lodge pole pines, cutting them from the ends of the branches, then taking them to larger branches, where they could feed on them more easily.”

J. A. Munro (1919) saw a small flock of Bendire’s crossbills “feeding on green choke-cherries and tiny salmon-colored lepidopterous larvae that crawled on the under sides of the poplar leaves. To reach these the birds hang head downward in the position they often assume when extracting fir seeds from the cones.”

Joe T. Marshall, Jr. (1957) states: “Although there was no evidence of * * * breeding in pine-oak areas, it often fed on seeds of the pines. Examination of eight specimens showed that they cram the esophagus with seeds until it is greatly distended; they also ingest gravel. Apparently they eat their fill in a short time, and this explains their periods of inactivity in shade within clumps of conifers. The stomachs and throats held seeds appropriate to the area of collecting: Engelmann spruce, ponderosa pine, and Chihuahua pine.”

Mrs. Amelia S. Allen (1920) observed some of these crossbills feeding on fallen almonds in an orchard; they “picked the almonds from the ground, flew up into the trees and noisily pried open the shells with their bills. After eating the kernels they dropped to the ground again to search for more.”

Tracy I. Storer (1921) saw some crossbills feeding on the leaves of a cork elm tree: “They were attacking certain of the leaves which were curled up on one edge, cutting these rolls open and getting something from within.” On close examination, “it became evident that a woolly aphis, which had caused the curling of the leaf margin was the item of food being sought by the Crossbills. The attack of this insect causes the blade of the leaf to curl over, forming a cylindrical roll within which the aphis can feed and multiply unmolested by most of their enemies.

“Further watching of the Crossbills showed that the birds had learned the haunt of these particular aphids and also a method for obtaining them. The roll-like cases were cut open lengthwise, but in rather irregular fashion, as well as could be expected of a species with such an unhandy pair of ‘scissors’; then the tongue would be inserted and the aphids withdrawn.”

P. A. Taverner (1922) explains how the crossbills open leaf galls as follows: “The bird would open its bill and drive both points deeply into the soft mass of the gall until the mandibles were practically closed and crossed. Then, with a slight twist of the head, the gall would be split wide open. The hollow interior was seen to be filled with what appeared to be a sort of woolly aphis, which was rapidly cleaned out with the bird’s tongue. The certainty, ease and rapidity with which the operation was performed indicated that the apparently awkwardly crossed bill was a most efficient implement for the work.” This operation was closely observed on a captive crossbill that was partially fed on poplar galls.

Grinnell, Dixon, and Linsdale (1930) saw some crossbills apparently feeding on the green cones of hemlocks, but “examination, later, of the contents of the stomach of the bird taken proved that the only food was a smooth, bright-green caterpillar. Thirteen of these caterpillars, uniform in size, 12 to 17 millimeters in length, were found in the one bird.”

The fondness of crossbills for salt or salty substances has been noted by several observers. Wherever salty dish water has been spilled, or where salt has been sprinkled on the ground, the birds will alight and lap it up with avidity, turning the head to one side and extending the tongue.

Behavior: The erratic behavior of crossbills is too well known to be enlarged upon here. They are abundant in a locality one season, rare the next, then entirely absent for a season. They are most unreliable.

Leslie L. Haskin, of Brownsville, Oreg., has sent me the following note: “During the abundant years they are usually hard to observe, as they keep in the tops of the high trees. At times, however, they come down about buildings and camps in a most familiar way. About old camping places on the trail they would gather by hundreds and thousands, apparently attracted by something that they found in the ashes. One of the cabins at the deserted Paywell Mine had become a death trap for the crossbills. The windows of the cabin were still intact. The birds entered through a partially closed door, but seemed unable to find their way out. On a bench below one window, where they had struggled to escape, they lay, literally in heaps, both freshly killed birds and others that were merely dried wings and skeletons.”

Voice: J. W. Preston (1910) writes: “The song is a series of clear, loud, sparrow-like notes, and pretty whistling effects which come riffling down from some pinnacle of a great tall pine tree. An occasional note resembles a quick, clear passage in the song of the rock wren: a rich, clear, single whistle-note. Another resembles a rich portion of the Baltimore Oriole’s song. But the common note of the Crossbill is an energetic, strong, metallic ‘peet-peet’ which is uttered on all occasions, and one seldom sees a Crossbill without also hearing this note. A male bird will gather a flock about him by means of this call. Another effort is like the twittering of the Goldfinch. Most of their movements are accompanied by the ‘zeet-zeet-zeet’ in a sort of whizzing tone, or ‘chink-chink-chink,’ ‘peet-peet-peet’ or ‘pit-pit-pit,’ metallically. But the real singing is from the tree-tops and it is a happy, cheerful song. At times the male will float about overhead, singing, much as the Horned Lark does.”

Fall and winter: The fall and winter wanderings of Bendire’s crossbill are extensive. Crossbills are notoriously nomadic. This race is difficult to distinguish from the eastern bird in the field, and until more eastern specimens have been collected and identified, we do not know what the eastern limits of its wanderings are. It is significant that Thomas D. Burleigh (1941) has reported that a crossbill, collected in North Carolina, has been identified as bendirei.

Range: Yukon and Saskatchewan south to Baja California, Texas, and Kansas.

Breeding range: Bendire’s crossbill breeds, and is largely resident, from southern Yukon (Kluane Lake, Nisutlin River) and the northern interior British Columbia (Atlin, Telegraph Creek, Nulk Lake) south, east of the Cascade Mountains, to southern Oregon (Fort Kiamath, Maiheur River), central Idaho (Alturas Lake), northwestern Wyoming (Yellowstone Park), central southern Montana (Shriver), and southwestern Saskatchewan (Cypress Hills); extends southwest to the Trinity Mountains section of California (French Camp, White Rock Ranger Station).

Winter range: Same as breeding range except for sporadic wandering west to southeastern Alaska (Admiralty Island) and south to Central Baja California (Guadalupe Island, Sierra San Pedro M~rtir), southeastern Arizona (Huachuca and Chiricahua mountains), southern New Mexico (Cloudcroft), western Texas (Frijole), and eastern Kansas (Lawrence).

Egg dates: Alberta: 2 records, March 3 and May 2. Montana: 1 record, July 27.


When Joseph Grinnell (1909) originally named this small crossbill from the Sitka region of Alaska, he described it as similar in size to the smaller individuals of Loxia curvirostra minor (Brehm) Ridgway, of the Atlantic region of North America, but general coloration different: in adult male about orpiment orange, instead of the deep brownish crimson or coral red as in minor.”

L. Griscom (1937) defines the normal breeding range as “The humid coastal strip of the northwestern Pacific coast district from southern Alaska south along the coast of British Columbia, including the Queen Charlotte and Vancouver Islands, to the coastal ranges of Washington and northwestern Oregon.”

According to J. A. Munro (1947), in British Columbia Loxia curvirostra is “Resident, at some times, in all the forested biotic areas. Violently cyclic in numbers.” He states the race siticensis is the one most commonly found in the coast forests while bendirei habits the interior parts of the province and is sporadic on the coast.

Griscom (1937) records wandering as far north as Portage Bay, Kodiak Island, Unalaska, and St. Michaels. “South irregularly to the northern half of California (numerous years). East irregularly through the lower passes into the interior of southern British Columbia and still more rarely crossing the Rocky Mountains. In the winter of 1887: 1888 a great irruption eastward took place, paralleling the famous flight of evening grosbeaks in 1890. This Crossbill reached the Atlantic States in numbers from Massachusetts to South Carolina, and in the interior south to Louisiana.” His paper gives full details with dates and localities. In the past decade, this subspecies has been reported at a number of localities in the Great Plains and eastern United States.

George Willett (1921) writes, from Craig, Alaska:

During the seven summers and one winter spent by the writer in southeastern Alaska previous to 1920 there was no time when this hird was not in evidence and in most localities it was very common. From observations covering this period it developed that the young were raised in both spring and fall, though whether the same birds nested twice each year was not determined. In late August 1919, vicinity of Craig, birds were paired and males singing. Fully fledged young were plentiful in late September and early October. Again in late March and early April, 1920, many birds were paired and evidently nesting. A pair of breeding birds was taken April 1 and another pair, also breeding birds, April 2. On April 27 a pair of adults were seen feeding full-grown young on the ground. Since early summer of 1920, though the writer has covered hundreds of miles of territory, not a single crosshill has been met with, and they are apparently absent from the region at present writing. The species is known to be very irregular in its habits, but that it should desert such a large section of territory in which it is normally abundant and should remain absent for such an extended period seems worthy of record.

