Crossbill

An adult male red crossbill.

October 2020 has vanished, gone for good, never to return, thank goodness.

We saw a major cold front, fires, windstorms, an ongoing pandemic, drought, 70-degree days and two full moons this month.

I will not even dwell on the human factors like the stresses of partisan politics, civil unrest, human fear of the future and separation from friends and our wonderful community.

So, we will visit about a remarkably interesting species that proceeds with life as best it can despite conditions that at times are less than favorable.

This is a bird species that most folks have never heard of that lives at times in large numbers throughout the northern Blue Mountains and even down into the lower Columbia Basin.

The bird is known as the red crossbill, which is an amazing finch-type species that ranges all along the coast and over the entire intermountain west in low- and high-elevation forested habitats.

We have found them in the Sitka spruce, Western hemlock and Douglas Fir forests along the Oregon-Washington coast, and on east into the drier, arid Ponderosa pine, Western larch, and Douglas fir forests of the eastern Cascades and Blue Mountains.

They are also located in more moist, higher elevation Grand fir, Lodge-pole pine, Pacific yew and Engelman spruce forests across the northern Blue Mountains, Wallowas, Elkhorns and Strawberries.

They also show up in arid mountain ranges like the Oregon Canyon, Trout Creek and Pueblo Mountains where Curl-leaf Mountain mahogany, Western juniper, aspen and alders dominate.

Red crossbills are highly erratic in their movements. They often travel from one seed crop to another.

When cone crops fail due to drought, fire or poor pollination due to lack of winds, they adapt and then will feed on other seeds like mountain mahogany, teasel, birch/aspen and many other non-cone producing plants.

Their bills are designed to deal with conifer cones and to extract the cone’s seeds or nuts. The tip of their mandibles do not meet, as in most other bird species, but rather crosses tips to the right.

They have a thick tongue, much like a parrot, and they use their heavy, hooked mandibles to pry open the scales of cones and then extract the conifer seeds with their thick tongue.

Their mandibles are thick and capable of cracking and breaking up just about any conifer seeds.

The adult male is brick red with black wings and a tail.

The adult females are greenish-yellow with dark wings and tail.

Sub-adult birds are all greenish yellow with dark wings and tails until they mature and molt into their adult plumages about 10 months after hatching.

This is a very gregarious species and travels in flocks of up to 50 birds.

When the conifer cones are abundant in the Blue Mountains, this beautiful seed-eating bird can be seen and heard all over the Blue Mountains and in the cities of Pomeroy, Dayton, Prescott, Waitsburg, Walla Walla and College Place.

There is a second crossbill species known as the white-winged crossbill that is a lighter pink, red with black wings with two large white wing bars.

This bird will on occasion appear in some late summers and winters in our region.

As more is discovered about the red crossbill, science is trying to determine if, in fact, there are many more than one species of these unique looking birds that all look alike.

So now there are eight-plus “types” of red crossbills and even a “new” separated species of red crossbill isolated through DNA work. It is now localized to Cassia County, Idaho, and its common name is Cassia crossbill.

Many birders now drive down into southeast Idaho out of hopes of seeing and hearing this newly discovered species.

Species names may eventually be dubbed on eight more “types” of red crossbills as time passes.

This very interesting bird has some unique behavioral traits; one is that it will build a nest, lay eggs and pull off young regardless of the season of the year as long as there are ample cones to harvest in the surrounding forest.

When we see recently fledged red crossbills in the dead of winter on bitterly cold days, you just somehow know that life will persist and never give up regardless of conditions.

In our region, there is only one other species of bird that does this all-season nesting, and that is the barn owl.

So, remember that life is good, so please wear a mask!