Status: Rare regular breeder west and north, rare casual elsewhere. Common regular spring, summer, and fall visitor west, uncommon elsewhere. Common regular winter visitor west, uncommon central, rare elsewhere.
Documentation: Specimen: benti, UNSM ZM7187, winter 1886 Fairbury, Jefferson Co.
Call Type Recordings: Type 2, 26 Aug 2015 Chadron SP, Dawes Co (LeFever 2015); Type 3, 25 Dec 2017 Omaha, Douglas Co (Rink 2017); (Type 4, 5 Aug 2017 Scotts Bluff Co (Manning 2017).
Taxonomy: The taxonomy of Red Crossbill is notoriously complex. Studies by Groth (1993) and others (Benkman 1999) have established 10 call types, at least some of which may represent incipient species (Benkman et al 2009, Irwin 2010). Indeed, one call type, endemic to the Cassia Hills in southern Idaho, was recently raised to species status as Cassia Crossbill (L. sinesciuris; Chesser et al 2017).
About six traditional subspecies (pusilla, benti, bendirei, minor, sitkensis, stricklandi) have been identified as occurring in Nebraska over the years, but uncertain taxonomy makes assignment of these to call types difficult. However, they would appear to fit the Young (2012) call types as follows: pusilla, benti, and bendirei Type 2 Ponderosa Pine Crossbill, minor and sitkensis Type 3 Western Hemlock Crossbill, and stricklandi Type 6 Sierra Madre Crossbill. Based on ranges described by Young (2012), taxa in this list that are unlikely to occur in Nebraska are stricklandi, pusilla, and sitkensis, leaving benti, bendirei, and minor (Types 2 and 3) as likely to occur. In additional to the benti specimen cited above, an adult male benti was collected 19 Jul 1957 (Ford 1959) on the Pine Ridge west of Crawford, Dawes Co.
In Nebraska, Types 2, 3, and 4 are documented by sound recordings. Wide-ranging Type 2 breeds in Nebraska and probably is the subspecies that occurs in Nebraska away from breeding areas, as suggested by Pieplow (2017) for Colorado; a flyover flock of four was recorded at Chadron SP 26 Aug 2015 (eBird.org, accessed October 2017). Type 3 erupts during certain winters; it was recorded in the Omaha area 25 Dec 2015 during an invasion year (eBird.org, accessed October 2017). Types 4 and 5 are occasional wanderers onto the Great Plains; Type 4 was recorded in Scotts Bluff Co 5 Aug 2017, as well as at a few other locations across Nebraska in the 2017 crossbill invasion, when it occurred in good numbers. Type 5 has not been recorded in Nebraska but has been recorded several times in the eastern Colorado mountains, where it may be resident (Pieplow 2017); it was recorded at Hays, Kansas 23 Dec 2012, where Types 2 and 3 were recorded the same day (eBird.org, accessed October 2017). The only other type reported, but without recordings, was Type 7. There are no previous Nebraska records of Type 7 and none are shown on eBird for fall 2017; this call type is largely unknown, as indicated by its name, “Enigmatic Crossbill”, although it is currently thought to occur in the northeastern US.
Spring: winter <<<>>> Jun 2,3,4
Departure of birds that wintered away from the breeding range is usually complete by late May; in the southeast, late reports include 25 May 1997 Cuming Co, five at Nebraska City, Otoe Co 31 May 1997, and two identified as Type 2 by calls at Indian Cave SP, Richardson Co 2 Jun 2013. Johnsgard (1980) indicated that half the published spring reports are in the period 19 Mar-19 May, suggesting noticeable movement at that time.
Summer: Neither Bruner et al (1904) nor Rapp et al (1958) listed the species as a breeder in Nebraska. Prior to the 1970s, breeding was apparently only sporadic, with one unconfirmed report, in 1961 near Chadron, Dawes Co (Wensien 1962). The first confirmed nesting record was of a nest with eggs found near Crawford, Dawes Co 24 Mar 1974 (Williams 1974); since then, Rosche (1982) considered breeding “regular” on the Pine Ridge. Red Crossbill is a common breeder in the Black Hills of South Dakota (Tallman et al 2002).
Red Crossbill indeed appears to be a regular breeder on the Pine Ridge and probably the Wildcat Hills, Scotts Bluff and Banner Cos, and the Bighorn Escarpment in Morrill and northern Kimball Cos (Mollhoff 2016), almost exclusively in ponderosa pine woodland. Most reports of “breeding” are of begging young being fed by adults; there are numerous such reports in the period 6 Mar-21 Jul. Whether such young birds were fledged in Nebraska or nearby Wyoming or South Dakota is conjectural, as juveniles are quite mobile; fledged young are fed by parents for up to 33 days (Adkisson 1999). An Adams Co report involved three birds, “one of which was obviously a young of the year” at Hastings 27 Jul 1966 (Williams 1966). It is unknown whether Nebraska breeders are resident. Vagaries of food supply force nomadism, so fidelity to sites is unlikely; individuals have been recaptured at a banding site up to two years later (Coombs-Hahn 1993), and banding records document individual movements of up to 2,000 km (Adkisson 1996).
