These birds may be hard to spot as they spend a lot of time at the top of tall conifers. Male common crossbills have bright red heads and bodies with black wings and a black forked tail whereas the females are a yellowish colour with the same black wings and forked tail. Identifying crossbills is made easy by their characteristic crossed bill, however differentiating between the three UK species is very difficult. The parrot crossbill is slightly bigger with a chunkier bill but is only found in a few populations around the UK. The Scottish crossbill is smaller and is only found in Northern Scotland.
Average Length: 16.5 cm
Average Lifespan: 2 Years
Average Wingspan: 27 - 30 cm
Common Crossbills almost exclusively eat seeds from conifers, which their bill has adapted perfectly to. They undergo irruptive migrations if there is not a good enough supply of conifer seeds. They will occasionally visit feeders that are filled with seeds.
How to feed crossbills: If you live in an area with a lot of crossbills, they may come to visit larger bird feeders or feeding tables.
What to feed crossbills: A variety of seeds or berries in the colder months.
Common crossbills are one of the earliest breeders in the UK and can breed anytime during the winter months, depending on the food availability. The nest is made out of conifer twigs, grass, moss, lichens, and hair and can be situated up to 35m above the ground. The female lays 3 or 4 eggs in this nest and these chicks will often have fledged before our other birds start breeding.
Assessing the population of common crossbills can be difficult due to the irruptive migration driven by food shortages on the continent which makes the population highly variable. This species relies on conifer forests and so the main threat to common crossbills is the loss of this habitat through deforestation or harvesting of plantations. The changing climate may also reduce the production of pine cones, forcing these irruptive migrations and reducing the available food.
Petition to protect conifer forests around the UK.
Provide supplementary food throughout winter to ensure there is enough food for the native population and migrants.
Provide a clean water supply year-round if these birds visit your garden.
The common crossbill and Scottish crossbill only became separate species in 2006, after it was discovered the Scottish crossbill had a distinct song.
BirdLife International (2023) Species factsheet: Loxia curvirostra. Downloaded from http://datazone.birdlife.org/species/factsheet/red-crossbill-loxia-curvirostra on 15/08/2023.
British Trust for Ornithology (no date) Common crossbill | BTO - British trust for ornithology. Available at: https://www.bto.org/understanding-birds/birdfacts/common-crossbill (Accessed: 15 August 2023).
Clouet, M. (2000). The breeding biology of the common crossbill loxia curvirostra in the central pyrenees. Bird Study, 47(2), 186–194. https://doi.org/10.1080/00063650009461174
Dixon, A., & Haffield, J. P. (2013). Seed availability and timing of breeding of Common Crossbills Loxia Curvirostra at Sitka Spruce Picea sitchensis dominated forestry plantations. Ardea, 101(1), 33–38. https://doi.org/10.5253/078.101.0104
Harvey, J. E., Smiljanić, M., Scharnweber, T., Buras, A., Cedro, A., Cruz-García, R., Drobyshev, I., Janecka, K., Jansons, Ā., Kaczka, R., Klisz, M., Läänelaid, A., Matisons, R., Muffler, L., Sohar, K., Spyt, B., Stolz, J., van der Maaten, E., van der Maaten-Theunissen, M., … Wilmking, M. (2020). Tree growth influenced by warming winter climate and summer moisture availability in northern temperate forests. Global Change Biology, 26(4), 2505–2518. https://doi.org/10.1111/GCB.14966
Newton, I. (2006). Movement patterns of Common Crossbills Loxia curvirostra in Europe. Ibis, 148(4), 782–788. https://doi.org/10.1111/J.1474-919X.2006.00585.X
Redmond, M. D., Forcella, F., & Barger, N. N. (2012). Declines in pinyon pine cone production associated with regional warming. Ecosphere, 3(12), art120. https://doi.org/10.1890/ES12-00306.1
RSPB (no date) Crossbill Bird facts: Loxia Curvirostra, The RSPB. Available at: https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/crossbill/ (Accessed: 15 August 2023).