Red Crossbill

Loxia curvirostra


Diet and Foraging

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Red Crossbill foraging.

Main foods taken include conifer seeds (mainly pine, spruce, Douglas-fir, hemlock).

© Ryan Schain, Massachusetts, United States, 29 December 2012
Red Crossbill foraging.

Bill size and depth varies among the different types of Red Crossbills. Bill size generally correlates with the kind of seeds these types prefer; larger billed birds can open stronger cones (e.g., pine), whereas smaller billed birds prefer softer cones (e.g., fir).

© William Higgins, Arizona, United States, 3 March 2018
Red Crossbills eating snow.

Drinks or eats snow daily.

© Marya Moosman, Idaho, United States, 17 February 2012


Main Foods Taken

Conifer seeds (mainly pine, spruce, douglas-fir, hemlock; 132, 47, 14). See Habitat: Habitat Associations of Call Types.

Food Capture and Consumption; Foraging Behavior

Red Crossbill usually forages for seeds in cones still attached to branches, although in spring and summer especially may forage on fallen cones (149, CWB). Closed cones of spruce, hemlock, and douglas-fir are usually removed from the branches, whereas closed cones of most pines and open cones of all conifers are generally left attached to the branch (132, CWB); notable exceptions are the closed cones of lodgepole pine in the Sierra Nevada (150; CWB) and of most pines in Europe, which are usually removed from the branches before foraging (CWB).

To extract seeds, crossbills generally hold the cone with the foot that is on the side opposite to which the lower mandible crosses (151), and use their mandibles to separate the cone scales, thereby exposing the seeds at the base (152, 47, 151, 131). Knox (151) found that the leg that normally holds the cone is longer, whereas Groth (58) did not find such a pattern. It is worth noting that Knox (151) measured Red Crossbills in northern Europe, which consistently remove closed cones (this represents most of the year in Europe) to forage on them and need to use their feet to secure them (47); in contrast, Groth (58) measured Red Crossbills in North America, which generally remove only the smallest cones (e.g., spruce), and then only when they are closed (which represents only a few months). See video for examples of similar foraging adaptions in the White-winged Crossbill.

On closed cones, crossbills bite between the overlapping cone scales to form a gap (see Benkman and Lindholm [153] for experimental confirmation of the importance of pointed crossed mandibles for accessing seeds in closed cones). Crossbills have crossed mandibles presumably because slender tips are needed to slide efficiently between closed scales and strongly decurved upper and recurved lower mandibles can withstand (and exert) strong forces at the tip of the mandibles (compression forces). If the mandibles were straight and pointed, the shearing forces could cause the slender mandibles to break near the tip. Once a gap is formed, crossbills abduct the lower mandible (to the side to which it is crossed) to spread the scales apart. Crossbills usually orient themselves so that their lower mandible points toward the scale that is on the distal side of the gap (distal relative to the base of the cone). The upper mandible is pushed against the basal scale, widening the gap. The head is often twisted to the side as resistant scales are pried apart (47). If this does not expose a seed, the mandibles are reached farther into the gap, sometimes in a biting motion, and then laterally abducted. This process is repeated until a seed can be lifted free by the tongue; often seeds in green closed cones need to be dislodged with a hooking motion of the upper mandible (14).

The woody seed coat is removed before the kernel is swallowed. The seed coat is cracked and removed (i.e., husked) by the lower mandible while the tongue helps secure the seed against a lateral groove in the horny palate (47); the seed coats of hemlock are rubbery, and presumably torn to remove the seed coat (CWB). Empty seeds are dropped almost instantaneously; probably less than 1 of every 1,000 full seeds is dropped accidentally (CWB). Mechanical considerations and observations of foraging crossbills reveal that the seed is secured in the lateral groove on the side opposite to which the lower mandible crosses (4). Foraging experiments used to test whether 4 different call types have average groove widths optimal for husking seeds of the conifers on which they were hypothesized to be specialized (based on whether they tend to produce fairly regular seed crops and hold seeds in cones more consistently through winter and into spring [most conifers in North America shed nearly all their seeds by winter; 154]: ponderosa pine for Type 2; western hemlock for Type 3; douglas-fir for Type 4; and Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine for Type 5) found strong support for morphological adaptation to their key conifers (4). Using the linear relationship between optimal groove width and the cube-root of seed mass, Benkman (4) predicted the optimal groove width for foraging on Sitka spruce, the one other hypothesized key conifer in the Pacific Northwest. Although he and one of his graduate students failed to find such a call type common in the Sitka spruce forests in Alaska in the 1990s, years later Irwin (6) discovered such a call type, Type 10, in northern California. Moreover, Irwin measured its husking groove widths and found a close match to that predicted by Benkman.

