Daily Bird: Red Crossbill
February 17, 2021
Birders are getting good views and good photos of a small flock of Red Crossbills at Hammonasset Beach State Park in Madison, in pines to the right of the Meigs Point pavilion. We posted this Daily Bird just a few months ago, in November (it was originally written several years ago), but Hammo has been such a reliable location lately for these rarities that it’s worth posting again (with new photos by Patrick Comins). — Tom Andersen
by Paul Cianfaglione
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.
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.