Loxia curvirostra (Linnaeus, 1758)
Family: Passeriformes > Fringillidae
These sturdy finches are found in coniferous habitats throughout Britain & Ireland.
The Common Crossbill is both a resident species and a partial migrant to Britain & Ireland. This makes their breeding population size and trends difficult to assess. In some winters, there are large irruptions of Common Crossbills from their core range in the taiga forests of Eurasia, as birds move south and west in search of better feeding conditions. Some of these birds may stay in Britain & Ireland to breed, perhaps for a few years, before survivors and their offspring return to the Continent.
Common Crossbills are among the earliest birds to start breeding in Britain & Ireland, and indeed can breed at any time during the winter months. Males are more brightly coloured than females, with orange-red plumage to the females' grey-green. Both sexes use their distinctive bills to prise open pine cones and extract the seeds.
Select a topic for more facts and statistics about the Common Crossbill
Common Crossbill identification is often straightforward.
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Status and Trends
Population size and trends and patterns of distribution based on BTO surveys and atlases with data collected by BTO volunteers.
This species can be found on the following statutory and conservation listings and schedules.
Trends could not be produced for this species prior to the start of BBS. Atlas data for 2008-11 confirm that Crossbills were at a high level of abundance (Balmer et al. 2013) although the long-term trend is unclear and following a recent decrease numbers recorded by BBS are now similar to the late 1990s and early 2000s.
|UK breeding population||No population change in UK (1995–2020)|
Crossbills are highly mobile, moving in response to conifer seed production. During the winters covered by Bird Atlas 2007–11
Occupied 10-km squares in UK
European Distribution Map
Breeding Season Habitats
|Most frequent in||Coniferous Wood|
Relative frequency by habitat
There have been significant gains in the numbers of occupied 10-km squares throughout much of Britain & Ireland since the 1981–84 Winter Atlas and the 1968–72 Breeding Atlas, associated with the maturing of forestry planted after 1945.
Common Crossbill is a localised resident and passage migrant and can be encountered throughout the year.
Information about movement and migration based on online bird portals (e.g. BirdTrack), Ringing schemes and tracking studies.
An overview of year-round movements for the whole of Europe can be seen on the EuroBirdPortal viewer.
Lifecycle and body size information about Common Crossbill, including statistics on nesting, eggs and lifespan based on BTO ringing and nest recording data.
|Number of Broods||2|
|Egg Size||22×16 mm Weight = 3 g (of which 5% is shell)|
View number ringed each year in the Online Ringing Report
|Maximum Age from Ringing||3 years 2 months 10 days (set in 1976)|
|Typical Lifespan||2 years with breeding typically at 1 year|
|Wing Length||Adults||97.8±2.7 | Range 93–102mm, N=271|
|Juveniles||97±2.8 | Range 92-101mm, N=87|
|Males||99.6±2.2 | Range 96–103mm, N=119|
|Females||96.4±2.2 | Range 92–100mm, N=152|
|Body Weight||Adults||40.3±3.54 | Range 34.7–46.7g, N=255|
|Juveniles||38.4±3.7019 | Range 32.0–44.4g, N=81|
|Males||40.9±3.33 | Range 35.3–46.8g, N=113|
|Females||39.8±3.64 | Range 34.4–45.5g, N=142|
Feather measurements and photos on featherbase
|Field Codes||2-letter: CR | 5-letter code: CROSS | Euring: 16660|
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Interpretation and scientific publications about Common Crossbill from BTO scientists.
Causes of change
The UK breeding population of Crossbills is difficult to assess and is exceptionally variable between years, and the UK BBS trend presented here reflects post-breeding numbers on a wider geographical scale than just the UK. The UK trends are hence likely to reflect irruptive movements from (and to) the continent caused by changes to the cone crop.
Further information on causes of change
The UK breeding population of Crossbills is difficult to assess in any one season, even by special survey, and is exceptionally variable between years. The core of the population lies in the taiga forests across Eurasia, from where birds periodically irrupt westwards and southwards in search of better feeding conditions. After the irregular arrivals into Britain, many thousands of birds may stay to breed, perhaps for a few years, before survivors and their offspring return to the Continent (Newton 2006). The spur to irruptive movements is a failure of the cone crop, especially of Norway spruce Picea abies, which is this species' main food (Summers 1999). Crossbills begin breeding in January, sometimes even earlier, and by the start of the BBS period in April most sightings are of highly mobile family parties. In irruption years, BBS sightings may include many birds from the Continent, which often begin to arrive in late May or during June. The BBS trend therefore reflects post-breeding rather than breeding numbers, and on a wider geographical scale than just the UK. Climate modelling suggests that future range reductions could occur across Europe due to changes in patterns of seed availability (Mezquida et al. 2018).
Information about conservation actions
As the UK population of Crossbills is likely to be driven partly or largely by immigration and emigration, and it is difficult to identify conservation actions targeted specifically at increasing the UK population. Irruptive movements are prompted by shortages of food, in particular Norway spruce cones (Summers 1999), and hence managing the availability of suitable woodlands across the UK is likely to help support the European population of this species, by ensuring that potential sources of food are available in the UK when cone crops fail on continental Europe. Although they are able to feed on Scots Pine Pinus sylvestris when cones are open they cannot access seeds in closed Scots Pine cones, and non-native conifers may be an important food source for Common Crossbills in Britain (for example, Sitka Spruce Picea sitchensis, McNab et al. (2019)).
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