Normally an occupant of the boreal forests of Canada as well as a few western U.S. mountain ranges, the White-winged Crossbill occasionally moves farther south in the winter if the conifer seed crop is poor. The specialized crossed mandibles of the White-winged Crossbill do not work as well in foraging for seeds other than those from pine cones.
Male White-winged Crossbills defend only a small area around the female and the nest site, rather than a traditional, large territory that many songbirds establish. They often forage in flocks because of the protection it offers from predators. More eyes keeping watch for danger means greater safety for each bird.
Length: 6 inches
Wing span: 10 inches
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Description of the White-winged Crossbill
The White-winged Crossbill is sexually dimorphic, though both sexes have unusual, crossed mandibles and two white wing bars.
Males are mostly reddish, with gray flanks and black wings.
Females are mostly yellowish-brown with darker wings.
Seasonal change in appearance
Juveniles are heavily streaked below.
White-winged Crossbills inhabit spruce forests, though in winter they also occur in other coniferous forests.
White-winged Crossbills eat conifer seeds.
White-winged Crossbills use their unusual crossed mandibles to extract seeds from pine cones.
White-winged Crossbills are resident from Alaska across Canada to the Atlantic Coast. Some winter slightly farther south, into the northern U.S. The population is not well monitored.
White-winged Crossbills are dependent on good cone crops for food, and when they find a food rich area, they settle down to nest, regardless of the time of year.
The male White-winged Crossbill feeds the female while she incubates.
The song consists of a series of rattling trills. A series of “chet” notes is given as well.
- The Red Crossbill lacks wing bars.
The White-winged Crossbill’s nest is a cup of twigs, grasses, weeds, and bark and is lined with finer materials. It is placed on a horizontal limb of a conifer.
Number: Usually lay 2-4 eggs.
Color: Whitish with darker markings.
Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 12-14 days, and fledge at about 22-24 days, though remaining dependent on the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the White-winged 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 White-winged Crossbill – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
LOXIA LEUCOPTERA LEUCOPTERA Gmelin
Smoke rises straight in the frosty stillness of an early September morning. Slowly the mist clears to reveal a tiny body of water. Tucked in at the 3,500-foot level in a region where the tree line is around 4,500 feet or less, Speck Pond lies nearly surrounded by the steep, towering, coniferous-clad walls of those wild Maine peaks, Mahoosuc and Old Speck.
From across the lake comes a white-winged crossbill, then another, and yet another. Others appear, seemingly from nowhere. Soon a small inquiring flock has assembled, calling constantly as if to summon yet more birds. As my companion and I stand a foot apart talking, a brilliant male dashes knee-high between us. A bird alights on my friend. Everywhere, birds are busily foraging on the ground, gleaning food too minute for us to see. They explore the rock fireplace or pass beneath those long flattened logs that form the retaining wall and bench at the front of the lean-to. Quickly becoming acclimated, they enter the lean-to itself to pry around in the dried balsam needles of the built-up bottom. I have seen birds, equally at ease in a long, dark, windowless cabin, penetrate into its innermost recesses. Inquisitively, a resplendent male alights on the top of a log resting at an angle against the rock wall of the fireplace. While the bird watches us preparing breakfast, the lower end of the log, not 3 feet distant, burns merrily. Enjoy the birds while we can; next year there will be no enticing crop of cones and the birds will have vanished. Somewhere, coastwise perhaps, they will have located a new food supply.
Courtship: Joseph Grinnell (1900) observed the courtship of this species in the Kotzebue Sound region of Alaska on Apr. 26, 1899. He says: “Two or three pairs were apparently already mated, for they were detached from the main flock, each by itself. The males were singing very loudly a twitter somewhat resembling that of the American Goldfinch, but coarser. The females were shy, flying covertly from tree to tree and darting through the foliage to avoid the officious advances of the males, who were following them. The latter flew in broad circles above the females, with slowly beating wings, singing continuously, and finally settling on quivering, outstretched wings to a tree-top.”
Mrs. Louise de Kiriline Lawrence writes Mr. Bent of a flight display she witnessed at Ruthergien, Ontario, on Dec. 23, 1947. She describes the male as rising almost vertically on rapidly beating wings. The female was not receptive.
Nesting: Winter may find this bird breeding. A. Leith Adams (1873) discovered a nest with three eggs in New Brunswick in the middle of Jaunary 1868. Another nest had been brought to him a few weeks earlier. He describes a nest as composed of black moss, birch bark, and twigs with a lining of wool and moss.
Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway (1874a) describe a nest Adams found in 1868 in Fredericton, New Brunswick. This nest “is deeply saucer-shaped, and composed of a rather thin wall of fibrous palegreen lichens, encased on the outside with spruce twigs, and thinly lined with coarse hairs and fine shreds of inner bark. Its external diameter is a little less than four inches, the rim being almost perfectly circular; the cavity is an inch and a half deep by two and.a half broad.”
Bertrand E. Smith (1949) mentions two nests found near Calais, Maine, on Feb. 20 and 22, 1948, by Wellington James. The first nest was in a 6-foot spruce and only about 2 feet 8 inches above the ground. Another snowstorm would have covered the nest. All four eggs were broken. The second nest, containing three eggs, was built in a thick spruce about 8 feet high. The cutting down of the first tree may well have accounted for the broken eggs; a falling birch broke two eggs in the second nest. This latter nest is described by Smith as a: beautifully built structure, the extreme outside diameter of the compact mass is 10 cm., the overall depth 5.5 cm. The nesting bowl is 4.5X 4.7 cm. in diameter and 3 cm. in depth. The foundation of the nest consists of delicate grass stems, very slender weed stalks and dead terminal spruce and a few hemlock twigs among which there are tiny bits of Usnea moss and a few small insect cocoons. The nest is lined with intricately woven, long, slender rootlets and tendrils of unknown identity. Some of the tendrils are black in color, very closely resembling horse hair in general appearance, but microscopical examination and tests by burning proved their identity. No hair or feathers were present in any part of the nest.
