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Red Crossbill

Loxia curvirostra

Length: 5.5 - 6.5 inches Wingspan: 10.5 inches Seasonality: All Seasons / Winter
ID Keys: Crossed bill, males red and females dull yellow, both with darker wings

Red Crossbill - Loxia curvirostraThe Red Crossbill is primarily a denizen of conifer forests due to its strong preference for conifer seeds.  However, flocks can be highly nomadic, especially in winter.  While normally frequenting the northern U.S., higher elevations of the western U.S., and Canada, individual flocks may disperse widely in the winter, moving long distances to the south, east, and towards lower elevations.  They have odd nesting habits, and will nest in nearly any season if sufficient food items are available. 

Red Crossbills are also a species with a great geographic diversity in songs and other minor characteristics. Depending on the source, there are 8 to 11 recognized sub-species (with constant rumors that they're about to be split into full, distinct species).  "Type 2" Red Crossbills, sometimes called the "Ponderosa Pine Crossbill" (the bendirei or benti subspecies, depending upon source), is the one commonly found in the Black Hills, and in similar habitats further west in the United States. They're also the most likely subspecies to be found as winter visitors in the state. However, several of the other subspecies also have a tendency to sometimes stage winter irruptions, and spread widely from their core breeding areas. Type 3 and Type 4 Red Crossbills (the "Western Hemlock" and "Douglas Fir" subspecies, respectively) for example, both have a core breeding area near the Pacific coast of North America, yet sometimes irrupt all the way through the Great Plains. Thus, unless clear vocalizations are heard, it can be difficult to judge with any certainty which subspecies is being seen in winter in most locations in South Dakota.


They are rarely found long distances from conifer trees.  Nomadic flocks may appear in suburban areas in winter, however, frequenting feeders.


Red Crossbills primarily feed on the seeds of conifers. Individual sub-species often specialize in a specific type of conifer, such as bird specializing in pine, spruce, or hemlock species.  They will also eat other seeds, tree buds, berries, and occasionally insects. 


Red Crossbills are typically gregarious in all seasons.  They usually forages in flocks in the foliage of conifers, climbing over cones and extracting seeds. 


Red Crossbills are highly irregular nesters, with dates often timed to concur with best availability of cone crops.  They have been known to breed in almost any season. However, that typically does not coincide with the typical breeding season of most North American birds, in the late spring and early summer. Given their dependence on cones of conifer trees, nesting often occurs in the early fall, when conifer cone crops are mature and available for feeding.

The nest of a Red Crossbill is placed in a conifer tree, typically in an area with dense foliage on a branch near the tree's trunk. The gregarious nature of a Red Crossbill also often extends through breeding, with loose colonies of nests scattered through one general area. The nest itself is constructed of pine needles and lined with finer materials such as grasses, weed stems, hair, moss, or feathers. The female lays 3 to 5 eggs, with both parents helping to incubate them. The young hatch after 14-16 days, with both parents tending to and feeding the young. They fledge from the nest 18-21 days after hatching.


Song is a series of short phrases with interspersed call notes.  Song depends upon race/sub-species, with distinct songs for each of 9 possible sub-species. Calls (often given in flight) are also different among the different sub-species, but are generally similar to a high-pitched chew-chew.


 Generally a semi-permanent resident in much of its range.  However, individual groups can be highly nomadic, and long distance dispersion the the south, east, and into lowland areas can occur in the winter.  In South Dakota, Red Crossbills are only commonly seen outside the Black Hills during the winter months.

Interactive eBird Map:

Click here to access an interactive eBird map of Red-Crossbill sightings

Similar Species:

There are multiple other crossbill and finch species in South Dakota that could potentially be confused with a Red Crossbill.

White-winged Crossbill 12 - Loxia leucoptera House Finch 1 - Haemorhous mexicanus Cassin's Finch - Haemorhous cassinii Purple Finch 7 - Haemorhous purpureus
White-winged Crossbill House Finch Cassin's Finch Purple Finch

Bird Feeders: 

Will attend feeders for sunflower seeds, occasionally for other seeds, as well as peanuts, suet, and sometimes fruit.

Conservation Status:

Red Crossbills are found across a very large geographic range (in both the Eastern and Western Hemispheres), they are common in parts of that range, and overall populations are strong. Systematic surveys in recent decades such as the Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Count indicate stable populations. The IUCN thus considers the Red Crossbill to be a species of "Least Concern".

Further Information:

Photo Information:

January 5th, 2020 - Sioux Falls, South Dakota - Terry Sohl

Additional Photos:

Click on the image chips or text links below for additional, higher-resolution Red Crossbill photos.

Audio File Credits:

Click on the map below for a higher-resolution view
Red Crossbill - Species Range Map
South Dakota Status: Common permanent resident in the Black Hills.  Uncommon migrant and breeder elsewhere in the western part of the state.  Irregular but sometimes common winter visitor in the north, irregular and uncommon to rare in the southeast part of the state.

Additional Red Crossbill Photos
Click for a higher-resolution version of these photos
Red Crossbill 1 - Loxia curvirostraRed Crossbill 2 - Loxia curvirostraRed Crossbill 3 - Loxia curvirostraRed Crossbill 4 - Loxia curvirostraRed Crossbill 5 - Loxia curvirostraRed Crossbill 6 - Loxia curvirostraRed Crossbill 7 - Loxia curvirostraRed Crossbill 8 - Loxia curvirostraRed Crossbill 9 - Loxia curvirostraRed Crossbill 10 - Loxia curvirostraRed Crossbill 11 - Loxia curvirostraRed Crossbill 12 - Loxia curvirostraRed Crossbill 13 - Loxia curvirostraRed Crossbill 14 - Loxia curvirostraRed Crossbill 15 - Loxia curvirostra