Reports of possible breeding away from the northwest, all in pine woodlands in the Niobrara River Valley and western Loup drainage are of adults with juveniles at Steer Creek Campground, Cherry Co 14 Apr 2016, a group of seven, including a juvenile being fed by an adult, as well as four fly-overs, was at NNF Bessey, Thomas Co 18 Jun 2014 (Type 2, recording), a pair of adults with 4-5 juveniles was seen in the Keya Paha Co portion of the Niobrara Valley Preserve 18 Jun 1995, two adults and three juveniles were in Kearney, Buffalo Co 11-25 Jul 2012 (Silcock 2012), a female and four juveniles were in Dawson Co 1 Jul 2012 (Silcock 2012), and juveniles were at NNF Bessey in Aug (Bray 1994).
There are few records of nests with eggs, including Rosche’s record (noted above) near Crawford, Dawes Co, and others that, oddly, are all outside the mapped Panhandle breeding range. A nest was being brooded by a female at Broken Bow, Custer Co 20 Mar 1920; this nesting was unsuccessful, as the female was found dead a few days later (Swenk 1921). A female on a nest, accompanied by a male, was in a box elder in Elmwood Park, Omaha, 28 Mar 1920; the nest was destroyed in a storm (Swenk 1921). A pair raised young in Lincoln, Lancaster Co Mar-Apr 1932; the male fed the young by regurgitation (Swenk 1932). These records suggest that eggs are laid in late March.
Numbers of Red Crossbills during the breeding season vary markedly and nesting presumably occurs only in years of moderate to high pine seed availability (Rosche 1982, Mollhoff 2016). Faulkner (2010) stated that, in Wyoming, breeding occurs mostly in late winter and early spring and in late summer and early autumn. There is no evidence, however, for late summer breeding in Nebraska, although a female with a brood patch was banded at Wildcat Hills NC, Scotts Bluff Co 10 Sep 2009, an unexpected date for a breeding condition female in Nebraska. However, egg dates for the species in North America are from mid-Dec to early Sep (Adkisson 1999).
- Breeding Phenology:
Eggs: 20-28 Mar.
Nesting was reported as “in progress” as early as late Feb 1989 in Dawes Co (Grzybowski 1989).
Fall: Red Crossbill is nomadic rather than migratory (Parchman et al 2006). As early as Apr, but more often in Jun-Jul, small flocks may appear eastward in Nebraska; some of these may be derived from breeding populations far removed from the state. The earliest reports are in occasional invasion years when Red Crossbills become conspicuous statewide by mid-summer. In 2012, such reports included 14 of mixed plumages in a Fairmont, Fillmore Co yard 8 Jul, one in Platte Co 19 Jul, 2-4 at a Stanton Co feeder 24-26 Jul, two birds eight miles north of Minden, Kearney Co 30 Jul, and one in Dodge Co 3 Aug. There are a number of similar reports 7 Jun-7 Sep statewide.
There was a large invasion in fall 2017; first detected away from ponderosa pines were two in Lancaster Co 13 Aug followed by 21 in the same county 21 Aug. Reports were statewide, with best counts occurring during the second half of Oct: 150 at Plattsmouth Cemetery, Cass Co 1 Nov, 120 at East Ash Canyon, Dawes Co 13 Oct, 120 at Wildcat Hills NC, Scotts Bluff Co 12 Oct, and 63 at Forest Lawn Cemetery, Omaha 25 Oct. Several observers reported call types; Nebraska resident birds are Type 2; there were several of this type verified by recordings, as well as good numbers of Type 4.
There is evidence of movement in Sep-Oct (Johnsgard 1980, eBird.org, accessed November 2017); in eruption years movement out of the Wyoming breeding range is “most pronounced” in Sep-Oct (Faulkner 2010), and peak numbers (323) were banded in Sep 2010 at Wildcat Hills NC. A notable movement occurred in eastern Nebraska in late Oct and early Nov 2017 and included multiple call types; by mid-Nov, however, the species’ abundance was greatly reduced.
Winter: As noted above, this species is nomadic in fall and winter; numbers are variable and unpredictable. CBC data indicate erratic but broad distribution across the state in late Dec, with higher numbers in the west. Numbers on CBCs are generally low; from 1971-72 through 2015-2016 birds per party-hour have been below 0.30, from 1942-1943 through 1969-1970 below 0.62, with highest on record 1.23 birds/party-hour 1960-61, when 205 were totaled statewide.
CBC: Christmas Bird Count
SP: State Park
UNSM: University of Nebraska State Museum
Photograph (top) of a Red Crossbill at Neale Woods, Douglas Co 28 Apr 2008 by Phil Swanson.
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Birds of Nebraska – Online