Robie W. Tufts of Wolfville, Nova Scotia, wrote Mr. Bent of nesting records on Feb. 8,1906, with three eggs slightly incubated, and on Feb. 26, 1906, with four eggs about one-quarter incubated.
T. J. Egan (1889a) found a nest near Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Mar. 16, 1889. He comments on the absence of feathers or clay in the nest and says: “The female was on the nest and allowed a visitor to come within a few feet before leaving it, when she joined the cock bird, a fine red fellow who was singing on the top of a neighboring tree.”
Robie W. Tufts also writes of a nest found on Apr. 1,1906, containing three eggs about half incubated. On Apr. 26, 1906, he found another nest with four eggs which had not been incubated. On Apr. 2,1925, at Seal Island in Yarmouth County, Nova Scotia, he observed a female carrying usnea moss and ultimately he located her halfbuilt nest. Visiting the nest again on April 19 he found it contained four eggs which were nearly half incubated. This would seem to imply a rather long period of incubation but I have found no positive information on this point.
Harold F. Tufts (1906) limits nests to spruce, but says, “some were in trees of large growth and seventy feet from the ground, while others were placed low in small bushes.” Of the family life he says:
During the period of incubation the sitting females were observed to be fed by the males, in the same manner that the young are fed by their parents: that is by the disgorging of the contents of the crop into the open mouth of the bird to be fed. When bringing his mate food in this manner the male crossbill would announce his coming by loud pipings, and perching upon a near by tree would continue his excited chirpings some minutes and then fly direct to the nest. Often after having thus fed his mate, he would circle in the air about his home on outstretched flapping wings, giving vent to a perfect ecstasy of song.
The nesting period of these birds seems very extended. Thus on Jan. 31, nests were found with young. The birds have been nesting ever since, and at this date (May 7) flocks of full fledged young can be seen feeding about the woods, while nests with eggs are still to be found.
This protracted period of nesting took place near Wolf ville, Nova Scotia.
Joseph Grinnell (1900a) found three nests in a stretch of dwarf spruces on May 28, 1899 in the Kotzebue region of Alaska. He says: “On this date the large flocks had scattered out, and the birds were mostly seen singly or in pairs. Two or three companies of a dozen or so were noted, these probably being non-breeders or yearlings. The first nest was found by spotting a pair of birds and closely watching their movements. * * * Both birds soon left the vicinity and did not return while I remained. The nest was situated close to the trunk, ten feet above the ground, in a mass of foliage so thick as to entirely hide it from view. It contained two eggs, about one-third incubated.” The second nest was 12 feet high near the top of a dwarf spruce and was “embedded in a mass of foliage against the stem of the tree, much as in the case of the first nest. It contained two pipped eggs and one newly hatched young. The parents evinced more solicitude in this case, chirping and flying from tree to tree.” The third nest was 15 feet up, also hidden in the dense spruce top, and held one fresh egg. The three nests were “just alike in every way. They consist externally of short dry spruce twigs; and internally of a black wool-like lichen, closely felted, and with a scanty admixture of feathers and bits of grasses. The nests are nearly black, and thus present an odd appearance as compared with those of the usual consistency of other birds. The nest measurements are: internal diameter 2.20, depth 1.20; external diameter 4.00, depth 2.50.”
James Bond (1938) found the species rare in the Magdalen Islands in June 1934 and 1936, but in June 1935, he says they were “exceedingly abundant everywhere, ranking second in numbers, among forest birds, to the ubiquitous Blackpoll Warbler. * * * A number of young, which had probably hatched in April, were seen being fed by the adult females, while other individuals were obviously nesting or were about to nest. Males were observed singing here and there in the woods and examination of certain of these showed enlarged testes. This was noted not only in the adult male but in the immature as well.” A nest which he found on June 8 “was situated near the top of a small spruce about seven feet above the ground. When found, the female was on the nest, covering her four young. On being flushed, she returned immediately to within a few feet of the nest, emitting an incessant, querulous pit, while the nest was being examined and photographed. The following morning the female was absent for some time .but appeared at the nest about 9 o’clock with a flock of her kind that had been feeding in a stand of taller spruce a quarter of a mile distant. As the flock flew high overhead, she descended and immediately began her monotonous calling, whereupon several others joined her, although for a short time only. One of them, an adult male, was collected but proved not to be the owner of the nest, which I never saw. The males evidently take little or no part in the care of the young. The nest was a rather roughly-built cup composed of dry spruce twigs and was heavily lined with rabbit fur.”
Ralph S. Palmer (1949) mentions a nest found by Manly Hardy on which both the male and the female were engaged in adding the lining. The nest was completed on July 19, 1889.
James L. Baillie, Jr., and Paul Harringt.on (1937) mention a nest found, according to D. A. MacLulich, on Aug. 19, 1926, in a small cedar at Head Lake in Victoria County, Ontari6, and another discovered 41 feet up in a spruce tree by Milton B. Trautman on Aug. 20, 1928, at the Michipicoten River in the Northern Algoma district of the province.