Bill structure is also critical for efficient foraging on cones with bill depth closely related to foraging performance on a given conifer (estimated ability to meet energy demands; the strong positive allometry between body mass and bill depth means that larger billed crossbills have greater energy requirements) (4). Consequently, bill depth increases with increases in the scale thickness and hardness of the conifers each call type tends to specialize on (see Habitat: Habitat Associations of Call Types). The close match between the average bill depths and husking groove widths and the predicted optima are not consistent with bill structure representing a compromise between foraging on multiple species of conifers (at least for these 5 call types; 4, 8, 6). This conclusion is further supported by experiments that revealed that Type 5 has an average bill depth that matches the optimum for extracting seeds from Rocky Mountain lodgepole pine cones but is much larger than the optimum for foraging on Engelmann spruce; Type 5 commonly utilizes Engelmann spruce including when nesting but it lacks key conifer characteristics (7). With that said, bill depth within call type can vary regionally, suggesting that variation in bill size may be linked to local rich patch resources in different regions (155); this is an area of potential future research.

Rapid assessment of which trees to forage on is also critical to feeding performance. Crossbills preferentially forage on the conifer species providing the highest feeding intake rates, and switch from one conifer species to the next as the relative profitabilities of the conifers shift (14). Crossbills are also selective of which trees they forage on within a species, and even vary in their use of local forest patches based on subtle differences in cone structure that impede crossbills from accessing seeds (156). Trees differ in the thickness of cone scales, seed kernel masses, number of seeds per cone, and cone maturity, all of which affect the accessibility of seeds and kernel intake rates (131, 157). Because crossbills consistently avoid foraging on trees with relatively large cone masses and thicker cone scales, trees have evolved such traits as defenses, especially where seed predation and selection by crossbills is greater (157, 158), and some crossbills are engaged in coevolutionary arms races with conifers especially where tree squirrels (Tamiasciurus and Sciurus), strong competitors for the seeds, are absent (e.g., Cassia Crossbill, Type 8, and L. c. balearica; 57, 8, 48, 159, 157).

In addition to using their own personal information when foraging, Red Crossbills discern successful foragers and rapidly join them (“local enhancement;” 160). Moreover, flocks can assess low quality trees (i.e., low relative seed intake rates) more rapidly than solitary individuals by apparently watching the feeding rates of flock members and by listening to vocalizations (21). Crossbills usually remain silent while foraging in flocks, but produce contact calls before flying away (132, 47). It is conceivable and consistent with casual observations (CWB) that individuals call when their foraging rates are low, but remain silent when rates are high. If only a few birds call, implying a generally good tree, they then resume foraging, but if many call, often increasing to a crescendo, implying a generally poor tree, then the flock flies off. This would provide a mechanism for crossbills to rapidly assess tree quality when the foraging behavior of flock mates cannot be seen, and maintain flock cohesion. Because such assessment of resources only works well when flock members have similar feeding abilities (i.e., similar bill structures), this should favor assortative flocking by bill size, and, because contact calls represent a “marker trait” that identifies bill structure, assortative flocking by call type. As expected, the propensity for individuals of different call types to land in response to playbacks of different call types decreases with increasing dissimilarity in bill depth (22). The benefits of assortative flocking could have been the main reason for the rapid evolution of distinct contact calls associated with different bill structures (i.e., call types). Moreover, reproductive isolation between call types could largely be the byproduct of assortative flocking where mates are chosen in flocks (22).

Crossbills often leave seeds in cones (32; CWB), which has been called “wasteful” (161). However, using the marginal value theorem as a guide for cone/patch leaving, Benkman (162) showed that White-winged Crossbill maximizes its feeding intake rate by leaving some seeds in the cones of tamarack (Larix laricina). This is likely to apply to Red Crossbill, as solitary Type 2 Red Crossbills in captivity were found to depart food patches at close to an optimal time (21).


