Crossbills and Siskins

By josh • Wildlife • 5 Apr 2012

Meet the white-winged crossbill–the etymology should be readily apparent–a boreal finch adapted to a diet of spruce and tamarack seeds:

White-winged Crossbill

White-winged Crossbill, Crawford Notch, NH- Canon 400mm f/5.6L at f/9, 1/250s, ISO 400, +1EV

Like many birds of snowbound areas, the crossbills and siskins take advantage of grit and salt at the roadside when snow cover makes it difficult to find elsewhere.  Birds use grit to help them process and digest food (as they have no teeth).  In New England we’re accustomed to seeing snow buntings, horned larks, tree sparrows, and a variety of winter finches at the roadside after the plows pass through.

Crossbills use their bizarre bill to pry apart conifer cones.  Once they’ve pulled the cone apart they dart their tongue to extract the edibles within.  They apply the same technique to grit- rather than grasping with their bill, the crossbills simply use their tongue.

White-winged Crossbill

White-winged Crossbill, Crawford Notch, NH- Canon 400mm f/5.6L at f/9, 1/200s, ISO 400, +1EV

I encountered these two males with a large flock of pine siskins in Crawford Notch, New Hampshire, just south of Mt. Washington.  Numbers of white-winged crossbills in the Northeast are dependent on the conifer cone crop further north, but they can usually be found in small numbers every winter in far northern New England.  Females are yellowish-green with similar plumage patterns, while juveniles look a bit like pine siskins with a proper crossbill mandible.

White-winged Crossbills

White-winged Crossbills, Crawford Notch, NH- Canon 400mm f/5.6L at f/9, 1/250s, ISO 400, +1EV

The crossbills were traveling with a flock of approximately 75 pine siskins.  These tiny finches are great fun to watch- they’re energetic, busy, and not the least bit timid.  Even though there was more than enough grit to go around the cheeky buggers would frequently rise up tall on their legs, spread their wings, and put their heads down low in an aggressive posture to move their neighbors aside.  I was able to use my car as a blind to get pretty close to the flock without disturbing them.

Pine Siskins

Pine Siskins, Crawford Notch, NH- Canon 400mm f/5.6L at f/5.6, 1/1000s, ISO 400, +0.7EV

Though the flock was regularly stirred up by traffic they were quick to return to the grit and salt, pausing only momentarily for better photo ops in the roadside trees.

Pine Siskin

Pine Siskin, Crawford Notch, NH- Canon 400mm f/5.6L at f/9, 1/640s, ISO 400, +.07EV

Compared to crossbills, pine siskins are generalists.  They’ll eat pine and other conifer seeds, but will also feed from deciduous trees and other plants (particularly thistle).  Their small, thin bill is useful for this diet, but they’re not as successful with harder-shelled seeds.  Pine siskins are sometimes confused with female purple or house finches, but the siskins are smaller and the thin bill is diagnostic.  The amount of yellow is variable, but it’s frequently visible on the flight feathers when the wings are closed.

Pine Siskins

Pine Siskins, Crawford Notch, NH- Canon 400mm f/5.6L at f/11, 1/400s, ISO 400, +1EV

Like white-winged crossbills and many other finches, the number of pine siskins in our area is heavily dependent on the cone crop in other regions.  I haven’t had any at my feeders this year, but every time I’ve visited the boreal forests of Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom or northern New Hampshire I’ve found them in large (and sometimes overwhelming) numbers.

Crawford Notch, New Hampshire

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One Response

  1. Aunt Marie

    Great site!!! You are now in my favorites list!!

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