J. W. Aldrich and D. C. Nutt (1939) collected an adult male in eastern Newfoundland on Sept. 6, 1938, which, they say, “was in breeding condition, and the plummage was rather worn.” It is quite possible, though, that this bird may already have bred.
Analogous is the case of a bird collected by Robie W. Tufts on Sept. 4, 1924, at Tabusintac, New Brunswick. Writing Mr. Bent of this he says, “the testes were normal size of a breeding bird.” On the occasion in question he had been watching a colony of about a dozen pairs and says, “I was attracted by their loud singing and boisterous chatterings, all of which suggested nesting birds. * * * J watched the flock for all the time I could spare but was not successful in locating a nest though from time to time a male bird was seen to suddenly leave the feeding flock as though taking food to the mate.” He points out that the nest of this species is not distinguishable from that of the red crossbill. Where low spruces grew in open pasture land, “it was a simple matter to locate a nest by watching the noisy male leave the feeding grove. He would alight on a nearby tree and chirp loudly for a moment or two before dropping to the edge of the nest which would invariably be close at hand. A few nests of this species, * * * well out from the trunk” were high up in the trees.
John Macoun (1909) quotes Walter Raine who describes a nest “as made of fine roots and twigs, lined with moss and animals’ fur.” Henry Nebrling (1896) speaks of a nest near Ascanaha, Mich., which was in “dense evergreen woods, and was placed in the top of a small pine about twenty-five feet from the ground.” The inside diameter was 2.75 inches and the depth 1.75 inches.
Frederick C. Schmid writes me of finding a nest July 27, 1945, in southern Yukon territory. The exact location of this far northern record was mile post 843, between Squanga and Little Teslin Lake, on the Alaskan Military Highway. The nest was about the size of that of a robin, rather deep, composed of twigs and a little grass, 10 feet up in a black spruce bog. After flushing an adult off the nest he noted the three young were a sooty black color, eyes not yet opened, gape a brilliant scarlet, bill uncrossed.
Eggs: Joseph Grinnell (1900a) states the eggs are ovate and gives measurements of .86 by .61 inches and .84 by .60 inches. He says, “The ground-color is an extremely pale tint of blue. One egg has scattering iJJy-deflned spots and blotches of pale chocolate. The other egg has numerous very pale lavender markings, and, mostly at the larger end, a number of spots and four large blotches of dark seal-brown.” An egg from another nest was .77X.58, “almost white (before blown, pinkish) with scattering abruptly-defined spots and lines of bay and fawn-color, most numerous at the larger end.” 0. L. Austin, Jr. (1932) mentions black spots, as does Henry Nehrling (1896), who descrihes the dots additionally as ashy-lilac. Andrew L. Adams (1873) mentions red streaks on the larger end of bluish-white eggs. E. H. Forbush (1929) states the usual number is 2 to 4 with dimensions of .77 to 86 inches by .56 to .61 inches; ovate; variable, pale bluish-green to nearly white, with spots or blotches and sometimes lines of various browns and lavenders, chiefly about the large end; figured by Henry Seebohm in a “History of British Birds” (1885, p1. 19).
W. G. F. Harris writes: “Four eggs usually comprises a set of the white-winged crossbill but sometimes only three, or as many as five are laid. They are ovate, sometimes tending toward elongate-ovate, and have very little lustre. The ground is very pale greenish-white, or creamy white, variously spotted and blotched with ‘sorghum brown,’ ‘bay brown,’ or ‘Vandyke brown,’ and occasionally a few scattered spots or scrawls of black. The undermarkings are of pale reddish brown shades, such as ‘vinaceous-fawn,’ or ‘fawn.’ On some types the markings are restricted to just. the shades of ‘fawn.’ The spots, generally, are scattered over the entire egg with a slight tendency to become somewhat heavier toward the large end. The measurements of 19 eggs average 20.9 by 15.0 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 22.0 by 16.0, 18.5 by 14.9 and 20.3 by 13.5 millimeters.”
Young: Referring to a nest containing young, James Bond (1938), says: “The young had hatched about three days prior to its discovery. They were covered with down and it was noted that the inside of their mouths was rather bright purplish red in color.”
A. Brooker Klugh (1926) watched a pair of adults feeding four young. He says: “The parents fed the young by regurgitation and apparently on comminuted seeds. * * * Three of the young went down beside the laboratory, sat down under the salt-water drip from the experimental jars on the laboratory roof, drank some of the salt water, and then went to sleep. I went down and caught two of them in my hands. They were in the juvenal plumage and their mandibles had not yet started to cross.”
F. H. Allen writes Mr. Bent of observing a female feeding young by picking seed from a green spruce cone.
Plumages: J. Dwight (1900), speaking of the male, says the juvenal plumage is acquired by a complete postnatal molt. The whole plumage is a dull grayish white thickly streaked with clovebrown, the feather edgings grayish, but huffy on the back, rump, and abdomen. The wings and tail are a dull black, the primaries, secondaries, and tertiaries narrowly and the tertiaries and wing coverts broadly edged with huffy white forming two distinct wing bands at tips of greater and median coverts. The bill and feet are brownish black. The birds are decidedly blacker than Loxia curvirostra minor in the corresponding plumage.
The first winter plumage is acquired by a partial post-juvenal molt, probably in September, which involves the body plumage, but neither the wings nor the tail. The head, back, rump, throat, and breast are varying shades of chrome yellow with an occasional dash of dull red; the scapulars and upper tail coverts are black. The lores, orbital region, and forehead are a dull black. This plumage wears into the first nuptial plumage which, to the eye, brightens the yellow by loss of the barbules of the feathers. The mouse gray basal portion of the body feathers is somewhat in evidence.