Major Food Items

Seeds of pines, including eastern white pine, red pine, ponderosa pine, and lodgepole pine (14, 4); pitch pine, Virginia pine (P. virginiana), and loblolly pine (P. taeda) (C. Adkisson); and table mountain pine (2, 163, 58); seeds of white spruce, black spruce, red spruce, Engelmann spruce, blue spruce, and Sitka spruce (132, 14, CWB); seeds of western hemlock and eastern hemlock, as well as douglas-fir and western larch (Larix occidentalis; T. Hahn, personal communication). Generally avoids seeds of true firs (Abies spp.) (e.g., 164), apparently because resins in the seeds inhibit protein digestion (14). Occasionally eats other seeds, such as those of birch (Betula spp.), alder (Alnus), and boxelder (Acer negundo); buds of these and other tree species, various weed seeds, unopened green buds, and staminate cones of spruces (132, 164) and pines (CWB). Also consumes a variety of insects especially in early summer after most of the seeds have been shed from the previous year's seed crop and before the new seed crop becomes profitable: including woolly aphids (Hemiptera: Eriosomatidae) and insect larvae rolled up in poplar (Populus) leaves (132), woolly aphids on elm (Ulmus) leaves (19), plant lice, other insect larvae, poplar galls (132), and juniper (Juniperus) galls (165). See Cramp and Perrins (32) for an extensive list of foods consumed in Eurasia.

Quantitative Analysis

See Irwin (6) for the rarity of food types (< 1% of diet) other than Sitka spruce seed for Type 10.

Food Selection and Storage

All crossbill species appear to maximize consumption rates by selectively foraging on the conifer species (and individual trees within that species) that provide the highest seed kernel intake rates (see Feeding).

Food may be stored temporarily in crop when mate or nestlings are fed, and when going to roost. L. c. curvirostra crop capacity is about 1.64 g, or 300 spruce seeds (Kokhanov and Gaev in Nethersole-Thompson [149]).

Nutrition and Energetics

Easily maintained, even bred, on a diet of seeds, grit, and water. A colony of L. c. minor (Type 3) bred for 8 generations on pine seeds imported from southern Europe, sunflower seeds, grit, and water (H. Tordoff in Adkisson [142]). Benkman (17) estimated intake rates at 0.4–2.1 mg of kernel (dry weight)/s. Estimated daily intakes of seeds include 6.0 g (2,100 spruce seeds) for birds on the Kola Peninsula of Russia (Kokhanov and Gaev in Nethersole-Thompson [149]) and 5.0–9.5 g (dry mass) for birds in the mountain pine (Pinus uncinata) forests in the Pyrenees (164); these birds are larger than most North American crossbills. No data on energetics in the wild.

Takes grit regularly from road cuts, stream banks, and bases of uprooted trees (52), and even mortar (166, CWB). Consumes salt regularly (167, 168, 169), especially on roadsides during winter months, though salt is apparently not necessary to maintain health in captivity (170). Observed eating scrapings from deer bones (171) and eating small bones (89).

Metabolism and Temperature Regulation

Captive L. c. minor (Type 3), kept in outdoor aviaries in Michigan during winter, with body masses of 30 g, had basal metabolic rates (BMR) 19% higher than that predicted from standard allometric equations for small passerines (172, 173). In winter, lower critical temperature is about 14°C, below which metabolic rate increases linearly with declining temperature; at about –10°C, metabolic rate is twice BMR (172). Related carduelines (e.g., American Goldfinch [Spinus tristis], Pine Siskin) undergo dramatic winter acclimatization, and are able to maintain normal body temperature for 7 to 8 h under extreme cold stress (–70°C); in contrast, birds caught in summer can last about 1 h (173). In American Goldfinch, 25% increase in triglyceride stores and 50% increase in activity of enzymes to metabolize the triglycerides in shivering thermogenesis, although goldfinches also increase their muscle glycogen stores and dry feather weight in winter (174). Crossbills probably use similar mechanisms to survive severe cold.

Drinking, Pellet-Casting, and Defecation

Drinks or eats snow daily. Captive individuals with unlimited access to water drink 22% of their body mass daily (170). No information on pellet-casting, or on defecation behavior or rate in adults.

Recommended Citation

Benkman, C. W. and M. A. Young (2019). Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, Editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA.