|The Crossbill. Photo: Mike Lester|
Backyard bird feeding is a popular hobby in NL. Because of our harsh weather these little feathered friends rely on backyard feeders to survive our long winter. I have been feeding the birds now for several years in cottage country and have become "quite the chef " in preparing snacks and treats for the birds.
I was pleasantly surprised last fall when a pair of red crossbills visited our feeder and continued their visits throughout the fall and into the New Year.
Little did I know that this interesting bird is on the endangered list in Newfoundland and Labrador.
The red crossbill is a stocky woodland bird with a short tail and a large bill with a crossed tip. The percna subspecies is unique to Newfoundland and has a larger bill than most other subspecies. Its unique bill has developed to allow it to open pine and other cones and extract the seed. The male is mottled brick red above and below, and with dark tail and wings. The female is mottled olive gray with darker wings anda pale yellow rump. The juvenile is orange tinted with dusky streaks. It eats pine nuts and insects.
The red crossbill is so dependent upon conifer seeds that it feeds them to its young. If it finds a sufficiently large cone crop, even in the middle of winter it may breed.
A crossbill's odd bill shape helps it get into tightly closed cones. A bird's biting muscles are stronger than the muscles used to open the bill, so the Red Crossbill places the tips of its slightly open bill under a cone scale and bites down. The crossed tips of the bill push the scale up, exposing the seed inside.
The red crossbill shows a great deal of variation in bill shape and voice, and it may in fact be composed of several different species. Eight different flight call types have been described north of Mexico, and birds giving each type have slightly differently shaped bills and prefer to feed on different tree species with differently sized cones. It feeds in flocks and has been seen taking grit and salt from roads.
Endangered Species List
The population of the red crossbill is estimated to be between 500 and 1,500 birds in NL There has however been a steep population decline since the mid 1900s. For more information on what is being proposed to help this beautiful bird check out
For NL bird lovers the discussion group http://groups.google.ca/group/nf.birds contains a wealth of information on current local bird sighting and trends. After I posted an enquiry on this discussion board I received this reply from Lester Rees from Whitbourne. If any one out there has red crossbills visiting feeders please contact him as he has a database containing information that one day may answer the question as to why the red crossbill is on the Endangered List in NL.
My name is Lester Rees and I live in Whitbourne, not far from where
you reported the Red Crossbills.
I had 20+ Red Crossbills here for three years, sometimes they leave
late fall and return in early spring. Red Crossbills in Newfoundland
are on the Endangered Species List and are protected. I have attended
meetings with both federal and provincial with regards to the status
of the Red Crossbills here in Newfoundland. I would certainly
appreciate any reports of further sightings and what tree types you
may see them using for seeds. They are very adaptive and will use the
feeders as long as it contains seeds if they remain in your area. They
may only feed for several minutes a few times a day and could roost in
nearby trees. They are not afraid of human presence as long as you do
not move fast in their direction.
I have started a database of the reported sightings, which includes
numbers of adult birds, juveniles, tree types in the area and other
factors. Joe Brazil who is head of the department which oversees the
endangered species here is aware of my involvement with this species.
Some of my pictures are at the link below, which you may have to copy
and paste into your browser. They are at the Smithsonian Institute.