Watch resilient winter crossbills raise their young –
It was minus sixteen this morning (Monday, February 14). I was feeding the birds just after sunrise and the trees were popping and snapping as the water that collected in their cracks expanded very hard. Last night the deer didn’t come to clean up the seeds that had fallen from the feeders, so the blue jays took the opportunity. They worked there and took them to a safe place to hide. Yesterday I banded my 50th blue jay since December 1st. They keep coming from one place and the others are moving south. The highest tally I can get at any time at the feeders is sixteen, but I know there’s a lot more than that if they all got together.
I have already mentioned how jays fill their beaks with seeds and fly away with them to store them somewhere, just in case I no longer feed them. Their beaks are full of sunflower or corn seeds when I catch them in potters’ traps. They’re so full, in fact, that you can see it while I’m holding them, and they can’t chirp (or bite) while their beaks are full. Most of the time I can see the seeds and they let me bandage them and measure a wing. They also usually let me check the age by looking for bars on the outer wing feathers before heading out the window to freedom. And they still hold those seeds when they are otherwise released. Blue jays are one of the calmest birds on hand when banding them. Very often they stand still and watch what you are doing with their big black eyes. However, their feet are active and grab onto anything that touches them, like your fingers, a pencil, or the ringing pliers…and they have a pretty good grip.
Numbers of red-and-white-winged crossbills are increasing (or at least they are seen) as they take to the highways to pick up sand or salt to help them break down the cone seeds they’ve eaten. Give them a boost before you smash them on the highway as they are a little slow on take off. In the woods, these birds will sometimes locate an otter toilet on the snow and pick up crayfish shell parts and fish bones to help break down the seeds they have ingested. These birds will likely nest in the area where you see them and some of them may already be nesting. It is amazing how these birds can sit on eggs and babies with temperatures at or below zero and raise a family of young. The male brings the female seeds and feeds her at the nest all the time.
At the Bird Breeding Atlas in the 1980s [the first Atlas was conducted from 1980-1985] we have had a few winters when there were large flocks of white-winged crossbills. I’m talking fifty to a hundred in some places. They nested in small colonies for protection among the red spruce trees where they fed. During courtship, the males hovered over the females much like bobolinks in a field hovering over a place singing a beautiful song. One day Mirnie Kashiwa and I were snowshoeing in the third lake marsh where a large group of crossbills were in courtship mode. There were twenty to thirty males flying and singing just above our heads. Mirnie said it was one of the most enjoyable experiences she has ever had with wildlife in the woods as she enjoyed these beautiful birds without binoculars and their musical songs…me too!
When there were so many around, they would get run over on the road by cars and trucks as they tried to get sand. If I found these dead birds, I would collect them for the Natural History Museum. You had to pick them up when you saw them dead because crows were patrolling the road. If you were walking past them and planning to pick them up on the way back, they were normally already gone. One day on the straight stretch past Golden Beach there were about five dead birds on the road. I stopped and picked them up. Among these crossbills was a dead male pine siskin who was wearing a ring. After checking with the Bird Banding Lab, I learned that this bird was banded in Wisconsin two years ago. Siskins also nested during this winter, feeding on the large harvest of red spruce cones.
The 25th Great Backyard Bird Count takes place February 18-21. [The four-day-long event offers a chance for folks to watch, learn about, count, and celebrate birds.] Those who wish to participate can count the birds at their feeders or walk through the woods and keep track of the birds they see on their travels. These birds can be reported on birdcount.org. The waxing moon was setting in the west last night (Sunday Feb 13) and the shadows of the trees were all over the snow again. A full moon is scheduled for Wednesday (February 16), so maybe we can see this one. When I wake up on a clear morning, I can look directly out my bedroom window and watch Venus rise in the east through the treetops long before the sun rises. Cross-country skiing is really fast, and it’s safer to snowshoe, but that’s another story. See you.
Top photo: Mixed herd of Red Crossbills, Goldfinches and Juncos. Photo by Gary Lee.