Common crossbill (Loxia curvirostra)

SizeLength: 15 - 17cm

The common crossbill is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1). Protected in the UK under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended). Included in the Birds of Conservation Concern Amber List (medium conservation concern).

Although it is not a bird that many people see very often, the common crossbill (Loxia curvirostra) is quite common in the UK and has probably increased in numbers as a result of the planting of pine forests. It is a very distinctive bird, sometimes called the ‘parrot of the northern woods’. As its name suggests, the tips of the bill cross, enabling the birds to extract seeds from pine cones, their principle food, and giving the birds a rather parrot-like appearance. Males and females are noticeably different in colouration. Males are a rich brick-red on the head, back, rump, and belly. The wings and tail are a dark brownish-grey on both sexes, but females are grey-green where the males are red. The head of the bird is disproportionately large, with a thick ‘bull’ neck, and the tail is forked. Common crossbills call frequently whilst moving about in the trees, making a high-pitched, metallic sound like ‘glipp-glipp’. The song is a series of trills and twitters.

There is an old belief that the common crossbill acquired its peculiar beak as a result of trying to remove the nails from the hands and feet of Christ when he was on the cross. This incident also accounted for the male bird’s red breast, a story which is also associated with other red-breasted birds such as the robin and goldfinch.

Common crossbills range across much of Europe and northern Asia, as far south as the North African Barbary Coast. In the UK, they are widely distributed but found in greater numbers around the extensive man-made pine forests such as Thetford Chase in East Anglia’s Breckland, Dalby Forest in Yorkshire, Grizedale Forest in Cumbria, Keilder Forest in Northumberland and Clocaenog Forest in Clwyd. Periodically, the UK population is boosted by ‘invasions’ of birds from northern Europe, possibly due to the failure of spruce cones. In Scotland, the common crossbill is replaced by the Scottish crossbill, a bird intermediate between the common and the parrot crossbill of northern Scandinavia.

Common crossbills occur in conifer woodland, showing a preference for spruce.

Common crossbills have one of the most protracted breeding seasons of any British bird. It can begin as early as January and, in parts of their range, they have been recorded breeding in every month of the year. Up to four greenish-white, lightly-blotched eggs are laid, and incubated solely by the female. After 13 days, the eggs hatch and both parents take part in feeding duties. Like many other seed-eating birds, the chicks are fed on insects initially, as these are highly nutritious.

The UK population of common crossbills is believed to have increased considerably in recent years through large-scale afforestation in both lowland and upland areas. During the 1930s, the activities of a hard-core group of egg collectors in the birds’ Breckland stronghold gave cause for concern. Today’s stringent legal protection and the increase in the crossbill’s populations mean that, at the present time, the birds are not considered to be threatened. However, the Scottish crossbill is listed on the IUCN’s Red List as a bird of high conservation concern.

The common crossbill is recorded as a Schedule 1 bird on the Wildlife and Countryside Act (as amended), along with all species of crossbill on the UK list.

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Information supplied by English Nature.

  1.  IUCN Red List (April, 2011)