Foam Lake Birding No. 170

No. 170
            As February is coming to an end winter is still with us despite improving weather conditions.  Although I have seen Horned Larks it is still a good month or so before more migrants arrive so, I will be sticking with winter birds for the next little while.  To that end I have spent quite a bit of time photographing the Redpolls in our yard especially the Hoary. 
            One of the group of birds that I have not covered as of yet are the crossbills. There are four species in Europe but only two in North America, the Red Crossbill and White Winged Crossbill,  both of which occur locally.   Both species are sparrow-sized reddish birds with black wings and unique sharply pointed bills whose tips cross over each other when the bill is closed.  The bills are especially designed to pry the seeds out of the cones of conifers like pine and spruce.  The Red Crossbill is slightly larger of the two with a heavier and more powerful bill.  As a result the Red Crossbill tends to feed on larger and tougher cones such as pine while the White Winged prefers spruce but neither is overly picky and any cone will do. 
            The Red Crossbill is much more widespread covering all of North America including parts of Mexico.  There are about nine different and distinct subspecies that some taxonomists feel just might be nine different species altogether.  If that proves to be the case then there will be ten different species of crossbills in North America.  On the other hand, the White Winged shows no variation in different regions and therefore will in all probability remain as one species.   Also its distribution is much more limited being confined to Canada and Alaska except in the winter when some migration takes place to the North Central and Eastern US.  Even though the crossbills are not really migratory they are wanderers constantly on the move searching for food, except during nesting season, making their appearance in any one place highly unpredictable.  Locally, both species can only be expected during the winter or spring. 
            The males of both species are similar but with close examination can be easily distinguished  from one another.  The Red Crossbill's body is a deep dull red with pure black wings.  Some subspecies, however, do have faint white wing bars.  The White Winged is more of a pink or rosy colour with two very pronounced white bars on its black wings.  Males and females are different.  I have seen both species in our yard but the Red is the more common. 
            One of my earliest experiences with crossbills was in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  We were at the Mt. Rushmore monument standing in the shade of some pine trees hiding from the midday sun when we noticed that we were being repeatedly sprinkled with scales from pine cones.  We could also hear faint but constant crackling sounds coming from the trees above.  The mystery was solved when we looked up and saw a small flock of Red Crossbills overhead feeding on the seeds of pine cones. 
            This week I am including two pictures.  One is of two male and one female Red Crossbills sitting on a cedar just outside our window hiding from the spring storm in April of 2012.  (The storm had forced a number of birds to land in our yard including a flock of Red Crossbills.)  The other photo is of the Hoary Redpoll feeding on the ground on spilled black oil seeds along with House Sparrows and Common Redpolls.  It is shown all fluffed out like a little fur ball trying to get some warmth in the morning sun as it fed.