White-winged Crossbill Puyiiq

by Frank Keim

original artwork by Frank Keim

Have you ever come across a little pink bird singing in chirpy twitters on the top of a spruce tree in winter? Or even better, singing almost continuously in the same sweet voice while flying with slow wing beats in circles over another bird (his possible mate) watching below? Even if you have, chances are you missed the unique shape of his bill.

So look closer the next time and you’ll see it’s crossed. And it’s that way for a good reason. This is the only North American song bird, along with its first cousin the Red crossbill, that uses the tips of its bill to pry open spruce cones and reach inside with its tongue to extract the seeds. In fact, individual crossbills can eat up to 3000 of these seeds per day.

An attribute that has been observed over many years is how these crossbills have been attracted to dog (and even human) urine in the snow during winter months. As with other animal species, birds are opportunistic, especially when their main diet lacks sufficient sodium. This is especially true of seed eaters, since the seeds they eat are low in sodium. Their sodium needs also increase during the breeding season because females use sodium in egg formation. Hence their craving for animal urine, which is high in sodium.

Crossbills hang out together in large flocks and, since their favorite food is spruce cone seeds, they will travel for long distances to find bonanza cone crops on the tops of spruce trees. These birds have been known to feed one year in Alaska, then the next year fly clear across the Canadian north in search of good spruce cone crops there. While they’re doing this, they may settle briefly, even in midwinter, to build nests and raise young.

Wherever they nest, there are always interludes of ritual courting behavior when the male circles the female and sings for her. He might also chase her in flight, or the mated pair may perch close together on the same branch, with the male feeding her regurgitated seed mash, and then both birds repetitively touching bills. This must be quite a sight to see, since these little birds nest at the same time in loose colonies and they are all simultaneously courting their sweethearts in the same general area.

The female crossbill alone builds her little cup-shaped nest (usually on the limb of a spruce or other conifer), although her mate may bring her nesting materials, such as small twigs, grass, rootlets, lichens, moss and animal hair. She will lay up to five eggs that have a whitish to pale blue-green color with lavender spots. Incubation is for about two weeks by the female, although her mate feeds her seed mash while she is on the nest. This is especially important when they nest during midwinter.

After the eggs hatch, the mother bird broods the young to keep them warm while dad brings food in the form of regurgitated seed mash to the nest. Later, after the baby birds have developed enough feathers to keep them warm, both parents will forage and feed the nestlings. After the young have fledged, dad will care for the young if the pair decides on another nesting attempt. The precise number of days it takes the young birds to fly for the first time is still unknown.

When the birds do fledge they continue to have a ravenous appetite. They feed this hunger with seeds of spruce, cottonwood, alder, birch, grasses, and crowberries. In the warm months they will also feed on insects.

Breeding of the White-winged crossbill can occur throughout the year whenever there is enough food for the female to form eggs and raise young. The species has been observed breeding in all 12 months of the year.

A remarkable feature of their plumage is that adults molt their feathers once each year, usually in the fall. The new red feathers of the male have unpigmented barbules (the tiny hooks that hold the feathers together) on the surface that mask the red and make the bird appear pink in the fall and winter. As these barbules wear off from use, the bright red shows through, making the plumage of the spring and summer male brilliantly colored. This also happens with redpolls.

Something less remarkable about the birds is that their lower bills cross to the right almost three times more often than they cross to the left.

The scientific name for this crossbill is Loxia leucoptera, meaning, cross-billed, white-winged bird. Both words are of Greek origin.

Notice that I have not included a Yup’ik name for the bird. As much as I tried, I could not find it anywhere. But if I had to make an intelligent guess, it would be the same name as that given to the Pine grosbeak, Puyiiq or Puyiiraq, since both birds are lookalikes except for their bills. Puyiiq relates to the smoky color of its wings and tail.