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Flocking to crossbills

Flocking to crossbills

By Ranger Steve Mueller

Male white-winged crossbill. Photo by Garth McElroy/VIREO via Audubon.org.

People flocked to see White-winged Crossbills in Rockford. They are uncommon winter visitors this far south. The last time I experienced crossbills in Kent County was at the Wittenbach/Wege Agri-science and Environmental Education Center in Lowell when I was leading a college group through the pine forest in 2006. Avid birders have likely encountered them more frequently in our area. Last winter I saw them in the Upper Peninsula, along with other northern migrants that do not normally venture much farther south.

It is more likely to see nomadic White-winged crossbills farther north where they drift about erratically in small flocks searching spruce and tamaracks for seeds during winter. Most of the year they are north of the United States but drift southward especially during years of poor cone production. 

They have a unique bill with sharp tips on the lower and upper bills that cross over the opposite bill. Use your index fingers and cross them so they make an X just behind your fingernails. The lower part of your finger would represent the main bird bill and the fingertips represent the pointed end of the beak. Move your fingers so the fingertips touch end to end. The bird inserts bill tips between cone scales and partially closes the bill to force scales apart with its crossed tips. With its tongue the bird retrieves a conifer seed. 

The White-winged Crossbills have slightly thinner bills than the similar Red-crossbills that lack white wingbars. This bill adaptation allows White-winged Crossbills to secure smaller seeds from tamaracks, or from white and black spruce conifer cones. The Red Crossbill utilizes larger coned red and white pines.

The species are unique from most passerine birds in two other characteristics. They will build nests and raise young in winter or late fall if conifer cone seeds are abundant. This is possible because they feed young regurgitated seeds instead of insects. Most birds that are primarily seed and fruit eaters feed their young insects. 

Nest building is in conifer trees in bogs and swamps or in pine trees. The birds feed on other seeds and will take available food when the preferred is not found. Lori Tieman from Northland Nature Nest bird and wildlife store on Belding Road west of the E. Beltline by Bostwick Lake noticed a crossbill at her home feeder in Rockford. It was eating from the thistle seed feeder in her front yard. She posted a picture and soon bird watchers were visiting to look for this infrequently seen species.

At the Nature Nest I bought metal squirrel guard cones to place on my Shepherd’s hook bird feeder posts and they quickly paid for themselves in seed and suet cost savings. Birds eat hardily at the feeders and suet basket but enough seed drops to the ground to keep squirrels fed. Ground feeding birds like Mourning Doves and Dark-eyed Juncos find adequate food to keep returning. 

It is enjoyable to browse through a bird and nature specialty store to discover products that help attract wildlife or for decorating the landscape. We bought a Michigan shaped cement steppingstone for the butterfly garden that makes it easier to enter for weeding. Google “Northland Nature Nest” to see what they offer nature enthusiasts. Shop locally to help area businesses stay open.

This is a good year to attract birds because many of us are staying home and species that normally do not visit this far south are being sighted. Evening Grosbeaks, Common Redpolls, and Pine Siskins are showing up at feeders. More common winter migrants like Red-breasted Nuthatches and Dark-eyed Juncos are present. If you are lucky, you might attract crossbills. 

Natural history questions or topic suggestions can be directed to Ranger Steve (Mueller) at odybrook@chartermi.net – Ody Brook Nature Sanctuary, 13010 Northland Dr. Cedar Springs, MI 49319 or call 616-696-1753.

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