For years I have been driving through Nebraska every October on my way to northwest Colorado, and for years I’ve wanted to stop somewhere in Nebraska for an extended visit. Recently I did just that.
Two of us spent the first week of December in the Nebraska panhandle hunting deer during the state’s muzzleloader season.
We hunted in the 22,000-acre Fort Robinson State Park, Soldier Creek Wilderness Area, and at a nearby state wildlife management area. Until then, I had no idea how rugged and breathtakingly beautiful the landscape of northwestern Nebraska was.
Despite it being December, I was surprised by the abundant bird life throughout the area. Most species that I encountered were not a surprise: Black-capped chickadees, downy woodpeckers, white-breasted nuthatches, black-billed magpies, and a few others. However, there were other species that I thought I’d see that I never did — American crow, common raven, and Clark’s nutcracker.
One species in particular that I hadn’t thought of, yet surprised and delighted me the most, was a species that I’ve never observed in such astonishing numbers before — the red crossbill.
Nearly everywhere I went, save for the open landscape where only sharp-tailed grouse seemed to be, I saw red crossbills -- singing and calling both in flocks and by themselves. I was thrilled to observe and learn about some of the interesting behaviors of this attractive and unusual-looking finch.
Here in Minnesota, both species of crossbills can be found — the other being the white-winged crossbill. In Nebraska, however, red crossbills are generally the only species of crossbill that inhabit the variable and preferred habitats that both species of crossbills prefer — coniferous forests and woodlands.
Most of us probably have a mental image of Nebraska as a sprawling open landscape comprised mostly of rangeland and farmland devoid of trees.
Yet in northwestern Nebraska, where the Nebraska and Samuel R. McKelvie national forests are located near the towns of Crawford, Chadron, and Valentine, is also where ponderosa pine trees, lodgepole pines, and red crossbills can be found.
My first full day of hunting this lovely and historic country, while walking along the Middle Fork of Soldier Creek, I quickly became aware of the calls and songs of a bird that I didn’t readily recognize.
Finch-like sounding in every respect, I at first couldn’t locate the birds in a dense grove of ponderosa pines that was nearby. At long last, a lone bird alighted on a limb atop a cottonwood tree that I was standing underneath. A quick study of the singing, brick-red colored bird with my 10X binoculars revealed its identity.
Throughout the rest of the week I was acutely aware of, and highly interested in, observing and studying these fascinating birds at every opportunity they gave me. Both males and females sang and called to each other with relish while in flight or perch and in flocks or alone.
Their vocal repertoire was variable, enchanting, and unexpected. In some instances the songs and call-notes of a vocalizing bird were barely audible, and at other times when large flocks were together feeding in pine groves, their pleasant and musical voices could be heard from long distances away.
Their feeding behaviors were equally as interesting: These birds employ their unusual crossed beaks whenever they inserted their bills between the hard scales of pine cones to pry open and extract the seeds within, that they consumed. Often was the case that when I found myself beneath the trees they were feeding from, winged pine seeds would flutter to the snowpack like miniature helicopters. It wasn’t lost on me that some of those falling seeds could someday become trees to feed crossbills of the future.
I also observed males feeding females, which is an act that is believed to strengthen pair bonds, as this species is thought to be monogamous. Indeed, both male and female red crossbills do everything together — they feed together, pick out nest sites together, build their nest together, take turns incubating the eggs, and feed and rear their young together.
It took me traveling clear to the Nebraska panhandle to really notice and appreciate the red crossbill. I know that I’ll be looking forward to encountering more of these fascinating finches here at home, and I hope you do, too, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.