Red Crossbill

Loxia curvirostra



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Photos from this Account

Pair of Red Crossbills (male: top; female: bottom).

Medium-sized finch with distinctive crossed mandibles. Adult males are variably deep brick red to reddish yellow with uniformly dark brown flight feathers, and a short, deeply notched dark brown tail. Adult females are uniformly olive to grayish with a greenish yellow breast and rump; typically with pale throat. No regular seasonal changes in plumage, although males may replace red feathers with yellow or greenish feathers or the reverse during annual molt.

Adult male White-winged Crossbill with two female and a young male Red Crossbill.

Male Red Crossbills are typically plain-winged, unlike the strongly wing-barred White-winged Crossbill. Rare variant Red Crossbills can have narrow wingbars. There is also a Pine Siskin in the back left.

Juvenile male Red Crossbill (25 August).

Juveniles are overall streaked, the body feathers with darker centers. Upperwing median, greater, and primary coverts and tertials brownish, tipped buff (narrowly on primary coverts) occasionally with broader tips on median and greater coverts forming indistinct to distinct wing-bars. Sexes are similar. Note Preformative Molt in action with yellow and red feathers molting in on breast, neck, and head; the red feathers indicate that this is a male.

Female Red Crossbill undergoing Preformative Molt (29 December).

In North America, this molt includes most to all body feathers and upperwing median coverts.

Formative male Red Crossbill (4 June).

Plumage is variable depending on extent and timing of molt; some individuals can show yellow feathering resembling Definitive Basic female; some may show red feathering similar to Definitive Basic male but not as intensely red; others show intermediate or mixed feather coloration. Some portions of underparts may show streaking.

Female Red Crossbill (4 November).

This female appears to be in formative plumage by the lack of yellow and molt limits in the tertials and upperwing coverts but, interestingly shows replaced outer primaries (p6-p9) contrasting with retained inner primaries, suggesting an "eccentric" preformative molt pattern, recorded previously in Europe but not previously, though to be expected, in North America (see Preformative Molt). An alternate explanation could be that it is in Definitive Basic Plumage but had suspended molt for breeding at p5, then resumed after breeding with p6. The Preformative and other molts in crossbiils are complex and in need of further study.

Second Basic female Red Crossbill (2 April).

This individual appears in Definitive Basic Plumage, with uniformly broad and dusky brown wing coverts and primaries, except that it has retained the juvenile s4-s6 during an incomplete Second Prebasic Molt.

Male Red Crossbill completing Second Prebasic Molt (12 November).

This male is replacing p8, s5, and the outer rectrices during a prebasic molt. The worn retained juvenile outer primary (p9) and s6 (the last feathers typically replaced during prebasic molts), along with the yellowish rather than red body plumage, indicate this bird to be completing its Second Prebasic Molt.

Female Red Crossbill following suspended Second Prebasic Molt (4 September).

This dull female shows mostly juvenile upperwing feathers but has replaced the inner four primaries (p1-p4) before suspending the Second Prebasic Molt.

Female Red Crossbill completing Definitive Prebasic Molt (23 September).

This female is replacing p8 and s4. The retained outer primary (p9) and s5-s6 are broad and of good quality, indicating basic feathers and that this bird to be completing its Definitive Prebasic Molt. The rather full yellow coloration also indicates an adult among females.

Definitive Basic male Red Crossbill (12 November).

Forehead, crown, and nape are brick red. Back feathers are similar, often with darker feather centers producing mottled effect. Scapulars similar but more extensively brown, with red restricted to feather edges. Feathers of upperwing blackish brown (primaries slightly darker); median and greater coverts narrowly edged reddish brown, remiges finely edged reddish brown or paler. The red plumage along with the uniformly broad and dusky wing and tail feathers indicate Definitive Basic Plumage.

Definitive Basic male Red Crossbill (5 February).

Underparts are red, gradually becoming more grayish to whitish on the lower belly. Tail is deeply notched, feathers blackish brown to warm brown, edged red to reddish brown.

Definitive Basic male Red Crossbill (26 February).