We seem to have no further information on the nesting habits of this subspecies. Its molts and plumages are apparently similar to those of the other races. Its food is evidently the same, including its extreme fondness for salt. Theed Pearse (1929) describes two interesting feeding habits of the Sitka crossbill, as observed on Vancouver Island. Of some birds feeding in a box elder tree, he writes:

While in the tree it was apparent that some of the birds were collecting food from the leaves, and examination showed that many of the young leaves carried a small grayish black aphis on the under side. With glasses it was possible to watch the bird actually pick off the insect, and this was done in a quite different way than would be done by a bird with a regularly shaped beak. It would be quite impossible for the crossbill to “pick off” a small insect, and they captured them by laying the side of the beak on the leaf and catching the aphis at the intersection of the two mandibles, a sideways motion and invariably successful.

These aphides were not the only food this flock of crossbills were after. Some of the birds in the maples and others in nearby fruit trees were tearing at some plant-like substance held in the feet against the branch. This turned out to be the seedheads of the dandelion (Tarexecum officinele Weber); the bird had cut off the head from the growing plant and then carried it to the tree to eat. The heads chosen were those that had just closed after blooming, and the birds tore them open to get at the seeds at the base.

II. B. Tordoff writes Taber: “In all probability, the variations in bill size among North American subspecies of the Red Crossbill reflect differences in dietary preference, but this has yet to be proved for any of the races. The small-billed .sitkensis should, when studied, prove to be especially informative in this regard.”

In all of its other habits, sitkensis does not seem to differ materially from other races of the species.

Range: Principally the Pacific Northwest.

Breeding range: The Sitka crossbill breeds along the Pacific coast (including islands) from central southern and southeastern Alaska (Cook Inlet, Sergief Island) south to northwestern California (Big Lagoon).

Winter range: Same as breeding range except for sporadic wandering east and south to southern Alberta (Jasper Park, Red Deer River), northern Wisconsin (Apostle Islands), northern Michigan (Huron Mountains, Beaver Island), southern Ontario (London, Golden Lake), southwestern Quebec (Grondines, Isle aux Canots), southern California (Riverside), Arizona (Tucson), Colorado (Breckenridge), northeastern Kansas (Lawrence), southeastern Louisiana (Mandeville), South Carolina (Charleston), Virginia (Alexandria), southeastern Pennsylvania (George School), southeastern New York (Hicksville, Hither Plain), and Massachusetts (Chatham).

Casual records: Casual on Kodiak and St. Michael islands, Alaska.


Ludlow Griscom (1937) gave the above name to a crossbill which occupies part of the range formerly assigned to bendirei, and which he diagnosed as follows: “A relatively large crossbill, with a long and relatively slender bill; wing (male) 93.0: 98; culmen 17.0: 19.0; depth of bill at base 10.0: 10.5. Coloration of adult male chiefly in fresh fall and winter plumage strikingly rosy red, with paler and whiter belly, less brownish gray; in worn breeding plumage always bright scarlet. Adult female in fresh fall and winter plumage a lighter and brighter yellowish below, the throat whiter and less flecked with gray, more sharply contrasted with the yellowish breast; belly whiter and grayer, Less brownish gray; worn breeding birds often inseparable from bendirei in coloration.” The type, an adult male now in the Museum of Zoology of the University of Michigan, was collected at Grafton, N. Dak., Oct. 8, 1931.

Griscom assigns to it the following range: “Normal breeding area, the pine hills of southeastern Montana, eastern Wyoming (Weston and Crook counties), western North and South Dakota, and the Rocky Mountain region of Colorado. Wandering northward to the Cypress Hill region of southern Saskatchewan, where abundant in June, 1894 and 1895, and again in 1908. No definite evidence of breeding obtained, and I can find no published evidence of crossbils in this region at any other season or any other year.”

I published (1908) the fact that I saw “a flock of 6 crossbills flying over me among the pines in the Cypress Hills,” on May 31, 1905.

Allan R. Phillips writes to me that he took a “young bird just out of the nest from a family of three or more in a grove of tall ponderosa pines on the I-Iualpai Indian Reservation, Coconino County, Arizona, October 7, 1948,” and refers it to this subspecies.

