On July 20, there were two sightings of the nomadic white-winged crossbill in the high Cascades west of Yakima.
This is south of their usual haunts in the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska. Shortage of spruce seeds is thought to prompt these birds, a type of finch, to travel widely in search of forests producing more abundant cone crops.
These remarkable birds do not visit the Cascade Range forests west of Yakima every year. Their presence is always cause for excitement among birders on account of the male’s stunning coloration and their unpredictable occurrence.
How to spot one:
- This species is most often first detected by its call note as it flies overhead — a strident and somewhat inflective “chet ... chet ... chet.” If spotted, both sexes sport bright white wing bars, hence the name.
To see the crossed beak requires a close view. The male is a beautiful pinkish color, with black wings. The females and young are olive-green. If you’re lucky enough to hear the song, it’s a remarkable series of trills, buzzes and warbles, somewhat like a canary.
Where to look:
- Usually in the higher elevations of the mountains. Chinook Pass and upper Bethel Ridge are the two sites where this species has already been spotted this summer. Other areas that have proved good in the past include White Pass and Clover Flats in the Ahtanum Creek drainage. If this species stages a big invasion this summer and fall into our forests, look also in spruce trees in Yakima residential districts, cemeteries, and parks.
- Crossbills are the only birds in the world that have a truly crossed bill. When they “bite,” between cone scales, these open and allowi the bird to deftly extract the seed. White-winged crossbills seek conifers that produce small seeds such as those of spruce and larch trees. Hemlocks are sought, too, and occasionally those of Douglas-fir. In winter if their wanderings take them to eastern North America, they’ll take tiny seeds of deciduous trees such as those of sweetgum. Minor food items include buds, weed seeds, berries, and insects. In winter, they avidly seek salt put on roads.
- If cone crops are heavy, this species will nest at any season. Typically, these birds nest in loose colonies. Courtship activities include the male chasing the female in flight, perching close together, touching their bills together, and the male feeding his prospective mate.
The nest is an open cup affair built primarily by the female and is usually placed well up in a conifer. The female lays and incubates two to four eggs for about 13 days. During this period, the male feeds her. After the young hatch, the male assists in feeding the young.
The peregrinations of white-winged crossbills are well-known. It is thought some may nest in Alaska one year and far eastern Canada in another, a remarkable journey of over 3,000 miles! The same species also occurs in the taiga forests across Eurasia, from Scandinavia east across Siberia. In the Old World, it is called two-barred crossbill.