Birding

Crossbills Are the Grail Birds of the Adirondacks

To find them, you need to know them. And not many know them better than Joan Collins.

Looking for White-winged Crossbills might make your hair go gray, but it’s absolutely worth it.

Having lived through the experience, I can tell you that I had my doubts—standing on the edge of a New York state thruway at daybreak, rapidly losing my limbs to the -15-degree chill. Lucky for me, though, I was with Joan Collins. And you can’t doubt the queen of crossbills.

But before I get too far along into my adventure, let’s back up and talk more about crossbills. They’re exactly as their name describes: a bunch of finches with an extreme overbite. Their crossover is tighter than Allen Iverson’s and “Avengers: Infinity Wars” combined. Even better, it’s handy for attacking pine, spruce, and other cones. As Kenn Kaufman explains in his column on White-winged Crossbills, the birds wedge their mandibles under the scales, scissor the tips together, and use their tongues to pull out the good stuff. One crossbill, Kaufman writes, can devour up to 3,000 seeds in a day.

That means crossbills can only be found where there are conifers. Here in the United States, we have three of the six species: Red, White-winged, and the newly minted Cassia. The first lives along the Canadian border and out West; the second in the boreal forests of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Maine; and the third exclusively in Idaho.

Fortunately, there’s been plenty of crossbill love to go around in 2018. Thanks to a “bumper crop” in the northern states, the tops of the evergreens are bursting with cones, causing Red and White-winged nomads to detour from the Canadian wilds. In upstate New York, they invaded white pines, black spruces, hemlocks, and tamaracks in the Adirondack forest. It’s the strongest showing in the region since 2001, Collins says.

Living in the woodsy town of Long Lake, New York (major “Twin Peaks” vibes), Collins follows the crossbills with fanatical precision. For her, it’s part business—she runs Adirondack Avian Expeditions as a licensed guide—and part scientific curiosity—she holds rank with the NYS Ornithological Association and Northern New York Audubon Society, and is organizing a statewide breeding bird atlas for 2020. She visits the busiest fringes of the boreal nearly every day to study the crossbills’ antics, from feeding to socializing to nesting. More than a decade of practice has honed her to pick up the faintest of sounds, key them out, and pinpoint the locations. “I make 90 percent of my IDs by ear,” Collins says. She truly is a crossbill queen.

After reading Collins’s field notes on a birding listserv, I decided the time had come. Having gone 27 years without seeing a crossbill, my life was feeling incomplete. I needed to make the four-hour drive from New Jersey to Long Lake, and I needed to convince Collins that I was worthy of her company.

Which brings me back to my premature grays on that sub-zero Sunday. Joined by two seasoned birders from Long Island, our first stop for crossbills was a piney patch along Route 30. Normally, birding on a 50-mile-per-hour road isn’t recommended, but it was safe and quiet in the early hour. While I puzzled over the white hairs that had magically appeared under my hat (frost, of course), Collins was listening for the wispy chiffs of White-wingeds under the Pine Siskins and chickadees. Sometimes, she says, the crossbills' foraging calls are mistaken for Red-breasted Nuthatches.

Just as I was about to flee to the car, a sign: a male White-winged Crossbill, grenadine-red, popped out of a gnarl of cones to bask in the light. We watched it as it posed and sang—a steady, dulcet tune.

Some Red Crossbills are lefties; some are righties. Photo: Adam W. Ciha/Great Backyard Bird Count

It was a chance sighting. Even if you can trace the sounds and know where to aim your lenses, crossbills are hard to spot as they forage in the tops of the trees. A better bet, Collins says, is to find them while they’re “gritting.” Crossbills and other finches will often eat sand and salt off the road to help with seed digestion, leading to excellent views for birders. Sadly, it also leads to more hits-and-runs for the birds.

Sure enough, after driving through the Whitney Wilderness Area, we came across a big roadside flock of Red and White-winged Crossbills, Pine Siskins, and Purple Finches. This time we had both female and male crossbills—a delicious contrast of honey and hot sauce.

In the days following our trip, Collins noticed that most of the females had disappeared. “That tells me they're now on the nests,” she says. The birds are temperamental when it comes to laying eggs: They’ll breed in any season, as long as food is in rich supply. Collins has gotten close looks at crossbills chicks, which are born with thick, straight beaks; the overbite, she says, sets in after about 30 days. At day 45, they're ready to mine seeds themselves.

About those beaks: There’s no rhyme or reason to how they cross. Well, there’s probably some reason—but as far as scientists know, it’s random and not based on inheritance. In Red Crossbills there seems to be an even split between left-over-right and right-over-left. In White-winged Crossbills the odds are about 75 to 25, respectively.

I didn’t notice these details during my first crossbill outing. Like most newbies, I was busy ogling and staving off hypothermia. I should also mention that you don’t have to freeze your nuts off for crossbills; if you live near their range, you might end up with one at your feeders in winter or early spring. (Hint: Red Crossbills like black oil sunflower seeds; White-wingeds go mad for thistle.) And if you find yourself in the Adirondacks in a non-bumper-crop season, listen for the soothing echoes of dead wood instead. The Black-backed Woodpeckers live there all year, and they aren’t too shabby, either.

Purbita Saha is the associate editor at Audubon. She really likes birds and people who like birds. Look for more of her writing in the Birding and Science sections, or in the front of the magazine.

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