Griscom (1937) adds the following to its range: “As a nonbreeding vagrant it is of irregular occurrence eastward over the Plains states to Nebraska, Iowa and Kansas (where it has been found locally in abundance on several occasions). Much more rarely westward to Oregon and California (Fort Crook and Mt. Pinos). Status of the crossbill in Utah still unknown, but the few specimens seen are benti. Southward to New Mexico and the mountains of southern Arizona (a notable irruption in Nov., 1885).

“Accidental in Michigan (Lane Co., MoMillan, Jan. 1, 1932), Tennessee (New Found Gap, Oct. 2, 1932) and Texas (Galveston, Nov. 21, 1924).”

As the range of this subspecies is a part of what was formerly considered to be the range of bendirci, much of what has been written about the nesting and other habits of Bendire’s crossbill should apply as well to the present race. The habits of both are undoubtedly similar.

Nesting: Dana P. Snyder and J. Frank Cassel (1951) have published an account of the late summer nesting of this crossbill in Colorado. The reader is referred to their paper for the details of their observations.

In their summary, they write: “A late summer Red Crossbill nest in Colorado was 18 feet from the ground in a 20-foot lodgepole pine. It was started on or about July 26. The first egg was laid on or about July 29. The total clutch consisted of three eggs.

“Incubation did not begin with the laying of the first egg but may have begun with the laying of the second.

“On August 7 (about the ninth day of incubation), the female was on the nest continuously for 15 daylight hours except for six brief periods totalling 26 minutes. While on the nest that day she was fed three times by the male.

“The nest was deserted on or about August 11. The eggs were almost ready to hatch at that time.”

Earlier they write:

“The foundation of the nest was of twigs of conifers. The superstructure was of fibrous material stripped from plant stems, a few grass blades, several pieces of herbaceous plant stems, a small tuft of hair, and a fascicle of pine needles (Pinu8ftezilis). The lining was of shredded bark, lichens, and fine hair (no feathers so far as we could see). The nest measured (after collection) 107: 123 mm. in over-all diameter, 52 mm. in over-all depth. The cup proper was 60 mm. wide and 27 mm. deep.”

A. Lang Baily wrote Mr. Bent that numbers nested on Genesee Mountain, 20 miles west of Denver, commencing Dec. 20, 1951. Nesting was still in progress when he wrote on June 6,1952. Of 14 nests known to have complete sets of eggs, three nests held four eggs, each; nine nests held three eggs each; and two nests held two eggs each. Egg measurements varied from 22.6 X 16.4 to 21.3 X 16.2 millimeters, averaging 21.95 X 16.26. There was evident color variation.

Later, Baily (Bailey, A. M., Baily, A. Lang, and Niedrach, R. J., 1953) published a full account of this nesting colony, which may be summarized briefly: Nesting began in late December in the yellow pine (Pinu8 ponderosa) stands in the foothills and slowly moved upslope, reaching the Hudsonian zone by midsummer. Territoriality was observed only at the time of nest site selection. Females took the leading role in nest site selection and nest construction. The total time involved in nesting, from start of construction to fledging, was from 43 to 48 days: nest construction, 5 days; completion of nest to laying of first egg, 4 to 5 days; egg laying at one per day, 2 to 4 days; incubation, 14 days; nestling period, 18 to 20 days. Clutches averaged 3, varying from 2 to 4. Only females incubated. Strong evidence of double nesting was found. One nest was used for a second set of eggs after the first set was destroyed. Nesting success averaged one bird fledged for every three eggs laid.

Plumages: H. B. Tordoff (1952) shows that the first winter plumage of male benti is fully as red as adult male winter plumage, benti differing in this respect from the eastern North American and Old World subspecies. In first winter plumage, young birds can be distinguished by the color of the edgings of certain flight feathers (red in adults, yellowish in immatures). He also demonstrated that benti (and probably other subspecies) has a distinct, although limited, prenuptial molt invoking the chin, throat, and to a lesser degree the rest of the head. In northeastern Kansas, where his studies were made, the feathers produced by this prenuptial molt lack red pigment in the males. He suggested that the failure to develop red pigment might be based on hormonal balance of the birds at the time of molt, rather than on the dietary deficiencies usually held responsible for pigment aberrations in captive birds. Age variation in size was demonstrated; this variation is of sufficient magnitude to influence taxonomic studies and is partially masked by the similarity in plumage of first winter males and adult males in benti.

