White-Winged Crossbill

There are certain seasonal birds that birders are often on the lookout for.  This is why I spent a decent amount of time looking at this type of scene during the first half of this winter.

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Evergreens are popular spots for a certain type of bird I was looking for.  Some of the best places for evergreens in central Ohio are cemeteries, and when it comes to central Ohio cemeteries, Green Lawn Cemetery is a very popular spot for birders.

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Green Lawn Cemetery is an historical location and is known in the birding world as being a great spot to see birds.  It deserves a post of its own one day, and I’ll do just that sooner or later- when I go there, I end up taking photos of interesting gravestones more often than photos of birds.  But for now, I’ll focus on the hunt for the bird in question.

Birdwatching has some rules of thumb that are good to keep in mind.  I keep an informal list of helpful tips, and the search for this bird is a good time to trot out another rule of thumb.  That rule of thumb is:

Don’t become too focused- keep the big picture all around you in mind.

Many a time I’ve been extremely focused on looking for a bird in a particular tree or patch of foliage, only to notice a bird flying away from me that was perched very close by.  Don’t be so focused that you miss everything else around you!

In this particular case, the bird I was looking for is famous for being in evergreen trees.  So I was scanning the tops of those kind of trees in particular.  But on this morning- I had been out to Green Lawn multiple times to look for this bird- it wasn’t to be found in evergreens.  I had been too focused on searching evergreens with pine cones in them.  How did I find this out?  By observing another birdwatching tip-

Keep half an eye out for other birders- they may be looking at something of interest.

You’d be surprised the wisdom and experience that other birders bring to observing a landscape.

Another birder in the area was looking at something for a while-

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I looked towards the tree that she was observing, and voila!  I found the bird I was searching for, at long last!

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A quick word about this obviously non-evergreen tree.  This is a Sweet Gum Tree, whose spiked ball seed pods are of interest to several bird species in the winter.  I’d seen other birds feeding on them on previous visits.  Sweet Gums are interesting, but once again I’ll have to save them as a topic for a future post of their own sometime!

Back to the bird now…

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The above birds are male and female White-Winged Crossbills.  Females are yellow, males are reddish.  These birds live mostly in Canada, but often visit the northern part of the US in the winter, looking for seeds to eat (not always pine cones).  These birds are finches, but they are finches with a very unique trait.  Out of the approximately 10,000 species of birds in the world, 5 species- all finches- have crossed bills.  This is one of them.

Here is a short and worthwhile video that highlights this bird.  The reason the Crossbill has a crossed bill is to allow extraction of seeds from pine cones.  The lower bill crosses under the upper bill, so that they look mismatched.  This is a specialized method of feeding, but there are a LOT of pine cones out there, therefore it is a rather effective adaptation!  Crossbills have been known to eat up to 3,000 seeds in a day.  Interestingly enough, 75% of these birds have lower beaks that twist to the right– almost like being right-handed is dominant among people.

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This female shows how the lower beak curves under the upper beak.  This makes for a very efficient prying and twisting tool to get pine cone seeds, which are grabbed by the tongue and then eaten.  They also appear to work on Sweet Gum seed pods 🙂

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Altogether there were at least a dozen of these birds together in the same tree, feeding.  They very commonly travel in such flocks.  They made distinctive soft little trilling sounds.

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This bird steadies the seed pod with its foot while prying apart the shell.

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Another unusual thing about White-Winged Crossbills is that they’ve been observed nesting in all of the 12 months of the year.  The important fact is that there has to be plenty of food available for them to nest.  Otherwise, it doesn’t matter what season it is.  You don’t see this strategy in many other North American birds.

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This was a new life-list bird for me.  Crossbills are a great example of how a certain specialization in gathering a food can give a species a unique advantage over many other birds.  This in turn opens up other behaviors, such as being able to nest at any time of the year.  Nature is creative and inventive, and a lot of fun to observe.