Jim Williams has been watching birds and writing about their antics since before "Gilligan's Island" went into reruns. Join him for his unique insights, his everyday adventures and an open conversation about the birds in your back yard and beyond.

Red Crossbills at Wirth Park

Posted by: Jim Williams under Bird biology, Bird identification, Bird sightings, Minnesota birding sites Updated: August 20, 2012 - 12:32 PM

 Red Crossbills are being seen in Minneapolis as well as several other locations in the state where this bird is infrequently found. Crossbills are finches that specialize in the seeds of various pines and spruces for food. You would expect to see them – with some diligence and good fortune – in Minnesota’s Arrowhead, beginning at Duluth. Their range extends east and west in Canada and down through the Rocky Mountains and other mountain ranges where elevation duplicates the conditions of northern habitat. They are nomadic, moving frequently and irregularly in their search for food.

Birders have been walking paths at Theodore Wirth Park the past few days, watching for return of a flock of about two dozen Red Crossbills first seen there late last week. The birds have been nomadic there on a small scale, seen here and there in the park as well as on flyovers. Sunday afternoon I stood with five other birders at a path intersection regarded as Ground Zero. I gave it 20 minutes and left. The birds are either there or they’re not. As I walked out I met a man who had seen the flock early that morning. As we visited he pointed overhead and said, “There go two now.” I returned to Ground Zero. That man left. Three other birders were with me. One said that she had been told by another couple that they had overhead yet a third couple in the wild-flower garden parking lot telling a man that he had just missed the birds. A lot of good that did him, but now we knew that maybe they were still in the area. At least nearby within the hour. Just then, six dark finches the right size for crossbills, flying in a crossbill-like manner (scalloped flight line) flew over. Way to over for positive ID. I went home. I went back this (Monday morning), finding more birders but no crossbills. 

Reports of sightings also have come from Crookston, Sandstone, Little Falls, Cottonwood County, and Fargo plus other Dakota locations. Surely they’re scattered elsewhere in the state. I’ve heard that the birds are being seen south of Minnesota and South Dakota. It’s hoped that this widespread pattern means this is one of those occasional years when the birds abandon usual habits to move widely out of range, including visits to The City. We’ll see.

Crossbills, by the way, do have crossed bills, like your fingers behind your back when fibbing. They use the leverage created by this unusual configuration to pry open the scales on pinecones, behind which they find seeds. The Wirth Park birds are being seen in deciduous trees, a box elder most often, I believe. Crossbills do eat box elder seeds, and occasionally insects. So, while pine tree cones are the first place to look – the birds move from cone to cone, looking quite like mice up there – box elders and bugs spread the field.

The photo of a Red Crossbill was taken north of Duluth several years ago.

 

 

 

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