The Red Crossbill: An Unusual Beak

This beak is not deformed. Nature intended it to be thus. It is an adaptation for the opening of cones. While useful for that purpose, it does make the bird into a specialist and whether the beak crosses to the right or to the left runs about 50-50. Crossbills must have coniferous forests in order to survive and because conifer cones may last on the tree up to 20 years, there is no need to migrate out of an area of good cone production. Therefore their movements are irregular and controlled by cone availability.

There are two species of crossbills in North America: the Red Crossbill and the White-Winged Crossbill. The red variety is hard to “spot”, but is very abundant in the Cassia and Twin Falls mountain areas. The more glamorous White-Winged one is an inhabitant of boreal (northern) forests.

These interesting birds may not come to seed feeders, but water can be a major attraction. They are very gregarious and will come in to drink in large groups. The all-red, mature male is pictured. Immature birds are boldly streaked brown. The females are yellowish-olive and may show patches of red. The species is 6 ¼” long, with a large head, and a short, notched tail.

Different strains of the species are each adapted to a specific tree type (i.e. Lodgepole Pine, Ponderosa Pine, Douglas Fir, etc). Other species such as finches, chickadees, and siskin benefit from the nuts not consumed after a cone is opened. Crossbills are also quite vocal and will call while in flight. Each individual’s calls may vary somewhat from other individuals, giving that bird a character of its own. It gives a rapid series of harsh “jip” notes, started with several two-note phrases and followed by a warbled trill.

The female lays three eggs, but only two individuals usually fledge and there is about a 12% survival rate of the young into the second year. It is enough, however, to maintain the bird’s population numbers.

The crossbills of our south hills have the largest beaks of their kind. They are an isolated population and researchers are thinking of denoting them as a separate species. When camping, the presence of crossbills gives one a true flavor of the mountain experience. It is a truly unique bird!

Factors Involved in Bird Food Selection

by Dave Hanks

Bird food selection is restricted by the type of beak each possesses. A strong flesh tearing bill allows a hawk to eat mammals, reptiles, or other birds. Thick, strong beaks facilitate the woodpeckers feeding habits. Scoop-like bills favor the consumption of aquatic plants. Seed eaters have shorter beaks that are thick at the base. Food is available on many levels: on or beneath water surfaces, ground surfaces, on bushes and in trees, and even in the air where bugs are consumed while the bird is in flight.

Seed eating species show a preference to select the largest seed that can be opened with minimum energy expenditure. Flight demands a high caloric intake, and this requires the obtaining of the most calories in the most economical way. Sunflower seeds are a big favorite of many seed eaters.Blue Jays can crack these seeds by holding each down with their foot. Cardinals, with heavier beaks can crack them with their bills, but birds with weaker bills, like chickadee and PINE SISKIN must work harder – hammering away until a crack is opened.

PINE SISKINS are a “winter finch” and may look quite plain until they display their yellow wing stripes and tails. The yellow can be highly variable from individual to individual. This is a species that selects small seeds, especial thistle, red alder, birch, and spruce seeds. They will also take insects.

Siskins breed in coniferous forests, but will form large flocks in winter, and can be common at bird feeders at this time. Nyger or thistle seed presented in a hanging sock is an attraction, as are sunflower seeds, suet, and a water source. Pine Siskins are a perky and sociable member of the finch family.

Pine Siskin – Yellow wings distinctively apparent) sitting on a branch

Pine Siskin – Yellow wings distinctively apparent)

Roseate Spoonbill: Pink amid the Shallows

Pink can be fairly common in our human world in the form of clothing and home decor. But in the animal kingdom, it is indeed – RARE. Yet I see a pink form wading the shallow inlets of the Texas gulf coast. It is a bird, a large one over 30 inches tall. Not only is its color unusual, but its beak resembles a huge, gray spoon (yellowish in the first year). The bird’s head and neck are white, but the rest of the body, including the legs, is pink – with a touch of red along the wings. I am witnessing an unusual sighting for me – a Roseate Spoonbill.

This wader is swinging its bill side to side in search of crustaceans, aquatic beetles and bugs, and tiny fish; as it moves steadily through the water. I grab our camera and sneak as stealthily as possible, to get near enough to get a picture with out spooking it away.

Spoonbills are gregarious, often foraging in groups and nesting in colonies. Courtship between the sexes (which look alike), consists of dancing, bill clapping, and ritualized exchanging of sticks, grasses, etc. The nest is then constructed by the female with material brought to her by the male. She builds it in a tree, especially a mangrove if possible, and then lays 2 to 5 whitish eggs with brown markings. Most spoonbills do not breed until they are three years old.

The Roseate Spoonbill flies with head and neck stretched straight out, flapping their huge wings (over four feet) slow and long. Groups in flight will form a diagonal line, each drafting on the bird just ahead,

This South-American species range extends as far north as the coastal lowlands of Texas, Louisiana, and Florida. They are very shy and to observe them, you must be very careful, or they will be quick to leave.

Plataiea ajaja  Roseate Spoonbill: Pink amid the Shallows

Plataiea ajaja