Red Crossbill

Loxia curvirostra

Red Crossbill - Male

Jason Crotty / Flickr / CC by 2.0

The red crossbill has at least 8-9 distinctly recognized subspecies, and further research may indicate many more individual races. They show significant differences in bill size, song, range, tree preferences, and size, and it is possible that this bird will one day be split into several different species. If that happens, the Fringillidae bird family will gain a number of new members, and birders will get more species to add to their life lists, possibly without seeing any new birds in the field. Learn about the red crossbill, also known as the common crossbill, with this informative fact sheet.

Fast Facts

  • Scientific Name: Loxia curvirostra
  • Common Name: Red Crossbill, Common Crossbill, Crossbill
  • Lifespan: 8-10 years
  • Size: 5.5-7.5 inches
  • Weight: 1.4 ounces
  • Wingspan: 10-11 inches
  • Conservation Status: Least concern

Red Crossbill Identification

These large finches have a stocky build and a proportionally large head with a thick neck. Males are brick red or red-orange with a gray wash on the lores and auriculars, and some gray may show on the flanks. The wings are black and the notched tail is black-brown. The undertail coverts are whitish-gray with dark streaking or spotting.

Females are olive-yellow with a paler or whitish throat and a brighter yellow rump. On both genders, the eyes are black and the legs and feet are blackish-gray.

Juveniles are brownish and show streaking both above and below, though the streaks may seem stronger on the pale whitish or buff underparts. Young birds often show two thin wing bars, but these can wear off quickly and may not always be noticeable. At first their bills are straight, but they begin to develop the characteristic crossover shape when they are 4-5 weeks old. As they mature, juveniles resemble adult females, and young males will develop a blotchy mix of yellow and red on their plumage as they continue to mature.

Red crossbills call frequently in flight with pleasant chirping notes. Their typical song is a warbling, chirping sequence of 3-4-2 or 4-4-2 syllables, changing pitch, spacing, and tonal quality slightly with each part of the sequence.

Red Crossbill - Female
Female Red Crossbill. Richard Wiseman / Flickr / CC by-SA 2.0
Juvenile Red Crossbill
Juvenile Red Crossbill. Bernard Scherler / Flickr / CC by 2.0
Red Crossbill - Male
Red Crossbill - Male. Forest Service Photo / Flickr / Public Domain Mark 1.0

Red Crossbill Habitat and Distribution

These chunky finches are at home in coniferous or mixed forests. They are widespread through North America, Europe, and Asia. These birds are year-round residents of Canada's boreal forests from southern Alaska east to Newfoundland and Labrador, and their North American range extends south through the western Rocky Mountain ranges and central Mexico into Honduras.

Red crossbills are found at similar latitudes and in similar habitats throughout Europe and Asia, including Scandinavia, Spain, Turkey, and India, though their populations in southern areas are more fractured and isolated.

Migration Pattern

Red crossbills do not generally migrate and a large core of their typical range is occupied year-round. They can be highly nomadic, however, as they seek out the richest cone crops. When these seasonal crops are poor, crossbills can become irruptive and may be seen in large numbers much further south than expected. Even without a widespread irruption, a few vagrant sightings are likely to be recorded south of their expected range each winter.

During the summer breeding season, these finches become more widespread throughout Siberia, and in winter some Asian populations migrate to Japan and northeastern China. Similarly, some winter populations in North America spread throughout the United States, though they are absent from the southeastern part of the country and southern Texas.

Behavior

These birds are generally seen in pairs or small flocks, and they are active and energetic. These crossbills will visit salt licks and are often seen at the side of rural roads in winter, where they may be gathering salt or grit.

Diet and Feeding

These finches have a granivorous diet and eat mostly seeds. Tree buds and berries are also a small part of their diet, and during the breeding season, they will eat more insects and caterpillars to provide essential protein to growing chicks.

When foraging, red crossbills are agile and acrobatic, climbing over pine cones or dangling upside down while using both their feet and bills to grip. They wedge their bill into a cone to force the cone's scales apart, and use their tongues to sweep the seeds into their mouths.

Nesting

These are monogamous birds. The female builds a bulky, cup-shaped nest using twigs, grass, and bark, lining the cup with finer grasses, moss, and fur. The nest is positioned 6-40 feet above the ground, concealed in a clump of pine needles well away from the tree's trunk.

Because red crossbills depend on rich food sources to feed their young, they may begin breeding as early as late January or early February when cone crops mature.

Eggs and Young

The oval-shaped eggs are pale whitish or very light blue or green, and are marked with fine lines or specks in brown or purple shades. Markings are usually concentrated at the larger end of the egg.

The female incubates the eggs for 12-18 days, during which time the male brings her food. After the chicks hatch, the male continues to feed the female for several days while the chicks are very young and vulnerable, but as they grow both parents will forage to feed the nestlings. There are 2-5 eggs in a brood, and a mated pair may raise 1-2 broods each year.

Red Crossbill Conservation

While these birds are not considered threatened or endangered, they are at risk from habitat loss in areas where logging and development are reducing coniferous forests. In some regions, they are losing food supplies to introduced squirrels.

The greatest concern is that if these birds are split into different species, crossbills with restricted ranges or precise habitat needs could immediately be considered threatened or endangered, and sufficient protective measures may not be in place. Because of that, it is critical to ensure these birds are protected in all parts of their range.

Tips for Backyard Birders

These finches can be curious about humans and will visit feeding stations where black oil sunflower seeds are available. With their powerful bills, they are also easily able to break into larger striped sunflower seeds.

Planting evergreen trees in the yard will also help attract these birds. Cone-bearing varieties of fir, spruce, hemlock, and pine are especially attractive to red crossbills.

How to Find This Bird

Because they can be nomadic and shift their activities to where food sources are most abundant, red crossbills can sometimes be challenging to find. Visiting coniferous forests with rich crops of seed-bearing cones is the best option for finding these birds, and watch for several crossbills flitting about between branches as they feed. These finches may occasionally be found in suburban areas with suitable trees, such as large parks or cemeteries.

Explore More Species in This Family

There are many Fringillidae birds that are closely related to red crossbills, all of which can be fun birds to learn more about, including euphonias, grosbeaks, rosefinches, bullfinches, and many Hawaiian birds. Familiar birds that are close relatives of red crossbills include:

There are also many other fascinating birds outside the Fringillidae family, so be sure to check out all our detailed bird profile fact sheets to learn more about your favorite species.