Image courtesy of Hugh Venebles { geograph.org.uk} CC BY-SA  2.0 license.

Introduction and status.

The common Crossbill, Loxia curvirostra, belongs to the Passriformes {perching birds} and the family Carduelidae . The generic name of Loxus derives from the Greek loxus indicating crosswise. The scientific name of curvirostra derives from the Latin curvuus-curved + rostrum- bill.In the UK the bird is placed on the Green list of Conservation concern {no current issues} with an estimated population of 39,000 pairs in the summer months. It is classed in the UK and Ireland as Migrant breeder/resident breeder and a passage winter visitor. It is a bird of coniferous forests that occurs in Europe and local in Asia ,North and central America. {Source the BTO}

In Europe the bird is secure and there are no current concerns with the population estimated to be between 800,000 and 3 million pairs. Populations vary from country to country here are some examples in Austria between 60,000 and 154,000 breeding pairs. Belgium 2,500-10,000 breeding pairs. Croatia 2,500-5,000 breeding pairs. France 15,75,000 breeding pairs. Germany 27-100,000 breeding pairs. Norway 100-500,000 breeding pairs Spain 140,000-190,000 breeding pairs and Ukraine 3,600-8,000 breeding pairs. { Source Birdlife}


The Gaelic name for the bird is Cam-ghob the Welsh Gylfin groes and the Irish crosghob. Here we look at the species its lifestyle and breeding habits. As always we commence with description of the subject under review.


Crossley's ID Guide to Britain and Ireland Richard Crossley

Richard Crossley ID Guide to Britain and Ireland. CC BY-SA 3.0 license.


The changes in the plumage in the birds is remarkable when young, the male birds are greenish brown with a tinge of olive, the whole being speckled with darker brown, they are, however, lighter on the under parts. But,after the first moult a red tinge prevails occasioned by the tipping of the feathers with that hue. The red is much darker on the upper parts.

At the second moult these colours are lost,the birds plumage becomes olive brown, shaded over with a greenish yellow upon the back but still lighter on the under parts, and is speckled with an orangey colour upon the breast and rump The females are , however, either greyish with a little green on the head,breast and rump, or else speckled in an irregular manner with these colours.

Bechstein { who was regarded a great authority on these birds} states-" if the Crossbills are grey or speckled , they are young; if red they are one year old and have just moulted; if carmine they are just about to moult for the second time;if spotted with red and yellow, they are two years old and in full feather."

"All these differences may be noted except at the time of laying eggs. They do not make their nest at a fixed season, so neither is their moulting regular, from which arises the great variety in appearance"


Anne Pratt- 'Native Songsters' conveys that during the latter end of the month of June 1835, a flight of these birds was observed about the plantations of Saffron Walden and the nieghbouring villages, and described by a naturalist there. He remarks, that in the early part of their visit , most of them were in a suit of plain,greenish, sober grey, some very dusky, so as to look very dark, almost black, and he mentions one which was shot in the June of the following year, which was so dingy as to almost warrant the conclusion that it had chosen a chimney as a sleeping place.

The birds are about 16 cm long {six and a quarter inches} and weigh around 43 grams.

General and historical notes.

As the common name suggest the most striking characteristic of this species { and other related Cross and parrot Crossbills} is the peculiar formation of the beak. At first sight it appears to be unnatural or malformed and of little use to its owner. However, in reality it is perfectly adapted for the purpose of obtaining food that nature has designed for these birds. This being chiefly the seeds of fir cones which the shape of the bill assists greatly in the extraction of them.

They do however, also feed upon the ground,as well as in the tree tops. They also feed on the seeds of Pine and Alder and the buds and flowers of Sumach. They are also very fond of the seeds of crab apples. The shape of the bill which acts almost as a saw is put to great use in extracting the seeds.

