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Winter Visitors, part 2 – A Finch with an Odd Beak.

January 26, 2013

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.

32 Comments leave one →
  1. January 26, 2013 10:06 pm

    The cemetery shot with the Christmas wreaths is most interesting–I can see how that might distract you from the feast the Crossbills are enjoying…

    • January 26, 2013 10:41 pm

      Inger, I’ll have a whole post one of these days about Green Lawn Cemetery. It’s very scenic and has lots of history. There are some famous Ohioans buried there too.

  2. January 26, 2013 10:10 pm

    A great informative post, Tracy. I enjoyed it. We don’t have any crossbill down here as a rule, however a couple have been seen recently int far West Texas north of Big Bend National Park.

    • January 26, 2013 10:42 pm

      Thanks Bob- wow, Crossbills made it down to Texas, that’s at the extreme end of their winter range for sure!

  3. January 27, 2013 6:23 am

    Beautiful! They look quite similar to the crossbills we used to see in North Wales, the males having a lovely flushed pink chest. We have Scottish crossbills up here – they are supposed to be a distinct sub-species but in fact there is hardly any difference.

  4. January 27, 2013 8:10 am

    Fascinating post, Tracy! I love the background info on this unusual bird as well as the photos. I’m going out in the next few weeks on some bird hunting excursions for video and I appreciate the helpful tips for finding birds to photograph

    • January 28, 2013 3:00 pm

      You’re welcome, Lynn- ‘Don’t get too focused’ is a lesson I’ve had to learn time and time again. I can’t tell you how many photos I’ve missed ignoring that advice!

  5. January 27, 2013 8:47 am

    Thank you for another very informative post! It’s always such a great feeling to find the critter that you have made a special trek to see, isn’t it?

    • January 28, 2013 3:01 pm

      You know it, QSP! Now if I could just see some Redpolls…but hey, it’s always good to have something to look forward to. Maybe next winter!

  6. January 27, 2013 10:32 am

    Good pics, Tracy. I’ve never seen any of the crossbills so I really enjoyed this post.

    • January 28, 2013 3:04 pm

      Thanks, Jo Ann- often these birds are rather mobile from day to day, making them harder to observe, but wouldn’t you know that this flock has been at the cemetery for at least a week now. They apparently like the food supply and the relative quiet (except for us birders)!

  7. January 27, 2013 3:51 pm

    What a beautiful spot for birding! Lovely photos of the crossbills.

    • January 28, 2013 3:06 pm

      Thanks, Pat- I’ll do a post on Green Lawn Cemetery sometime this year, it’s an enchanting place.

  8. January 27, 2013 5:34 pm

    Very nice photos. I am a little jealous.

    I’ve been hoping to see these things this winter, but not yet. I checked out our nearby cemetery earlier in the season to see if there would be any suitable Crossbill food and there were no pine cones on any of the trees, but then we had a drought. We have an ash tree and heard the Crossbills enjoy the “fruits” off of those, but nothing… yet. 🙂

    • January 28, 2013 3:08 pm

      You’ll see them one of these days and you’ll be very happy! Redpolls are my next ‘must see bird’ 🙂

  9. January 27, 2013 7:20 pm

    Hi Tracy. I loved seeing the Sweet Gum Tree. Very interesting about the beaks crossing left or right. The photo of the evergreen wreaths on the gravestones stuck with me all day. Jane

    • January 28, 2013 3:10 pm

      Thanks Jane- this particular cemetery is quite well-decorated, I’ll have to go through all my pictures of it…maybe I’ll do a separate decoration post about it sometime. Sweet Gums are very curious trees, I’ve seen a few bird species that try to pry out its seeds.

  10. January 27, 2013 7:51 pm

    Very interesting. I wondered why their bills crossed-thanks for filling in that blank spot. We don’t have sweet gum trees but we sure have plenty of pines, so maybe they come here too. Last time I was in a cemetary I was accosted by a crazy woodpecker. I would have much rather watched one of these birds!

    • January 28, 2013 3:12 pm

      Wow, Gardener- woodpeckers were plentiful in this cemetery too, it’s the time of year when they are getting frisky, there’s got to be a story behind that crazy one!

  11. January 28, 2013 9:42 pm

    They are pretty and interesting birds. We had them here last year but I haven’t seen any this year yet.

  12. January 29, 2013 11:35 am

    I see a spirit! Third photo down – left side of photo near the tree. Is it also bird watching?

  13. February 2, 2013 6:19 pm

    We have a cemetery in Cincinnati called Spring Grove Cemetery that has been host to both species for a couple of months now. The Red-winged outnumber the Red by a considerable number, Just having an opportunity to catch both species feeding in the same tree at the same time was awsome and sure added to my January 100 list.

    • February 2, 2013 11:39 pm

      That’s awesome that you saw both species at the same time, Les- it took me long enough to see one of them!

  14. February 5, 2013 4:08 pm

    I’m glad to see those gumballs actually serve a purpose! They sure can be a mess in the yard. Nice find, feather-wise, too!

  15. December 16, 2015 10:59 am

    Beautiful blog, Watching Seasons! Columbus Landmarks and Friends of Green Lawn Cemetery are co-leading a winter walking tour of Green Lawn Cemetery on January 31. May we use your image above of the gravestone wreaths to promote the tour?


  1. Winter Visitors, part 4 – That Other Finch With The Odd Beak! | Seasons Flow

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