This medium sized finch is a specialised feeder with a chunky downwards curving beak which is crossed at its end giving rise to its descriptive name.
27cm to 30.5cm
35g to 50g
The adult male is predominantly brick red in colour with a dark brown forked tail and wings. The bird’s rump and crown have a lighter pinkish hue and in physical appearance the head of the crossbill is large with a proportionately stocky body. The eyes are small and dark and the legs are coloured brown. The bill itself is black, of medium length, curved and crossed at its tip so that the upper mandible points downwards and the lower mandible upwards. The adult female differs from the male in plumage colour having a grey green body and brown wings with a pale yellowish rump; otherwise their visible physical attributes are identical. Juvenile crossbills are mainly plain brown with lighter underparts streaked with dark brown. Dependant on their age the bill may differ from the adult bird in that they do not become crossed at the tip until approaching maturity.
Male showing distinctive crossed bill
The crossbill call is a loud staccato medium tone ‘jip – jip – jip’ interspersed with slightly higher pitched notes. Its song is a mixture of softer trills and warbles.
Peter Stronach, XC614500. Accessible at www.xeno-canto.org/614500.
At irregular intervals, the UK’s population of crossbills may dramatically increase when birds normally resident in continental Europe suddenly arrive on our shores seeking fresh feeding grounds following poor cone crops on the continent. These incursions are known as ‘irruptions’ and are defined as a sudden increase in animal population or a violent incursion or invasion which indicates just how dramatic the increase in numbers can be at any one time.
Occasionally feeding on insects and berries, its main diet comprises of dry conifer seeds which it prises from pine cones using its specially adapted beak.
Male Crossbill feeding on conifer seeds
Crossbills are resident breeders mainly confined to conifer woodland areas in the northern and southern regions of the UK. The production of conifer seeds in specific regions can be unpredictable and may differ from year to year which affects the localised crossbill population forcing them to move to more abundant feeding grounds and as such they adopt a more nomadic lifestyle than other members of the finch family.
Crossbill flying around feeding grounds
Crossbills are the only bird species with easily identifiable crossed tips at the end of their bill which is an obvious marker when seeking them out. They are however difficult to see as they spend much of their life high in conifer trees or flying over the treetops. A social bird they often gather and feed in small flocks. When feeding they flit from pine cone to pine cone prising the cone scales apart with their mandibles thus enabling them to remove the seeds using their tongues. As cone seeds are dry the crossbill drinks frequently and can often be seen quenching its thirst in nearby ponds and lakes.
Female Crossbill drinking from pond
The female constructs a small cup shaped nest from twigs, grasses and lichen which it lines with moss, fine forest debris and animal hair/wool. Generally, the nest is located high up in conifer trees where a single clutch of 3 to 4 pale blue and browny purple marked eggs is laid between January to March. The incubation period is around two weeks with fledging taking place up to twenty five days thereafter. Whilst the breeding season is commonly referred to as the period between January to March this is very dependant upon the availability of food and it has been known for crossbills in some locales to breed from the autumn through the winter.
Female Crossbill gathering supplies for nest
Life expectancy for the crossbill averages between two to five years.
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