November 18, 2017
“There is currently an historic Red Crossbill irruption under way in North America, with birds already showing up this fall in far-flung places, out of range, out of habitat, and in enormous numbers.” — Marshall Iliff, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
by Paul Cianfaglione
Although there have been only a few sightings in Connecticut so far, you may have a good opportunity to see Red Crossbills this fall and winter. Perhaps. Predictions are for most Red Crossbills to venture no farther south that New England’s northern states. But a few more than usual may reach Connecticut. Look for the trademark bill that crosses at the tip.
The Red Crossbill is a common resident of higher-altitude coniferous forests of northern New England, but is nomadic, irruptive, and unpredictable in Connecticut. They can wander extensively, especially during years when cone crops fail within its normal winter range. During irruption years, movements may begin as early as late September, and may coincide with exodus of Red-breasted Nuthatch.
Where to find it: Conifer forests with a seasonally bountiful cone crop. Red Crossbills favor spruce, hemlock and most pine species. They are commonly found in flocks of several individuals to a few dozen birds. Flocks work favored trees until cones are stripped. When they are not feeding, Red Crossbills tend to sit at the very top of the conifers.
Connecticut birders were fortunate to find Red Crossbills last fall in Colebrook along North Colebrook Road, east of Benedict Pond and Doolittle Pond. Birders reported several flyovers (1-3 birds) at Doolittle and flocks of 15 and 10 birds near Aton Forest headquarters on North Colebrook Road. Already this fall there have been sightings of Red Crossbills in Canton.
What it looks like: A squat, top-heavy finch with a small forked tail, slightly larger than a Purple Finch. Adult males are overall dull red in color with brownish wings and tails, while females are dull yellow or grayish, but there is much variation.
The Red Crossbills trademark bill crosses at the tip, which allows the species to efficiently separate the scales of conifer cones and extract the seeds on which they feed. In doing so, the crossbill will behave parrotlike, using its bill and feet to systematically move from branch to branch.
Another species that may cause identification problems with the Red Crossbill is the White-winged Crossbill. White-winged Crossbills are structurally identical to Red Crossbills; however, the males are slightly brighter red with blackish wings and tails. Females are dull grayish, with touches of yellow on the breast and rump, blurry streaking on the underparts. In all plumages, shows two conspicuous white bars on wings.
Conservation status: Red Crossbill has an extremely large range, and hence does not approach the thresholds for Vulnerable under the range size criterion. It is therefore evaluated as Least Concern.
photo by Alan D. Wilson, Carolinabirds.org