 The following account is taken from an old manuscript by Mr. Yarrell, about Crossbills feeding upon apples in England. It is quoted as written--" The yeere 1593 was a greate exceeding yeere of apples;and there were a greate plenty of strange birds, that shewed themselves at the time the apples were full rype, who fedde upon the kernells onely of those apples;and haveinge a bill with one beake wrythinge over the other,which would presently bore a greate hole in the apple, and make way to the kernells;they were of bugnesse of a bullfinch, the henne right like the henne of the bullfinch in colour;the cocke a very glorious bird, in a manner al redde or yellowe on the brest, back and head. The oldest man living never heared or reade of any such like bird; and the things most to bee noted was, that it seemed they come out of some country not inhabited;for they at first would abide shooting at them either with pellet, bowe or any other engine,and would not remove until they were striken downe. they came when the apples were rypoe, and went away when the apples were cleane fallen. They were very good meate"


So also in Childrey's 'Britannia Baconica' - " In Queen Elizabeth's { the first} time a flock of birds came into Cornwall {South west England}, about harvest, a little bigger than a sparrow, which had bills thwarted crosswise at the end, and with these they cut an apple in two at one snap, eating only the kernels; and they made a great spoil among the apples"

Their general abode is necessarily among the forests of firs and pines that clothe the hills and mountains, but that only when the cones of such trees are abundant. In the UK they are classed as resident breeders although their numbers are augmented by the arrival of birds from the continent which begins in about the middle of October { their migration is as erratic as they are in other respects}; Their numbers vary greatly sometimes many birds arriving at others only a few birds arrive to grace our island with their presence. Their return to the continent is also erratic as small parties tend to depart over different periods of time.


The flight of these birds is close and rapid and they generally fly together,sometimes in small parties at others in large numbers. In the 1800's this bird was not generally known in England. Coward ' Birds of Cheshire' 1900, shares these observations-At irregular intervals flocks of Crossbills have occurred in the winter months in the Cheshire Woodlands { Cheshire being the most southerly county of north west England}. About the year of 1834 or 1835 a flock visited the woods at Twemlow, near Holmes Chapel; several of the birds with characteristic tameness, allowed themselves to be captured while feeding on the seeds of conifers by means of a horsehair noose fastened to the end of a fishing rod. The numerous Larches in and about the forest of Delamere offer attraction for these rare visitors and they have frequently been observed in these districts than any other."

" On June the second 1889,Mr.W.j. Beaumont { naturalist} saw a flock of about twenty birds in a larch plantation at Vale Royal and in the Grosvener Museum Chester there are several examples shot by Mr.A.Cookson at Oakmere in the winters of 1889 and 1891."

 There perpetual twittering may be heard in the coniferous woodlands and they are far more active than the small parrots which they are often compared to in the past. Their strong feet cling to the branches, and swing themselves into the most curious and picturesque attitudes. Some times they swing horizontally ,then perfectly upright or flitting from bough to bough,swinging their bodies to and fro the moment they alight.

Crossbill on 'Red hot poker' flower


Courtesy of Mike Pennington { geograph.org.uk} CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

Crossbill in captivity.

It was, until relevantly recent times, legal to capture wild birds and to sell them or to keep them in cages and aviaries. There follows some accounts on the subject which are part of our avian history and therefore worthy of note.

Swaysland 1883 conveys his remarks " The Crossbills, like parrots are easily tameable , and may be kept either in a cage or aviary. Their beaks ,however, are very strong,and the cage therefore should be principally of tin and wire,as mahogany is very easily torn to shreds by the birds A spirit of mischief ,too, seems to induce them to demolish their cage if it happens to be of wood. They are however, somewhat hardy, and will climb about their cage with the aid of their beak,in a manner to warrant their being called the 'European Parrot'"

Lord Lilford { Birds of Northamtonshire Vol 1 pages 205-6 },observes " we have generally found that Crossbills tame very easily and are easy of approach, and a flock of these birds, busily employed in feeding on the seeds of a snow-laden fir tree is a beautiful and interesting sight. Their quest of food very much resembles those of the smaller parrots as they cling and clamber about the large cones,from which they extract the seeds with wonderful rapidity. In confinement we have found this species,though it son becomes perfectly tame,invariably very restless, and constantly climbing about over all parts of its cage as if seeking to escape. { Lord Lilford it probably was } As above mentioned fir seeds are the natural and favourite food, but these birds will readily feed on hemp seed,and almost any of the common berries"

