| Boundaries Contents
by Jack Nisbet
Jack Nisbet is the author of The Mapmaker's Eye, Sources of the River, Purple Flat Top, Singing Grass, Burning Sage and Visible Bones. His newest, The Collector, is due out in October.
Looking for Crossbills
Red crossbills do not appear to play by the same rules that govern other living things. In fact, the more a person looks at this odd bird, the more every aspect of their being begins to wobble out of focus. Crossbill songs, plumage, habits, and even head profile change from forest to forest. Many show no fear at all of people, and their colors look far too bright and varied for the far north. Crossbill nesting behavior is not in synch with other birds, which makes it impossible to draw a map of their distribution – flocks drift around like clouds on a weather map. And although these finches used to be one of the most abundant members of the North Columbia community, many birders can’t seem to find them any more.
Some time ago, I worked on a house back in the woods in Stevens County. There was stonework involved, so we had rocks strewn about an open space, and the random spread of quartz seemed to attract red crossbills as if we were growing corn for crows. They hopped from lodgepole pines to douglas firs to window frames to the ground, working their way around the rocks with no apparent purpose. Males and females of all ages traveled together, and their colors ranged from dirty to rich brown; from brick to rose red; from banana yellow to apple green. During some June days, when every other bird in the forest was quietly incubating eggs, searching for the right-sized rock was like walking through a Mexican fruit market full of crossbilled vendors who barked out a strange steely kip-kip-kip racket trying to sell their wares. I knew crossbills were finches, but not much more, and wondered if they were somehow licking up the sweat that transferred from our hands to the surface of the stones.
But how did these things even lick? Most of them didn’t appear to notice the humans who shared the job site with them, so it was easy to get close enough to study the bizarre opposed points of their bills. Bird books described crossbills shearing the sheafs of pine cones to get at the seed, but it was much more than that – individuals would hang like parrots from the crowns of lodgepoles around our stonefield, patiently working into just the right position to pry each sheaf away from the core of the cone to release a single nutritious pine nut. They were so good at it that when several birds worked together in the canopy, noisy cracks and a fine hail of woodparts drifted down from the trees together.
As the summer wore on, we had to wonder why these crossbill were not engaged in breeding behavior like all the other forest birds. I began to root around in historical records until I came to James Keast Lord, a naturalist for the International Boundary Commission who spent several seasons around Fort Colvile between 1858-62. J.K. Lord knew his birds, and had strong opinions about almost every one he saw. Except crossbills. He thought they might migrate south for the winter because he never saw them in January or February, but then again, they might be residents who simply had a way of hiding. They were common in flocks all through the summer, but he never quite figured out what they were doing.
“Where they nest I cannot imagine,” wrote Lord in his report, “for I have searched again and again for their nests, but never found one.”
One of the females around our house site answered Lord’s question when she constructed what looked to be a rough saucer of twigs and bark in a nook where wood met stone on our half-finished chimney. A closer look revealed her work to be much finer than expected – she wove lichens, spaghnum moss, and fine hairs into the structure, and lined it with soft breast down. This female sported a yellow-green plumage much more subtle than the dark red third-year adult males. Her eggs were greenish too, and spotted with browns and purples that reflected the immature plumage of other youngsters hopping around. After we halted work around the chimney for a few weeks, the female allowed us to take long daily looks at her nesting process without any apparent concern.
When three chicks hatched out, their bills were stubby but straight, exactly like those of a young house finch. But over the three-week growing before they fledged from their nest, some kind of magic took place. Alice Abrahamson, a Kalispel-Chewelah speaker who lived in the Colville Valley, used to tell a story that involved Spill-yay, Coyote, and a drying rack where the meat dripped with magic grease. After Coyote wipe his paws in this fat, anything he touched would change according to his decree. That was when he went up to crossbill and snicked his paws up and down on the bird’s face, crossing its beak into those curving points. Every day when we took our break to study the nest, you could tell that Coyote had been up to his tricks again.
Crossbill magic spreads far beyond the Columbia country. Red crossbills, in fact, have a world-wide distribution, with birds of boreal forests in Scotland, Finland, Siberia, and Canada all lumped together under the Latin name Loxia curvirostra. But there is a lot more to it than that. The Loxia genus features special distinct species such as the beloved little Scottish crossbill, the heavy-billed parrot crossbill of Scandinavia, and the sublimely beautiful white-winged crossbill in North America, which ranges across Canada’s northern spruce bogs but occasionally dips down to the Columbia for a winter visit.
Crossbill beaks, not surprisingly, are elegantly adapted to pry open the size of cone they most often eat. Our red crossbills must be equipped to tackle a variety of conifers, but vast stretches of pure spruce or pure larch farther north lead to different-looking beaks. It turns out that the shape and size of their bill varies all the way around the Northern Hemisphere, and ornithologists have identified no less than ten different subspecies of North America’s Loxia curvirostra based on careful measurement of the length and weight of those beaks. As a further twist, some biochemists believe that the chemical differences in different conifer seeds that make up crossbill diets are the catalyst for the bewildering color variations in all their species and subspecies.
Give such variation, it also shouldn’t come as too much of a shock to learn that separate life styles might lead to different vocalizations. Crossbill enthusiast Jeff Groth has classified nine different crossbill forms in North America based on their distinct calls. A driver moving through the different coniferous habitats between Spokane and Arrow Lakes, for example, might hear five different kinds of crossbill voices during the trip. So listen carefully for pattern next time you hear those distant kips.
That is, if you hear any at all. Because over the past couple of decades, there is no question that our totemic red crossbills, their faces twisted into a demonic grin by Coyote’s magic grease, is less of a presence in north Columbia forests than they used to be. This pattern seems to be true in many places across the continent, but since the birds are traditionally so unpredictable, no one seems to be sure what’s going on. Isn’t it possible that these birds, always nomadic, have simply moved someplace else?
John Stuart, who has been observing bird life in the Pend Oreille drainage for the past three decades, wonders if the perceived decline in crossbills might have something to do with modern forest management practices. Trees now tend to be harvested after around sixty years of growth, because that maximizes their timber production. Cone production is on a much longer cycle, and trees aged a hundred years or more produce exponentially greater numbers of cones than their younger brethren. Crossbills, it is safe to assume, are operating on the longer cycle. And no matter how mysterious their looks and habits may appear to us, it is also safe to assume that their fate is tied to our own in some unpredictable way.
Illustration: Red Crossbill male and female on spruce cones painting by Alan Brooks. 1964.
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