Red Crossbill Feeding on White Spruce Cone Seeds, Chignik Lake, Alaska Peninsula

A young male Red Crossbill feeds on the seeds of a White Spruce cone it has picked up from the ground and carried to a nearby bough. In the background, the happy chattering of Redpolls and Pine Siskins can be heard. See below for a photo of this species’ unique bill.

In late fall, a mixed flock approximately 50 Pine Siskins and 15 Red Crossbills showed up at the White Spruce Grove here in Chignik Lake. As both species are rarely seen beyond coniferous forests of pine, hemlock, fir or spruce trees, we were surprised to find them one morning busily calling back and forth and feeding on spruce cone seeds in the stand of 20 White Spruce trees we call “The White Spruce Grove.” In fact, as best as I can determine, the photographs we’ve gotten of these birds are the first ever captures of either of these species in the Chigniks – or perhaps anywhere out on the Alaska Peninsula.

Crossbills and conifers have coevolved in a complex relationship in which different crossbill morphs (types of crossbills) have evolved bills specifically adapted to the particular type of cones they feed on. Thus one population of crossbills might have bills adapted for opening Ponderosa Pine cones, while another population might be adapted to open hemlock cones. White Spruce trees are not native to the Chigniks; they were planted here by residents decades ago when Chignik Village changed from existing as a hunting and fishing camp to a place of year-round residence. The original seedlings came from Kodiak Island. It is likely that the Red Crossbills that visited us made their way from Kodiak Island, or from some other White Spruce forest in Southwest Alaska. 

Although about 30 Pine Siskins remain as I write this, all but two of the Red Crossbills have vanished. Hopefully most have moved on to more suitable habitat on Kodiak Island or on the Alaska mainland, but with a Sharp-shinned Hawk and Northern Shrikes showing up from time to time and with resident Great Horned Owls ever on the lookout for an easy meal, given the lack of wariness most crossbills exhibit it is possible that some may have fallen to predators.

The feeding habits of these crossbills is fascinating. Their oddly configured bills are adapted specifically for prying open cones and pulling out the seeds. Although they frequently perch on the cones and feed in every position conceivable, including hanging upside down, crossbills often employ a more active feeding strategy. Foraging on the ground, they choose an especially seed-packed cone that has fallen from the tree. Taking this cone in their claws or bill, they fly to a nearby branch and dine on the seeds in the safety of the tree. When they’re finished, they drop it to the ground and search for another such cone. After a session of such feeding, they retreat deep into the safety of the tree to digest their meal at leisure.

So the next time you’re in a northern coniferous forest and a conifer cone drops to the ground, look up. You might catch a glimpse of a crossbill that has just finished its meal.

Reference: The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Handbook of Bird Biology, 3rd Ed, Lovette & Fitzpatrick