A rare breeding bird in Britain, found mainly in pine forests in the Scottish Highlands, the parrot crossbill is both the rarest and the largest of the three crossbill species found in the UK. Similar in plumage to the red crossbill and common crossbill, the key identifying features of the parrot crossbill lie in the shape of its head shape, its bill structure and the pitch of its song.
Female Parrot Crossbill
Juvenile Parrot Crossbill
Parrot Crossbill perching on a branch
Female Parrot Crossbill enjoying a drink
16cm to 18cm
30cm to 34cm
48g to 61g
Male and female parrot crossbills are unalike in plumage, although both sexes share the distinctive thick parrot-like bill that crosses over at the tip, which gives the species its name. Males are mostly deep brick-red, with a crimson crown and face, and orange-red breast and belly. Their wings are olive-brown, and their forked tail is dark brown, edged with reddish brown.
The parrot crossbill’s thick, almost square-shaped head and neck are a key distinguishing feature that helps tell the species apart from other types of crossbill.
Female parrot crossbills are mostly olive-green and grey, with a greenish head, nape, breast and belly, dark grey wings, and a dusky grey-brown tail. Their wing and tail feathers are edged with a lighter olive, and their underparts are yellowish-grey.
Juvenile Scottish crossbills are olive green to grey, streaked with darker greenish-grey markings. Facial markings include yellowish cheeks and a yellowish-grey crown.
After their first winter and into their first summer, the red colouring of juvenile males begins to become more apparent, and they fully acquire adult plumage by their second summer.
Parrot Crossbill male
Parrot Crossbill female
Parrot crossbills are the largest and heaviest of the three crossbill species found in the UK – the Scottish crossbill and the common crossbill. Male and female parrot crossbills are the same size.
Parrot Crossbill drinking water from muddy pool
Parrot crossbills have similar calls to the more common red crossbill, although there are subtle differences between vocalizations made by the two species, with parrot crossbills’ calls being much deeper in pitch and more metallic sounding.
Commonly heard are a ‘chop, chop, chop’ contact call, and a loud ‘gop’ sound used as an alarm call when a predator approaches.
Female Parrot Crossbill calling
Parrot crossbills are seed eaters, with their crossed-over bill particularly adapted for extracting tiny conifer seeds. Seeds from pine, spruce, larch, poplar and alder are the most popular sources of food. Some insects and larvae are also eaten.
Young parrot crossbills are initially fed on small seeds by their parents, with regurgitated seeds fed directly into the nestlings’ beaks.
Parrot Crossbill extracting tiny seeds from pine cone
The preferred habitats of parrot crossbills are lowland pine forests and woodlands, particularly tall, mature and open woodlands dominated by Scots pine as well as mixed forests with larch, rowan and spruce.
Parrot crossbills are breeding residents across the extreme north of Europe, from north-east Scotland, coastal Norway, throughout Sweden, Finland and Estonia, into Latvia as far south as parts of Lithuania and eastern Poland. To the east, the species is found across west-central Russia to south-west Siberia.
Of the European population of between 424,000 and 1,560,000 pairs, the vast majority live in Sweden, Finland and Norway. More than 10,000 pairs live in Russia.
With up to 1.5 million pairs across northern Eurasia, parrot crossbills are not especially rare across their wider range. However, a sighting in the UK would definitely be considered noteworthy, with less than 100 breeding pairs present in Britain.
The UK hotspot for parrot crossbills is Abernethy Forest, in the Highland region of north-eastern Scotland. This population is thought to vary between 30 and 100 pairs in an average year. Slightly further afield, sightings across Inverness-shire and Aberdeenshire are also increasingly common.
Female Parrot Crossbill in a pine forest
The expected lifespan of a parrot crossbill is between 2 and 5 years, with breeding for the first time at one year of age. The oldest parrot crossbill, identified through a ringing programme in Sweden, reached 6 years.
Predation of parrot crossbills seems to be relatively rare, with occasional reports of unsuccessful raids on nests by sparrowhawks and merlins. Pygmy owls, woodpeckers, red squirrels, pine martens, and corvids are all common predators in pine forest habitats and may attempt to target eggs and young parrot crossbills.
As a Schedule I species on the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, parrot crossbills’ eggs and young are protected from being destroyed or damaged, and the birds themselves cannot be knowingly killed, injured, or taken into captivity.
Globally parrot crossbills are classified as a species of least concern. However, in parts of their range, for example across Finland and Sweden, local declines are evident, especially in forests and plantations where extensive management of conifers for commercial use has been carried out.
In the UK, parrot crossbills are classed as an Amber species on the British Birds of Conservation Concern list.
Deforestation and fragmentation of habitat are leading causes for a decline in parrot crossbill numbers across their range.
Parrot Crossbills female and male (right) drinking in open woodland
Parrot crossbills build their nests in Scot's pine trees, usually around 14 m above ground level and close to the trunk or inner upper branches of a tree. A base of pine twigs is used as a platform, which is then lined with lichens, moss, grass, bark and pine needles. All construction work is undertaken by the female.
Nesting behaviour may begin as early as December and lasts until June. The first brood is usually laid between late February and early April. The female alone incubates the eggs, for between 14 and 16 days, but is fed on the nest by the male during this time.
Parrot crossbills’ eggs can vary in colour from shades of yellowish-white to pale green and are marked with rust-coloured or purple-brown splodges. A typical clutch consists of three to four eggs, which measure 23 mm by 17 mm (0.9 in by 0.7 in).
Pairs usually form in winter, and remain together for the duration of a single breeding season, raising one or occasionally two broods together in a typical year.
Female Parrot Crossbill perching on branch of a pine tree
Not known as an especially aggressive species, parrot crossbills are largely solitary birds but may nest in loose colonies with other pairs a short distance away. Outside of the breeding season, parrot crossbills may form larger flocks, or join mixed species flocks with other finches.
Parrot Crossbill standing in a muddy water
While parrot crossbills are usually year-round residents in their breeding range, some occasional irruptions may occur, at any time of the year, with small numbers of birds appearing en-masse in locations where they would not normally be spotted in search of pine seeds.
After such irruption events, it’s not uncommon for birds to remain in their new locations to breed, before moving on again.
A very small number of parrot crossbills are native to the UK, with 65 or more pairs breeding in the British Isles. Breeding is typically located in the Scottish Highlands, centred on Abernethy Forest.
A rare breeding bird in the UK, twite numbers have dropped dramatically in northern England since 1990, with only a handful of pairs remaining. Efforts are ongoing to revive the UK breeding population, with further pairs nesting in Wales and across Scotland, which is joined by migrants from northern Europe during winter months.
One of twenty species in the Spinus genus, Eurasian Siskins are small widespread finches with predominantly yellow/green plumage. Not uncommon in gardens in the winter, birdwatchers are most likely to encounter these agile little birds in coniferous forests and plantations.
Serins are the smallest European member of the finch family. Rare reports exist of breeding serins in isolated parts of the UK, and small numbers might be seen during migration passage each year, although sightings are not guaranteed.
Unique to the Caledonian pine forests of the Scottish Highlands, the Scottish crossbill is the UK mainland’s only endemic bird species that is not found anywhere else in the world. Visually, it’s relatively hard to distinguish Scottish crossbills from the two other crossbill species (common crossbill and parrot crossbill) found in the UK.
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