The adult winter plumage is acquired by a complete postnuptial molt. Probably, nearly all young birds assume the full red adult plumage at this molt. The birds become a rosy or hoary brick or geranium red with the wings, tail, and scapularies black. The wing bands and tertiary edgings are white. The abdomen is smoke gray and the under tail coverts dull white, rose tinged, both streaked with clove brown. The colors are much pinker than those of L. e. m%nor in the corresponding dress and the white wing bands are distinctive.
The adult nuptial plumage is acquired by wear, brightening to the eye the rosy tints due in large part to the loss of the barbules from a part of each barb. The general effect is that of a rosy bird mottled with whitish spots.
He says tflat the female, as in the case of allied species, is probably indistinguishable from the male in the natal down and juvenal plumages. The first winter plumage, acquired by a partial post-juvenal molt which does not involve the wings or tail, is olive bluff, similar to L. c. minor, from which it may easily be distinguished by the wing bands. Further, it is more distinctly mottled and streaked with deeper olive brown. The first nuptial plumage is simply the previous plumage modified by wear. The adult winter plumage is, of course, acquired by a complete postnuptial molt and shows a certain amount of yellow scattered through it, somewhat brightened by wear and becoming the adult nuptial plumage. Females never become pink.
Ridgway (1901) mentions specifically the adult male only in connection with the bill, which he describes as horn color, darker terminally, and the “dusky” legs and feet. W. W. Cooke (1885) mentions a male in which the lower mandible turned to the left while in six other specimens the bill turned to the right.
Food: One might think that this species, with its crossed bill especially adapted to pry open cones, would have a specialized and limited diet. Actually, the bird partakes of a wide and varied diet. Thus, a bird collected on Aug. 9, 1920, in the Pribiof Islands by G. D. Hanna was, according to Preble and McAtee (1923), “apparently feeding on the unripe seeds of wild parsnip. * * * The stomach of this bird was entirely filled with remains of blowflies (Calliphora vomitoria).” These blowflies were, at the time, predominant among the food items available.
Alfred M. Bailey (1927) quotes Fred Gray of Wrangell, Alaska, as stating that the birds “feed along the beach, among the boulders at low tide, getting a species of snail, or shell fish.”
H. S. Swarth (1922), speaking of summering in British Columbia, says that “At Glenora the crossbiils were feeding on the seed pods of the cottonwoods, as they were also in some degree at Doch-da-on Creek, but farther down the river, and a littler later in the season, the spruce cones had their undivided attention.”
W. H. Moore (1902) includes black alder and birch as sources of food supply.
John F. Ferry (1907) says of birds wintering in northem Illinois that they are “fond of juniper berries and this fall Mr. R. J. Douglass observed them feeding on dried sun-flower seeds, which were stifl embedded in the withered flower.”
T. S. Roberts (1932) lists as food the seeds of crowberry, huckleberry, ragweed, and foxtail grass. He says that they also eat caterpillars and other larvae, and that they will devour greedily earth containing salt. He attributes the presence of the birds at moose-licks to the salt. This also may well be one of the reasons for the quickness with which the species responds to the smoke rising from human camp fires, a potential indication of salt.
W. A. Stearns (1881) mentions decayed garden fruits as food and notes that Mr. Maynard observed birds eating the seeds of beach grass. Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway (1874a) tell of a bird Mr. Maynard shot in Newton, Mass., on June 13, 1869. The bird was found in an apple tree and its crop was full of cankerworms. A pair of caged birds “ate almost every kind of food, but were especially eager for slices of raw apples.”
Richard H. Manville (1941) watched birds wintering in the Huron Mountains of northern Michigan. Associated with redpolls, pine siskins, and red crossbills, he says that there were about three of the latter species to one white-winged crossbill and that “At one group of buildings both species were commonly seen in white birches and nearby Norway pines. Often the birds were grouped about the bases of hard maples and hemlocks, pecking at the bark; also they were greatly attracted to spots of dog urine in the snow. During this period the temperature ranged approximately from 100 to 300 F., and the snow depth from 16 to 30 inches on the level.”
Arthur H. Norton (1904) watched the species feeding in larch and arborvitae trees. Breaking off the small cones, the birds would seize them and search between the scales for seeds and even insect matter. He says, “Where a flock is feeding the patter of falling cones is audible for a short distance, and they often bear mute testimony to the scene of a recent feast as they lie thick under the trees. A small amount of insect matter was found in some of the stomachs collected in January.
Mrs. Louise de Kiriline Lawrence wrote Mr. Bent an interesting account of her observations of a flock of 52 birds. She says, “They were mostly engaged in feeding on the seeds of the tamaracks which carry a very rich harvest of cones this year. But I also observed that a great many of the spruces had their clusters of cones completely stripped of seeds so that nothing remained but the stems still hanging there. The stripped cones looked like thin silk bobbins without any silk. Some birds were feeding on the highway which has been sanded with chlorided gravel. The birds picked up the apparently salty snow by sideways motions of their crossed bills and separated whatever salty grains and gravel specks they relished from the snow in their bills, so that the snow appeared like froth around their mandibles.”
