Red crossbill baby pictures

crossbilljuvie
Red crossbill juvenile, © 2017 Julie Lue.

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 this 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.

Red crossbill nest
Red crossbill nest, © 2017 Julie Lue.

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.)

Red crossbill nestlings
Red crossbill nestlings, © 2017 Tony Lue.

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.

crossbillnestlings
Red crossbill nestlings, © 2017 Tony Lue.

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.

Catching up with Montana’s bald eagles

In 1978, there were only 12 known nesting pairs of bald eagles in Montana. By 2014, that number had increased to more than 700 pairs. This amazing recovery, thanks to the ban on DDT and actions taken under the Endangered Species Act, is the subject of “The Eagles Have Landed,” my article in the November-December 2017 issue of Montana Outdoors Magazine. Kate Davis of Raptors of the Rockies took the stunning photographs that accompany the story.

While researching bald eagles, I watched for them in their usual haunts, and I spotted a fair number of nests in river valleys before the cottonwoods leafed out. But I also saw bald eagles in a few more unexpected places:

  • Soaring over Walmart in Missoula, next to the Clark Fork River.
  • Flapping over the parking lot at my kids’ school, while being harassed by a raven.
  • Attending a high school track meet. An adult and an immature bald eagle perched in nearby trees, hunting rodents in a field. Later, the adult circled repeatedly over the track, as if curious about the 1600m relay.
  • Flying low over my yard during high water. With tough fishing on the river a mile away, the eagle may have been looking for more prey options. (My three hens appeared to get a good adrenaline rush out of this flyover, but were unharmed.)

Sometimes I even saw eagles while driving somewhere to look for eagles. The message in all this for me? The eagles are back.

Yet even though overall bald eagle numbers are encouraging, we should be careful not to take the species for granted. As zoologist Willard Van Name said, “The time to save a species is while it is still common.” Bald eagles remain vulnerable to everything that got us in trouble in the first place, including habitat loss, nest disturbance, and poisoning by environmental contaminants.

One more note about Montana’s bald eagles . . . Not all the birds you see are nesters. Some are “floaters,” immature birds or others that haven’t yet established a nesting territory (my track meet birds probably fit this category). Others are migrating birds passing through Montana on their way to somewhere else. And still others are Canadian birds here to spend the winter in milder conditions. I look forward to seeing these winter migrants soon.

Crow or Raven?

My kids used to ask, “What’s that big, black bird, Mom?”

I always answered, “It’s a crow, or maybe, um, a raven.”

But now I know the difference. If you want to know what to look for, check out my short piece about crows in the March-April 2015 issue of Montana Outdoors magazine (Montana Outdoors Portrait: American Crow).

Unfortunately, I had space for just a small percentage of all the fun stuff I learned about crows. Even though I usually find them eating garbage in the Target parking lot, they’re some of the smartest animals on Earth.

I got interested in crows after watching the PBS Nature special, A Murder of Crows.” It’s well worth an hour if you have the time.