Behavior: H. B. Tordoff (1954) made intensive studies of captive birds. Their resemblance to cones protects them as they roost, far out on the ends of coniferous branches. Before going to sleep birds extend and retract their tongues, three to five times a second, for as many seconds. After a pause, they repeat the process. The tongue may project on either side of the mandibles, and it extends well beyond the tips. Sizable clusters of white frothy bubbles appear at the ends of the bills. These clusters soon break, leaving the mandibles wet and shining. Coincident with the tongue action the birds open and close their bills, but at a slower rate. Also, they close the bill in the “wrong” direction, resulting in a peculiar appearance because the mouth will not close evenly. it is possible that this procedure brings about a wearing down of the nonoccluding edges of the bill by abrasion, with the moisture acting like water on a whetstone. Birds are either right-handed of left-handed in opening cones, according to which way the mandibles are crossed. In feeding, the birds carry pine cones with their bills to a perch, hold the cones with their feet, and insert the tips of the open mandibles. With the long axis of the bird’s head approximately at right angles to the long axis of the cone, the tip of the lower mandible presses towards the central axis of the cone and raises a scale against the essentially stationary tip of the upper mandible. The tongue then probes and removes the seeds. There is a peck order of males, another of females, and a dominance of males over females.

Bathing and sun-bathing activities are customarily social. Upon seeing hawks which are barely visible to the human eye the birds become motionless, uttering a single note, tuck, tuck, tuck, but resume activities a minute or so after the hawk has passed.

Range: Chiefly the Rocky Mountain states.

Breeding range: Bent’s crossbill breeds, and is largely resident, from southeastern Montana (Powder River County), northeastern Wyoming (Weston and Crook counties), and western South Dakota (Harding County, Black Hills) south to eastern Utah (Uinta Mountains, Cedar Breaks; intergrading area between grinnelli and benti), southeastern Colorado (La Plata County, Fort Garland), and northern New Mexico (Chama).

Winter range: Same as breeding range, except for sporadic wanderings west to western Oregon (Yaquina Bay, Fort Kiamath), Idaho (Moscow), east to eastern North Dakota (Grafton), Minnesota (Minneapolis), and northern Michigan (McMillan), and south to southern California (Mount Pinos, Providence Mountains), southern Nevada (Lake Mead), central and southeastern Arizona (Yavapai County, Huachuca Mountains), western Oklahoma (Kenton), and western and southeastern Texas (Frijole, Galveston).

Casual record: C asual in southwestern Saskatchewan (Cypress Hills).

Egg dates: Colorado: 5 records, January 30 to July 27.


Ludlow Griscom (1937) in naming this race says: “It seems most fitting * * * that the race here described should be named after Dr. Joseph Grinnell, the dean of California ornithologists, and a leader in the study of the crossbills of his State.”

His diagnosis follows: “A large crossbill, the adult male scarlet in general coloration throughout the year; wing length and exposed culmen exactly as in benti; difFering from benti in having a much deeper bill, 10.3: 11.5, versus 10.0: 10.5, and never having the pronounced rosy and paler coloration of that race; easily separable from bendirei in much larger size and deeper bill. Also readily separable from stricklandi, a still larger bird, with a still deeper bill, and darker coloration, in adult males blood red rather than scarlet.”

He gives it the following rather wide range: “California: Fairly common resident in the higher Sierra Nevada from Mt. Shasta to Mt. Whitney; also Mt. Pinos, Ventura County, the San Bernardino Mountains, and the San Jacinto Mountains; definitely breeding birds are very rare in collections, as field work in most of this area in late winter and early spring is practically impossible. Occurs sporadically as a vagrant along the Pacific coast from Mann County to San Diego County. Arizona: Of fairly common occurrence in the mountains of northern Arizona, all but one of the published breeding records for stricklandi, in the State, belonging here. Non-breeding specimens not uncommon in the larger esatern collections and the important western ones. Has definitely bred in the Kaibab National Forest, Grand Canyon, near Williams (Wetmore), in the Mogollon Mountains, and almost certainly on San Francisco Mountain and near Springervile. Field experience proves conclusively that the occurrence of this Crossbill in Arizona is exceedingly erratic and irregular, and that it is absent from any one locality for years at a stretch. Some day its presence or absence in Arizona will be checked with its simultaneous status in the mountains of California, and interesting correlations may be discovered. Nevada: In recent years summer specimens have been collected in the Charleston Mountains and the Shell Creek Range. It is a reasonable expectation that some day grinnelli will be found breeding in one or more of the higher ranges in western Nevada. Lower Californ,ia: A most irregular vagrant. Recorded from Guadelupe Island in Feb. and March, 1886; as ‘common’ on Sept. 20, 1896, possibly having bred; to March 22, 1897; common in the San Pedro Martir Mountains in June, 1925, no signs of breeding.”