Mrs. Hildegarde C. Allen watched a female on a hard road in winter. She wrote Mr. Bent that the bird “seemed to stay almost completely in one place, and as the sun shone against her pincers, I could see her pink tongue lick out and against the pehble asphalted in. She did not in the least appear to be picking up grit dislodged by her bill, she looked to be licking the black tarred pebble. Since our roads are well salted all winter, then bare this 24th of March, I decided definitely she was licking the salt from its surface!” Gordon M. Meade (1942), however, writes of an instance of the extremely heavy mortality of this and other species ohserved feeding voraciously on a mixture of sand and calcium chloride surfacing a road in March. Inferentially, this diet may have been responsible for this slaughter since the birds ”appeared to be too sick to rise and even though motorists drove slowly they were killed in great numbers.”
F. H. Allen wrote Mr. Bent the following: “In feeding on green spruce cones the white-winged crossbill picks off a cone and holds it down with one foot while it rapidly picks out the seeds, letting the scales fall. When a cone is finished it is dropped to the ground. The bird when thus feeding is perched on a small branch or twig. By thus picking the cone off and holding it down the bird can more easily get the seeds out of the unopened cone than if it were left dangling in the air. In dealing with ripe cones, however, the crossbills can, and do, pick out the seeds without detaching the cones.” Allen did, on one occasion, see a bird “eating seeds from a green cone without detaching it and without cutting off the scales, probably because the seeds were soft and undeveloped.”
Maurice G. Brooks (1943) discusses the occurrence of the species in the red spruce belt on the higher mountain peaks in West Virginia.
He states that he has found the blooming season of the spruces to be by far the best time to find these birds of northern association, that:
This season ordinarily covers the first three weeks in June; June lOis, generally Bpeaking, near the height of the blossoming period. At this time the young spruces bear, during most years, a light to heavy crop of ovulate strobili containing numerous bract-like carpels which are coated with a waxy or resinous substance that is distinctly sweet to the taste. On many of the carpels this substance forms beads. The coated carpels are eaten avidly by both Red and White-winged Crossbills (Loxria curz’irosgra and L. leucoptera) and by Pine Siskins (Spinus pinua). These strobii, many of which never ripen into cones, are much more in evidence on young spruces (15 to 25 years old) than on older trees, and they are much more likely to occur annually than are mature cones.
P. B. Hofslund (1955) comments on the wasteful procedure of four birds, including an adult male, feeding on cones of white spruce (Picea glauca). Cones were clipped off from the cluster, held on a branch by one foot, a few scales torn off; then the cone was dropped. The procedure was watched for 30 minutes during which 69 cones were clipped and dropped. Few of the 619 cones picked up at the spot had more than four or five scales torn from them.
W. L. Putnam (1955) watched two birds feeding on the seeds of teasel (Dipsacus .sylvestris).
Behavior: Though adaptable to a wide range of food, the predilection of this species for cones appears dominant. In the northern coniferous forests, the size of or absence of the cone cron bears a direct relationship to the birds’ probable presence. Thus, in late August and early September 1950, they were abundant on Katahdin in Maine, in evidence on every part of the mountain I visited. On September 2 there were four birds flying over the Tableland, a rather level area in comparison to the rest of the mountain which extends for several miles at a minimum altitude of about 4,000 feet. Except for dense growths of stunted conifers that are almost impenetrable to humans on the lower parts of the mountain, the region is above the tree line. Seen often under conditions of unobscured view such as this, the birds impress me as being restless, powerful fliers, capable of rapid sustained flight for distances of several miles or more. On these long flights the birds fly straight and without undulation, calling constantly to each other and at times singing.
Occasionally in a season when cones are scarce, a lone bird or even a small group may be encountered. A lone bird seems self-sufficient, ready to mingle with other fringilhids perhaps, but not dependent. On May 31, 1948, I watched at length a stray female at an abandoned open horse shed beside the Carrabassett River in Maine. Several hundred siskins (Spinus pinus) were feeding on the ground inside and around the shed or were scattered through the adjoining alders. The crossbill stayed with, yet aloof from, the siskins, moving in a sedate manner in and out of the shed by passing through a crack between two logs in the side wali, disappearing into the alders, and reappearing. The bird associated not at all with a number of purple finches (Carfpodacu.s purpureus) scattered in hardwood trees across the road. In 1950 on Katalidin, in a heavily coniferous area where purple finches occur in numbers summer after summer, occasional association of the crossbills with them seemed purely fortuitous. In no instance did I see the two species intermingle closely.
Brewster (1938), as compiled by Griscom, says:
They seem to have regular beats or routes which they travel every day. Thus the flock noted October 19th regularly passed our camp every morning at about the same hour. They alighted somewhere behind it, and after feeding ten minutes or more took wing again. Like the Red Crossbill they are absolutely silent when feeding. Just before starting to fly one or two birds begin to call, others join in and finally with a general outcry the flock are off. Their flight is undulating, and they fly in a loose scattered flock. * * * They rarely spent more than three or four minutes in one tree usually alighting in a cluster among the cones at the top, then as if struck by a panic whirling off again. Occasionally they would alight in the top of a tall dead pine. I saw one hang head downward and then climb out under a dead branch using its bill like a Parrot.
The tameness of this species has been noted by many observers, including myself. Mr. Bent mentions in his notes attempting to noose birds, but he found they would jump right through the noose. A. Leith Adams (1873) did succeed in catching 30 birds by using a hair noose.
