Monday, February 20, 2012
I was up in the Toledo area last Saturday, to meet with photographer Brian Zwiebel about a project that we are collaborating on. Brian lives but 25 minutes from Woodlawn Cemetery on Central Avenue in Toledo. Woodlawn is legendary for attracting winter finches, and this year there has been a pack of up to 100 White-winged Crossbills present. We really wanted to observe and photograph the x-bills, so after our work was done, off we went.
I don't really think of sweetgum as the fruit of choice for crossbills, but there they were, digging in with gusto. A pink adult male is bottom center, and look closely and you'll see three females, or parts thereof. Two other of the spectacular adult males were present, and one young male who was beginning to develop a pinkish bloom on his breast. The remainder of the flock were adult females and juveniles.
Once crossbills are immersed in seed-eating, the flock usually falls silent and it would be quite easy to pass by a tree full of feeding birds. One give-away is the soft cracking and crunching of cone scales being fractured, and the gentle rain of cone fragments drifting to the ground.
And boy, can crossbills harvest seed. It is claimed that a hard-working White-winged Crossbill can pluck 3,000 seeds a day! CLICK HERE for an incredible video of crossbills feeding.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Their range mirrors that of the vast belt of conifer-dominated boreal forest that sweeps across the northern part of the continent.
Crossbills play an integral role in the ecology of the boreal forest. Their North American population is estimated to be about 20 million birds. While a single bird is claimed to be able to harvest 3,000 seeds a day, let's be more conservative and knock that back to 1,000 seeds daily. If I did my math correctly, that equates to the entire North American White-winged Crossbill population consuming something on the order of 20 BILLION seeds daily! That's hard to fathom, and even if one were to quibble about the numbers, the fact remains that crossbills consume an enormous number of conifer seeds.
Not all of those bony little fruit get digested. Some of them are sure to pass through the crossbill intact, and possibly even scarified and ready for germination after exposure to digestive compounds. Thus, the crossbills serve as a giant army of feathered Johnny Appleseeds, spreading fir, hemlock, spruce and other conifers about the Great White North. When one considers the youthfulness of the boreal forest - this region was under a mile of ice only ten thousand +- years ago - it stands to reason that crossbills played an enormous role in reforestation of the boreal following the withdrawal of the ice sheets.
As few if any people inhabitat much of the remote boreal forests where crossbills breed, the birds do not seem to acknowledge humans as a threat. It is easy to quietly sidle up to within a few feet of a feeding bird. As long as you don't do anything suddenly or loudly, the crossbill will utterly ignore you and continue about its business. To me, they suggest little parrots. Just like many of the Psittacids, crossbills use their feet to hold food, and of course their crossed bills are like Swiss army knives and vital to the extraction of food, just as with parrots. Another endearing parrotlike habit of crossbills is their tendency to pull themselves about with their bill.
spark bird", and perhaps that's the case here. A number of other birders were in the cemetery admiring the crossbills, including this young man, Nathan. He is pointing at a crossbill that is only about three feet from his outstretched finger, and it looks like the bird made an impression.
These White-winged Crossbills have been present in Woodlawn Cemetery for a month or so, and may persist for a few more weeks. The cone crop is quite luxuriant in the cemetery so there is still plenty of food. Also, it appeared as if much of the remaining untouched cones are near the ground - low-hanging fruit, if you will - and that means your chances of seeing the birds up close and personal is good.