Overall, red coloration may vary from brick red to orange red, depending on timing of Definitive Prebasic Molt, and in some birds body feathers can be mixed red and yellow. It is tempting to think that these 'patchy' individuals might represent first-year males, but in this species definitive plumage color can vary depending on the timing of molt relative to breeding. Typically, males that molt in fall attain reddish plumage, regardless of age. Those that molt in winter are yellowish.

Definitive Basic male Red Crossbill (10 June).

Note that the white tips to the greater and median coverts on this bird are thinner and less distinct than found in White-winged Crossbill. These are found on a minority or Red Crossbills.

Definitive Basic female Red Crossbill (13 February).

Female coloration in Definitive Basic Plumage varies considerably; in some individuals yellow or olive coloration largely replaced by dark gray, while others may appear much paler and more yellowish; variation likely linked to timing of molt, as in males. Underparts olive yellow to yellowish, becoming paler and whiter on throat and middle of belly; thighs and flanks tinged gray brown; undertail coverts grayish white with brownish gray centers.

Definitive Basic female Red Crossbill (6 March).

Side of head olive; lores, upper portion and rear portion of auriculars dusky brownish gray. Tail and wing feathers as on adult male, but feathers edged olive, not red. Lower back to rump olive to yellowish green, appearing brighter than remaining upperparts. Note the uniformly dusky wing coverts and remiges (without molt limits) indicating Definitive Basic Plumage.

Red Crossbill (L. c. percna; Newfoundland or Type 8).

Resident on Newfoundland. Second largest crossbill in New World. Male is deep red and female (pictured) is dark green.

Red Crossbill (L. c. stricklandi; Sierra Madre or Type 6).

Resident in mountains from southeastern Arizona and southwestern New Mexico south to El Salvador. Largest billed and bodied crossbill in New World.

Red Crossbill (L. c. mesamericana; Central American or Type 11).

Resident in highlands from Guerrero (Mexico) and Belize south to northern Nicaragua. Smaller bill depth and wing length than Type 6.

Red Crossbill (L. c. minor; Western Hemlock or Type 3).

Resident in the Pacific Northwest from south-central Alaska south to Washington and Oregon, wanders irruptively regularly to the east. Smaller overall than L. c. japonica, with the bill sharply curved and “stumpy”; male redder (less orange) and undertail coverts grayish.

Red Crossbill (L. c. corsicana).

Resident on Corsica. Similar to L. c. curvirostra, but bill deeper.

Red Crossbill (L. c. poliogyna).

Resident in the Atlas Mountains in northwestern Africa. Bill shorter and deeper, wing shorter than in L. c. curvirostra; male more pinkish red, with head variably mottled gray in both sexes.

Red Crossbill (L. c. guillemardi).

Resident in Cyprus, Turkey, the Caucasus, and Crimea. Similar to L. c. curvirostra, but larger overall with larger bill; male paler red and generally grayer and female dorsum dark gray (less olive).

Red Crossbill (L. c. meridionalis).

Resident in mountains of south-central Vietnam. Dorsum mottled with dark brown. Has the deepest bill of the Red Crossbills (only Parrot Crossbill is larger).

Red Crossbill foraging.

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

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).

Red Crossbills eating snow.

Drinks or eats snow daily.

Red Crossbill pair.

Strongly monogamous.

Group of Red Crossbills.

Flocks year-round.

Red Crossbills with Pine Siskins and White-winged Crossbills.

Pine Siskins and White-winged Crossbills will join Red Crossbill foraging flocks.

Red Crossbill on nest.

Nests are well concealed in dense cover on side branches next to or away from trunk, 2–20 m high.

Red Crossbill nest.

Small conifer twigs form the base and outside of the nest; grasses, Usnea lichen, black tree lichen, conifer needles, fine shreds of bark, hair, fireweed seedpod fibers, and feathers make up inner cup and lining.

Red Crossbill nest.
Female Red Crossbill feeding young.

When able to fly well, fledglings follow parents closely.

Male Red Crossbill (cover image).

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.