Earle A. Brooks (1920) quotes a correspondent at French Creek, W. Va., on Jan. 22, 1920, a cold day with heavy sleet. He says: “One finely colored male was working busily at a cone on a branch a foot above my head, and I stroked his side with the tip of my umbrella. Instead of flying he edged away, threw his head to one side and scolded me softly for interrupting his feast.” The correspondent then proceeded to pick up one of three females which were eating from a cone in the road. He carried the bird home, made sure of the identification, took the bird out onto his porch, and opened his hand. “The bird flew about two feet and alighted on a vine.” Another correspondent at Buckhannon, W. Va., wrote on the same day that, “by practising a little Indian stealth, I was able to place my hand over” a full plumaged male.
Baird, Brewer, and Ridgway (1874a) describe the actions of a caged pair, saying: “They were very tame, and were exceedingly interesting little pets. Their movements in the cage were like those of caged parrots in every respect, except that they were far more easy and rapid. They clung to the sides and upper wires of the cage with their feet, hung down from them, and seemed to enjoy the practice of walking with their head downward.”
H. Nehrling (1896) writes of several birds being kept in a cage. They took food immediately after being captured. They were kept for as long as four years in perfect health, and did not seem to suffer from the summer’s heat.
Ridgway (1889) quotes Thomas H. Douglas who described the behavior of red crossbills with the white-winged crossbils. He says that the birds “got along well together when out of doors (would pick seeds out of the same cone), when in captivity (as we had them several tunes) the former would not let the latter feed, and killed some by picking them on the head.”
James Haynes Hill (1902) says of a captive pair that “during the last week of February 1901, the female wished to go to housekeeping and materials were given them, fine twigs, fine birch bark and a little Usnea moss. But the male bird treated his mate with disdain, quarreling with her and driving her from perch to perch.”
T. S. Roberts (1932) says of birds summering in Minnesota: “Durmg midday we found it indulging in prolonged bathing or sitting on low bushes overhanging the water.”
John Macoun (1909) writes that the species bred freely on Cape Breton Island in the winter of 1898: 99, but left very suddenly in April leaving several broods of young.
John W. Cadbury collected an immature male, now in the Academy of Natural Science in Philadelphia, which came aboard a ship in an exhausted condition about 1158 miles east of Cape May, N.J., and less than 400 miles from Cape Race, Newfoundland.
Charles F. Morrison (1889) quotes the species as occurring in winter in Colorado at 10,000 feet altitude. He (1888) also records a specimen taken at about 9,500 feet.
Voice: C. W. Townsend (1906) give a lengthy description of the song, saying:
The trills resembled so closely those of the Canary-bird, that several persons who heard it spoke of the bird as the “Wild Canary.” Far from being low and feeble, the song was delivered with great vigor and abandon, the birds often flying about in large circles over the woods. Occasionally the song was delivered from the top of an evergreen, but usually its vehemence was so great that the bird was lifted up into the air, where it flew about slowly, pouring out meanwhile a great volume of music. This lasted for minutes at a time, and ceased only when the exhausted bird came to a perch. The song would often be at once taken up by another bird, and occasionally several were singing in the air at a time.
The volume of the sound was constantly swelling and dwindling, at times a low sweet warbling, then a rough rattling, more like a mowing-machine, then a loud all-pervading sweet, sweet, sweet, recalling exactly a Canary-bird. Anon the song would die down to a low warbling, and again burst out into a loud sweet trilling whee, whee, whee.
When singing from a perch, which was always the tip-top of a spruce or fir, the Crossbil frequently twitched its tail, and erected the feathers of its crown. One fairly good singer appeared to be rather immature, being mostly gray with but a faint tinge of red in the breast. This full nuptial song is certainly very different from the song occasionally heard at other seasons, and would hardly be recognized by one who had heard the latter only.
Olive Thorne Miller (1904) mentions “long bewitching tremolos, varied by rapturous ‘sweet! sweet!’ and now and tben a slurred couplet of thrilling effect, or a long-drawn single note of rich musical quality, or again a rapid succession of sharp staccato notes.”
Most of the species with which comparison is made are eastern forms. H. S. Swarth (1922), however, states that the “song-flight especially is suggestive of a similar spring performance of the house finch.” Joseph Grinnell (1900a) says: “The bright red adult males seem to have a special note of their own, a sharp metallic ‘cheet’, to me remarkably like the spring call-note of the Arizona Hooded Oriole in Southern California. This note is often repeated during a flight of the crossbills, and is distinctly recognizable among the medley of ordinary notes.” The ordinary call-notes of the species, he says, resemble those of redpolls, but are sharper and more harsh, with several uttered together in rapid succession.
E. M. S. Dale (1924) describes the song as beginning “with a trill on one key, changing to one a little lower in pitch, then to one higher. These three trills were followed by a series of chirps and throaty notes ** “‘. The song continue with chirps, trills and warbles *
Mrs. Louise de Kiriine Lawrence wrote Mr. Bent of her observations on Jan. 2, 1948, near Rutherglen, Ontario, commenting that during courtship a female was “giving a melodious twitter that almost seemed like a song.” She says, further, that an alarm note was a “‘tchet, tchet, tehet,’ a little rough, a little hoarse or hurry, and reminding me somewhat of the hermit thrush’s ‘chuck-note’, or the pine siskin’s ‘burry’ note, though more distinct and loud. There is also another note, which seemed to be given as a warning of something unusual going on. It is a rather long, liquid ‘trrrrrrr’, to use Thoreau’s simile of a ‘beady’ note, a row of rather large beads strung together. This note I heard the least often and almost always before I myself could spot the bird giving it, who apparently had already spotted me.” The song she describes as being similar to that of the red crossbill but “neither as melodious not as varied. It sounded to me something like this: ‘trrr-tiveet-tweet-tweet-trrr-tchet-tchet-tweet-tweet-tweet-trrrrrtweet-tweet,’ with emphasis on all ‘tweets’ which often were longdrawn, rising in pitch, and given with great feeling, as it were.”
