Last year, red crossbills invaded my neighborhood, attracted by a large crop of ponderosa pine cones. We hadn’t seen any crossbills for a long time, then suddenly, they were everywhere, crowding the bird bath, flitting between the trees, prying apart pine cones to reach the seeds.
I was already curious about the birds, as red crossbills are one of those unusual species that can nest at nearly (but not quite) any time of year, including late winter. On days with weather so foul we just want to stay inside, they may be incubating sensitive eggs or caring for downy, delicate nestlings.
When the crossbills arrived, I moved my laptop near a window so I could watch them while doing a little research. The result is an Outdoors Portrait in the 2018 March-April issue of Montana Outdoors magazine.
Below are some additional details and photos of a red crossbill nest I found, by pure luck, while working on the article. I’m including them for people who are really, really interested in crossbills.
The first week in March, with snow still patchy on the ground, I saw red crossbills gathering bits of dried grass. One day when I was out walking, I watched a female carry a beak full of grass into a tree. She didn’t come out. I had found her nest.
The picture below, taken two weeks later, shows the female’s notched tail jutting out over the edge. It was cold that day, and she wasn’t going anywhere.
I kept an eye on the nest but did not visit too frequently, as I didn’t want to scare the female off her eggs or young or attract predators. The nest was also near the end of a branch about 10 feet up a tree. Looking inside required a ladder balanced precariously amid the sagebrush. My husband took photos of the babies at a couple of stages of development. (He doesn’t mind standing on the part of a stepladder that carries a warning of impending doom.)
The photo below was taken six days before they flew away, at the end of a very quick “childhood.” We saw three fledge; we don’t know what happened to the fourth nestling.
By April 8, the nest was abandoned, and we lost track of these youngsters. But we were still visited by flocks of juveniles and their parents, which helped feed their young for a while.
With plenty of cones this year as well, we are now hosting another generation.