This is another race taken from the range of bendirei as we formerly understood it. It is, therefore, fair to assume that much that has been published about Bendire’s crossbill should be referred to the present race, if the place where the observation was made seems to indicate it.

Range: California, Nevada, Utah, and Arizona.

Breeding range: The Grinnell’s crossbill is resident in interior mountains of California (Mount Shasta, Sierra Nevada, San Jacinto Mountains, San Bernardino Mountains), and in southwestern Nevada (Grapevine Mountains), southwestern Utah, and northwestern and central eastern Arizona (Mount Trumbull, Kaibab Plateau, Flagstaff, White Mountains).

Winter range: Same as breeding range, wandering sporadically north to central Nevada (Quinn Canyon Mountains), west to the Pacific coast in California (Albion to Escondido), and south to southeastern Arizona (Huachuca Mountains).

Egg date: California: 1 record, August 19.


Ludlow Griscom (1937) describes this race as: “The largest of New World crossbills, with deepest and most powerful bill, the depth always 12 mm. or more; in general size averaging appreciably larger than benti or grinnelli; coloration of adult male deep scarlet to blood red, consequently averaging darker than grinnelli with a darker mantle; female averaging darker than grinnelli, often but by no means always with a darker, more olive yellow wash below.”

Of its range, he says:

Resident in the pine forest belt in the mountains of the tableland of Mexico; all too little known, but apparently of vagrant and erratic habits, with a variable breeding season; apparently much less common or less well known, northward to San Luis Potosi and Chihuahua; unrecorded as yet from Sonora and Gaxaca, and several more central states, but this is probably without significance.

As a vagrant of not infrequent occurrence northward, often in some numbers, to the mountains of southern New Mexico (San Mateo Mts.; San Bernardino Mts., probably bred once); southern Arizona (Santa Rita, Huachuca, Santa Catalina, and Chiricahua Mts., where definitely bred once). Much more rarely or casually north to California (4 records, April to September), Nevada (Snake Mts., Sept. 15, 1934), and Colorado (Aurora, Nov. 2, 1919). Accidental in Kansas (Douglas Co., Jan. 25, 1911) and Wyoming (Weston Co., Newcastle, July 4, 1935).

Found in numbers in the San Pedro Martir Mountains, Lower California, from May: October, 1926, and almost certainly bred; status unknown. In June, 1925, another subspecies was common and did not breed, and stricklendi~was not found.

Reliable accounts of the nesting or other habits of the Mexican crossbill seem to be lacking, but the following note, published by D. R. Dickey and A. J. van Rossem (1923), on the presence and behavior of some of these crossbills on Santa Cruz Island, Calif., is of interest: “The 21 birds taken were submitted to Dr. H. C. Oberholser for determination. He states they are unmistakably Lozia curvirostra striciclandi and not berulirei. No breeding activity was noticeable in any of the specimens taken, but males were seen courting on April 3. The male birds attracted the attention of the females by squatting, with tail spread, on a limb, and uttering a rather weak, linnet-like twittering. The territory preferred by the birds was a burnt-land pine area on which fire had killed the trees without destroying the cones. The latter had been opened by the heat, thus affording the birds easy access to the seed.”

Range: Chiefiy western and southern Mexico.

Breeding range: The Mexican crossbill breeds in northern Baja California (Sierra Ju~.rez, Sierra San Pedro M~.rtir), southeastern Arizona (Chiricahua Mountains), and southern New Mexico (Reserve) south through the tableland of Mexico to Guerrero (Chilpancingo), central western Yeracruz (Las Vigas), and Chiapas (San Crist6bal; intergrading between stricidandi and mesamericana).

Winter range: Same as breeding range, wandering sporadically north to central California (Pacific Grove), central Nevada (Wheeler Peak, Charleston Mountains), southern Utah (Cedar Mountain, Navajo Mountain), central Colorado (Aurora), eastern Kansas (Lawrence), and central Texas (Fort Worth) and south to Guatemala (Sierra de las Minas).

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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