A. Brooker Klugh (1926) states: “The song has considerable carrying-power, as it can he heard at a distance of about seven hundred yards.” While this seems a surprisingly long distance, my own observations confirm it under favorable conditions, such as in a natural amphitheatre.
Ridgway (1889), referring to a pair of caged birds kept by Dr. Brewer, says: “They were in full song, and both the male and female were quite good singers. Their songs were irregular and varied, but sweet and musical.”
G. M. Sutton, quoted by W. E. C. Todd (1940), encountered birds of this species wintering in Pennsylvania. Sutton says: “While the birds were feeding, there was a constant chattering going on; the notes were either double- or triple-syllabled and very sweet and musical, although not clear. Now and then could be heard a louder, somewhat clearer note, seeming to come from another species of bird; but the chances are that it was another note of one of the crossbills.”
L. Griscom (1923), also discussing birds out of their normal breeding habitat, states that wintering birds have as their most common note a rattle or chatter very like the Redpoll, but much louder, more prolonged, and less hoarse. Another common note is a sweet, whistled twee, sometimes given in couplets, which is very like the familiar Goldfinch call, but it lacks the rising inflection at the end. When a flock is quietly feeding, there is also a note which sounds like a Junco singing very badly and hoarsely.” I have heard the air full of these sweet whistled twees: to me not in the least suggestive of a goldfinch: and looked up to see a flock of 50 to 100 birds fly speedily overhead in a mass formation. All notes seemed to be on the same pitch: a sympbonic undertone appearing again throughout the song itself.
Field marks: The male white-winged crossbill viewed face on might easily be mistaken for a purple finch, which is of similar size and frequently occurs in the same territory summer or winter. The two white wing-bars on the black wing, however, are diagnostic. Only at close range under favorable conditions can the crossed bill be seen. The somewhat similar pine grosbeak is larger, approaching the size of a robin, and lacks the crossed bill. As compared with the red crossbill, the red of the male white-winged crossbill tends to be a sparkling rosy color whereas that of the red crossbill is more nearly a flat brick red. There is much variation in the latter, however, and L. Griscom (1937) points out that the form benti is actually rosy also. Absence of the white wing-bars is characteristic in females and immatures as well as in male red crossbills in North America.
Female and immature white-winged crossbills are a blended composition of olive and light brown or gray, but show the dark wing with the two white patches. From this plumage, the amount of red in the case of molting young males progresses until the full adult stage is reached.
Enemies: This species spends a large portion of its life span in areas little visited by ornithologists or even by persons sufficiently interested to record their observations. Further, the very nature of the terrain hampers the observer. Presumably, the species must fall prey at times to various hawks and owls as do other finches. Its habit of feeding on the ground must occasionally subject the bird to attacks from rodents and other animals. L. Griscom (1937) stresses the effect of competition between this species and the red crossbill. Although the white-winged crossbill is the more northern, the breeding ranges of the two species overlap in a broad belt across the continent, equivalent to about half the breeding range of either species. Griscom emphasizes the point that wherever one species is present in numbers, the other is absent, or at most represented by a vagrant flock or two.
Winter: Joseph Grinnell (1900a) mentions finding the specie~ in tracts of dwarf spruces bearing great clusters of cones along the bases of the mountains in the Kotzebue Sound region of Alaska. He says: “During the winter they were usually noted in flocks of a dozen to fifty or more, flying from place to place. They then readily attracted attention by their chorus of notes.” When feeding, “they were invariably quiet.”
While on excursions in the winter away from the forested regions of the north, the species occurs, as H. Nehrling (1896) says, “in large flocks and in company with the common Crossbills, Pine Grosbeaks, Red-polls, Evening Grosbeaks, and Waxwings * * ~. Like its ally it is a very gregarious bird, being never seen alone, but always in flocks.” He also points out that the species may not be found again in the same locality for the next 5 or 10 years.
My own experience has been at variance with this in that, while I have a number of times encountered small flocks composed of both species of crossbills in the Maine forests in summer, intermingling of the species in winter in more open country has been at a minimum. Also, I have at times occasionally recorded a lone individual in Massachusetts. In such instances, however, possibly the bird was merely separated momentarily from a flock overlooked in densely timbered areas.
W. E. C. Todd (1940) attributes incursions to lack of cones in the far north inasmuch as the bird is, he says, a “truly boreal species, fitted to withstand the severe cold of the northern latitudes * * a.” In western Pennsylvania the species frequents Norway spruces but seems to favor hemlocks particularly. The flocks are usually small but may at times amount to 300 birds. They scatter out and recombine in divers permutations. The snow beneath the trees in which the birds feed is always well littered with cones and scales. In March the birds hop around on bare places on the ground. Todd quotes notes of G. M. Sutton for Jan. 20 and 27, 1923, stating that the birds “also drank from the stream. When feeding unmolested, they were nearly silent, but they broke out into chirping before flying away. * * * They swung about erratically through the air, apparently without any particular object or destination in view. * * * Masses of them would leave one feeding ground for another and progress in a constant stream along the steep, hemlock-covered slope. They were not particularly wild, nor were they (as literature bad led me to believe) especially tame.”
