How the Crossbill Works


You read it right: crossbill, not crossbow. Look at the bill in the picture; the poor bird seems to have gone a round with Mike Tyson and got away with just one landed punch – right in the hooter. But they’re all like that, the bills crossing in either direction throughout the population. Clearly, the species doesn’t have a problem feeding.

The Wednesday gang caught just one flyover bird in an hour of poking around by Doctor’s Wood on Bredon Hill, Worcs. BirdGuides had been reporting small flocks in the area, so we were a bit miffed. We checked out a few clumps of pines but had to be satisfied with our one bird.

The trees, especially spruce, are key to the crossed-over mandibles. Crossbill FeedingThe birds can winkle their bills under the scales of cones, prise them open and extract their seeds tweezer-like, as shown. Presumably, the overlap gives them more grip. Other species feed on pines, of course, just not so efficiently or exclusively.

A fine consolation as we left was a pair of ravens in synchronised flight. It was so graceful and sustained, even when interrupted for a minute by a handful of jackdaws objecting to their presence. The memory of the aerial ballet semi-compensates for a recent email from BirdGuides that the north scarp of the Hill this afternoon held ring ouzels, bramblings and twenty – twenty, mark you – crossbills.

That’s where we were. It is an extensive area, chock full of great habitat but we didn’t do it much justice. In a way, we so focussed on the one species that we missed the opportunity of more. How often does that show up in life?

Still, the Worcestershire list moves on again, to 147 – only 31 behind my Angus list!

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