Two species of birds, the Red and the White-winged Crossbills, were predicted by the experts to appear frequently in our region this winter. Both are rarely seen in the state but, at times of overpopulation or food shortages, may surprise and please birdwatchers when one or the other suddenly appears on the scene.
Several weeks ago our friend Mary Thilly reported seeing a few White-winged Crossbills having been killed by cars as the birds were attracted to the salted gravel on roads. Charlotte had the same experience, too, when she observed Red Crossbills doing the same thing. She turned around to go back and retrieve a dead crossbill that had been killed by a passing car. Interestingly, a few of the birds continued to remain on the gravel only several feet away as she watched. Suddenly a pick-up truck sped by and, right in front of Charlotte, killed another of the birds.
The thought was that the birds had been attracted by the gravel that in turn, within the birds’ gizzards, would help to grind up seeds. No reference I studied would substantiate this thought. One book, Bent’s Life Histories of Birds, mentioned a number of people watching crossbills on roads where salted gravel had been spread, not really picking up the grit but rather only licking off the salt with their tongues. In the far north, where the White-winged Crossbills often spend the entire winter feasting primarily on spruce seeds, I can’t see where they could possibly obtain grit in the middle of the snowy forest. That’s only my personal opinion.
There are reports from people who set out salt blocks to attract White-tailed Deer, and even Moose in the far north, that quite often they would see crossbills having been attracted to the blocks. Other birds that consume insects as a part of their diet do obtain natural salts in their food, salts so important to their health.
My journal states that the first White-winged Crossbills I ever saw was on Jan. 1, 1966, 47 years ago. It was a clear cold day as Harold Wilson and I hiked down to the shore at Newport. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, a flock of 14 approached us flying very low from our left. We could clearly make out their white wing bars which separated them from the Red Crossbills.
Eight years later, in 1974, for only the second time in my life, first time for Charlotte, these fascinating birds of the boreal forest were with us for the winter. However, this time they were coming to the feeding station in our backyard day after day. They, like the Pine Siskins, proved to be unusually and delightfully tame.
It was while feasting, actually chewing, on sunflower seeds that their long, crossed, nearly grotesque bills appeared to be positive hindrances to their survival. Nope, not so as they proceeded to be quite capable of extracting some of the meat from the hulled seeds. Often, like the chickadees, they would fly with a seed up to one of the White Spruce trees where they could get a better toe-hold on the seed as they worked at it. Occasionally, while high in the spruces they would also search the branches for cones. They would frequently use their bills, parrot-like, along with their feet, in maneuvering among the thick-needled foliage.
Conifer seeds, especially spruce, hemlock, tamarack and pine, are the most sought after food of the crossbills, both the Red and the White-winged. Their beaks are perfectly adapted, better than perhaps any other bird, to pry open the tight-fitting scales and hold them apart with their beaks as they easily extract the two seeds with their tongues. This usually happens within the blink of an eye. There are two seeds neatly contained on the inside of each scale.
It was on this past January 30th that we had what at first was thought to be a very unfortunate experience that turned out to be just the opposite. I had opened the front door and was on my way to replenish some of the bird feeders when just that fast a small bird hit up against the sunroom window right in front of me. It dropped to the snow with its backside upright and immediately I saw its yellow rump spot. I thought possibly a Yellow-rumped Warbler until I gently picked up the slightly stunned bird and saw its white-wing bars and crossed mandibles, a female White-winged Crossbill, about the size of a Purple Finch.
Within seconds we had the bird indoors and gently placed at the bottom of a closed large brown paper shopping bag where it could be very quiet and in the dark. We’ve done this often in the past. As soon as you hear the bird’s shuffling feet and trying to get out we’d take the bag outdoors, place it on its side and open it – and invariably away the bird would fly.
Quickly I got my SLR digital camera and a 105 mm macro lens ready to take a few pictures. Within a minute or less I sensed the bird appearing to be very normal so gently lifted her out and placed her in the palm of my hand. Charlotte began taking pictures and in a few seconds the bird easily moved to perch on one of my fingers for a few more shots. Now it was time to release the crossbill outside, and fortunately it flew high into one of the front yard hemlocks.
Around 30 years ago, when I still was doing bird banding for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it was an easy matter for me to hold a bird while Charlotte took its picture(s). Now the best way for me to get sharp close-up digital images of songbirds in our front yard is from the confines of my portable bird blind set up near our bird feeders and water baths. No, I do not use it in winter! For quite a few years I’ve had excellent luck with the Rue Ultimate Photo Blind (www.rue.com) that I can have set up and ready to use within one minute. What’s so nifty about this well-designed device is that it’s excellent for just getting close to the birds and not even bothering with taking pictures.
Here’s hoping you are having fascinating experiences with two of the most seldom seen and unusual birds in our state, the Red and the White-winged Crossbills. We earnestly hope that our next sighting of these birds won’t be eight years from now. As a matter of fact it would be wonderful if we could cross paths with the crossbills every year!