Aretas A. Saunders (1921) mentions a male and three females taken at Miles City, Mont., on Nov. 16, 1919, which “were in a draw among wild rose bushes and spanish bayonet, three-quarters of a mile from the nearest trees and twelve miles from the nearest pines.”
T. S. Roberts (1932) records an observation of three birds “out on the prairie in high weeds” in the last week of October 1908. He also refers to birds seen feeding in weeds by the roadside on Nov. 7, 1919.
Perhaps the most extraordinary instance of the wanderings of this species is a bird picked up dead at Demarcation Point, Alaska, in January 1937, recorded by Laurence M. Huey (193S). The bird was taken to Charles D. Brower of Barrow, Alaska, who verbally confirmed the identification to Huey, who comments on “the peculiar phenomenon of the bird’s wandering such a great distance from the coniferous forest belt, and ending its journey of life on the tundra so far within the Arctic Circle in the dead of winter!”
Range: Alaska, Mackenzie, Labrador, Scandinavia, Russia, and central Siberia south to northern United States, England, Italy, and southern Siberia. (An isolated subspecies is resident in Hispaniola.)
Breeding range: Breeds, and is largely resident, from north-central Alaska (Kobuk River, Fort Yukon), central Yukon (Bern Creek, MeMillan River), central Mackenzie (Fort Wrigley, Fort Rae, Thelon River), central Manitoba (Grand Rapids), northern Ontario (Fort Severn, Fort Albany, Moose Factory), northern Quebec (Paul Bay, central Ungava), central Labrador (Okak, Hopedale), and Newfoundland south to south central Alaska (Palmer, McCarthy), northern and interior British Columbia (Flood Glacier, Indianpoint Lake, Monashee Pass), central Alberta (Stony Plain), northern Minnesota (Lake and Cook counties), northern Wisconsin (Kelley Brook), northern Michigan (Escanaba), southern Ontario (Michipicoten River, Head Lake), southern Quebec (Mount Orford), southern New Brunswick (Grand Manan), and Nova Scotia (Barrington, Halifax); reported breeding sporadically south to Washington (Mount Rainier), northeastern Oregon (Wallowa Mountains), Montana (Fortine, Glacier Park, near Red Lodge), northeastern New York (eastern Lewis County, Long Lake), northern Vermont (Lunenburg), New Hampshire (White Mountains), and southern Maine (Mount Desert Island).
Winter range: Same as breeding range, wandering sporadically south to central Oregon (Big Cultus Lake), southern Idaho (Minidoka), Colorado (Bakers Park; Denver), southeastern New Mexico (Clayton), Kansas (Hays, Haistead, Lawrence), Oklahoma (Bartlesville), Missouri (Shannon County), Illinois (Warsaw), Indiana (Bloomington), Kentucky (Louisville), Tennessee (Memphis), and North Carolina (Lenoir, Raleigh); west and north to western and northern Alaska (St. Paul Island, Malchatna River, Afognak Island, Demarcation Point), northwestern Mackenzie (Fort Anderson), northern Manitoba (Churchill), and Franklin (Repulse Bay, Baffin Island, Lake Harbour).
Casual records: Accidental in Bermuda, Greenland (Frederikshaab, Julianehaab), Scotland, and England.
Migration: Late dates of spring departure are: North Carolina: Cullowbee, May 9. Virginia: Fort Hunt, May 2. District of Columbia: May 20. Maryland: Laurel, April 27. Pennsylvania: State College, May 19. New York: Cayuga and Oneida Lake basins, May 30 (median of 7 years, April 22); Scarborough, May 29; New York City, May 10. Connecticut: Portland, May 12. Massachusetts: Concord, May 30. Vermont: Montpeller, May 4. New Hampshire: New Hampton, May 8 (median of’ 21 years, March 20). Quebec: Senneville, May 7. Missouri: Shannon and Carter Counties, April 18. Indiana: Michigan City, June 26; Bloomington: June 24; Camden, March 16. Ohio: Toledo, May 8. Michigan: Escanaba, May 1. Iowa: Ames, February 15. Kansas: Wichita, March 21. Nebraska: Holstein, Bladen, April 20. South Dakota: Brookings, March 6. North Dakota: Fargo, June 1. Manitoba: Lake St. Martin, May 1. Colorado: Silver Lake, May 17. Washington: Tacoma, May 19.
Early dates of fall arrival are: Washington: Echo Lake, Pierce County, September 22. Alberta: Edmonton, October 28. Montana: Big Sandy, September 12. Wyoming: Laramie Park, August 25. New Mexico: Clayton, November 3. Manitoba: Oak Lake, August 10. North Dakota: October 23. South Dakota: Faulkton, October 1. Nebraska: Omaha, November 10. Kansas: Hays City, September 15. Minnesota: Hallock, October 25. Wisconsin: Shiocton, November 3. Iowa: Davenport, November 3. Michigan: McMillan, October 31. Ohio: Toledo, November 2. Illinois: Chicago, September 9. Missouri: St. Louis, November 16. Kentucky: Louisville, November 27. Quebec: Morin Heights, September 28. Vermont: Stratton, October 7. Massachusetts: Concord, October 27. Rhode Island: Johnston, November 20. Connecticut: Saybrook, November 6. New York: Babylon, October 6. Pennsylvania: Hawk Mountain, Hamburg, October 17; Media, October 22. Delaware: Hoops Dam, November 16. Maryland: Laurel, November 13. District of Columbia: October 23. North Carolina: Piney Creek, December 13.
Egg dates: Nova Scotia: S records, February 8 to April 26.