Butler 1896, informs us --" My own experience of the Crossbill as a cage bird agrees very closely with Lord Lilford's assessment, as regards its disposition and behaviour; the following are my notes on the specie. In the winter of 1866-7, my friend Mr. Johnston gave me a pair of Crossbills,and within a week the cock bird would take sun flower seeds from my fingers."

" These birds are quiet but amusing creatures, much like the parrot in their actions.I placed their seed in one of the ordinary tin hoppers to prevent their wasting it, but in two days they had found how to open the lid at the top, after which the cock bird almost invariably took the seeds out there,clinging head downwards to the wires as he fed. In a few days the crossbills became accustomed to their cage ,and immediately set to work to do all the mischief they could. They tore to pieces perch after perch,so that incessant renewal was necessary; they then began to tear away the woodwork of the cage,which was anything but pleasing to me,because it cost more money than I could afford to throw away.; Moreover, they fought for supremacy, and their bird language at such times was an incessant 'chip'chip'chip'. At last the 'chip' of the beak and tongue was more than I could stand, and I greatly desired to be rid of the dear creatures."



" On the 6th of February,1887,I removed the Crossbills from their large wooden framed flight cage to a much smaller metal prison { such as is sometimes used for canaries} Two days later the cock bird discovered how to open the door, and after carefully shutting it behind him flew up to the roof of the greenhouse in which the cage was hung,and amused himself by walking about on the creepers head downwards. It was quite three hours before he could again be secured in his cage.and he used his mandibles to some purpose upon his captor . The door of the cage was now fastened with wire to prevent another exhibition of the bird's skill as a prison-breaker."

" On the morning of the ninth the cock bird died,apparently of pique, for we could not discover any cause for his death,his organs being all in perfect condition; but possibly he may have been squeezed when captured. The following day the hen had a fit and followed his example. Thus my hope of exchanging my Crossbills for some less destructive species were disappointed."

May I suggest,Mr. Butler another reason for their behaviour and eventual death, is that they are wild birds,meant to be free to fly and feed wherever they please,and not to be imprisoned for the benefit of their captor.

Crossbill perched.

Copurtesy of Estormiz CCC 1.0 license.

Nest,eggs,and young.

Referring to Mr.Beckstein once again where he describes their nesting operations,which he says take place in northern Europe,Asia and America;---" Its incubation is the most remarkable of its peculiarities, for it breeds between December and April. It builds a nest in the upper branches of coniferous trees,the horizontal branch of a fir near the trunk,or at a distance from the trunk,or the forking branches of a pine which form a frame to support it. It is composed of pine or fir twigs often with a thick layer of moss,lined inside with a finer type of moss."

The female lays tree to five greenish white eggs,having at the thick end a circle of reddish brown stripes or spots. They can ,however, vary in colour and the background colour can be greenish blue. They are incubated for around fifteen days and the task is undertaken by the female. They are fed with a nutritious diet by their parents. Like all Crossbills and Grosbeaks they are fed regurgitated food from their parents crops. this may consist of caterpillars and other kinds of larvae along with chrysalides of a little moth,as well as buds from trees. Thy are ready to leave the nest in a further 20-25 days.

The young Crossbills in the nest have mandibles of equal length. Nature has deemed it this way or the birds would mot be able to take the food the parents have procured on their behalf.They acquire the characteristic cross mandibles when they are able to feed themselves.

Crossbill in natural habitat

Image taken Karwendel mountains Austria. originally posted on Flickr uploaded by  innotata

Courtesy of Frank Vassen { Belgium} CC BY-SA 2.0 license

UK conservation status. 2021

UK-Green List -No current concerns.

Europe-Species of least concern 

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