Red Crossbills are one of the most interesting Yukon birds in my opinion. If you happen to see one at your winter feeders or buzzing and chattering at the top of a spruce tree in the summer you can’t help but take notice. Its large, crossed bill is a feature that makes it unique among other Yukon bird species. My brother refers to it as the ‘demon bird’, as the male’s red feathering and crossed/hooked bill can give it a somewhat menacing look. The male has bright red plumage all over its body except for its wings which are black/dark grey. It’s legs are fairly short and thick, its strong feet built for holding on to the tip of a spruce branch so it can pick at the uppermost spruce cones. The females are built the same way; the only difference is that their plumage is yellow-greenish and their wings a dark grey. The juveniles can be either very dull or very colourful depending on their age. Fledglings will be streaky and gray; however when they get older they get patches of red AND green coloured plumage. It is not until later that their true adult colours start to come in. These birds are about 61/4 inches in length on average.
Often while taking a walk through coniferous forest in the summer you walk past a spruce to hear a crunching/crackling sound above you. There may also be bits of pinecone falling. If you can look up with out getting debris in your eyes there will be a flock of crossbills feasting on the seeds from the highest spruce cones. They also eat spruce buds, some berries and bugs, but their main food source are the conifer seeds. They extract the seeds from the cones with their bills in an upward-spiraling pattern. They start at the bottom of the cone and spiral their way up. An interesting fact is that the crossbills are not born with crossed bills; they develop that once they begin foraging. It takes about 45 days after hatching for the bill to cross enough to be of assistance in foraging. The bill can be crossed on either side; which ever side it is crossed on is the direction they will spiral while extracting conifer seeds.
Red Crossbills are monogamous and will nest at any time of year if there is an abundance of conifer seeds. They can nest in the coldest winter months, even in the Yukon. Just this past February I had some young crossbills at my feeder that were multicoloured, suggesting that they were born in late December, early January. This is another thing that makes these birds so interesting. They aren’t like the American Dipper in that they can endure icy cold waters and forage at the bottom of rivers in the Yukon winter, but they can nest and raise a brood during the coldest months. Can you think of any other Yukon bird that can do that? Pretty amazing! They are one of our hardiest birds; surprising for their small size. They usually build their nest on a branch at the top of a conifer and build a loose cup-nest of grass, twigs, barks, feathers, and hair. Once the nest is built the female lays about three pale blue, spotted eggs and incubates them for twelve to sixteen days, being fed and cared for by the male. After the eggs hatch the female incubates for 5 more days before joining the male in foraging. The chicks fledge in 18 to 22 days.
I looked for legends and myths concerning crossbills and was expecting ones about how they are demons and evil omens, like such legends surround owls. However, I found legends portraying a very different image. This poem is an old German poem that was translated.
THE LEGEND OF THE CROSSBILL
On the cross the dying Saviour
Heavenward lifts his eyelids calm,
Feels, but scarcely feels, a trembling
In his pierced and bleeding palm.
And by all the world forsaken,
Sees He how with zealous care
At the ruthless nail of iron
A little bird is striving there.
Stained with blood and never tiring,
With its beak it doth not cease,
From the cross t’would free the Saviour,
Its’ Creators’ Son release.
And the Saviour speaks in mildness:
“Blest be thou of all the good!
Bear, as a token of this moment,
Marks of blood and holy rood!”
And that bird is called the Crossbill;
Covered all with blood so clear,
In the groves of pine is singeth
Songs, like legends, strange to hear.
Another slightly altered version of this poem mentions that the crossbill got its crossed bill from trying to pull the nail out of Jesus’s palm. Another much more light-hearted legend I found was actually an old European Wives’ Tale. In old Europe it was believed by some that the first bird a maiden saw on Valentine’s Day would let her know what type of man she would someday marry. If a young maiden saw a crossbill as the first bird on Valentine’s Day, the man she would marry would be very argumentative. If it was a Bluebird, it would be a happy man. A blackbird meant a clergyman or priest, and so on. However if a maiden saw a woodpecker first, then she would not marry that year and would have to wait until the next year.
I hope that this post has opened your eyes and made you realize just what an incredible bird the Red Crossbill is. What you see at the feeder is definitely not all there is to this little bird.
The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, by Donald and Lillian Stokes.