White-winged Crossbills come to Delaware

By Joe Sebastiani, Members Program Team Leader

For the last month or so, about every other post on the Pennsylvania Bird listserve has had the topic line, “ww crossbill”.  Each backyard, cemetery, or park with a spruce or hemlock tree was reported to have White-winged Crossbills.  I was getting a little sick of it to tell you the truth.  When were we going to see them here in Delaware??

They have arrived at last.  Last week someone reported a flock on a private property in New Castle County.  Derek Stoner heard some flying over the Delaware Nature Society’s Flint Woods Preserve in Centreville a few days ago, but never saw them. 

This morning, I set out to find some, and succeeded big-time.  At a private property near Ashland Nature Center, I discovered a flock of about 50 White-winged Crossbills feeding in hemlock trees.  What a sight they were!  The male is pinkish-red, and female is yellowish-green, and both are absolutely beautiful.  The bill is crossed at the tip, which is an adaptation for extracting seeds from hemlock, spruce, and tamarack cones.  This is rather difficult to see in the field, especially when they are at the top of a 50-foot tree and blowing around in the wind.

A male White-winged Crossbill in a hemlock tree, which is one of their favorite food sources.  Photo by Jim White
A male White-winged Crossbill in a hemlock tree, which is one of their favorite food sources. Photo by Jim White

After I found the birds, I quickly got Jim and Amy White, who live nearby, over to see them.  We watched the large flock fly around, land, and quickly get up again, since there were two Sharp-shinned Hawks nearby, spooking them.  The birds called as they flew, making a sound that is described as someone typing on an old-fashioned typewriter.  At one point, the birds flew into a deciduous tree and began eating the frozen, crusty snow that was on the larger branches. 

White-winged Crossbills eating snow in a tree.  Photo by Joe Sebastiani
White-winged Crossbills eating snow in a tree. Photo by Joe Sebastiani

After an hour, the show was over and the birds departed for some unknown roost or feeding area for the remainder of the morning. 

Why are they here??  This species normally lives and breeds well to our north in the boreal forests of Canada.  They are a very nomadic species, however, moving from place to place to find good crops of hemlock, spruce, and tamarack tree seeds.  This year, apparently the cone crop was not good to our north and the birds have come south in huge numbers.  Since their favorite food sources do not grow here naturally, the White-winged Crossbill should be looked for in areas that have large planted hemlock and spruce with cones.

If you would like to see these birds, we are meeting at Ashland Nature Center on Monday, February 2 at 8:45 a.m. to go find them.  We hope to see you there.

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