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December 14, 2012

Colorful Crossbill Finch Comes to Cape Wildlife Center

Rare bird is a holiday treat for the Cape

  • The crossbill's unique beak shape helps them feed on the cones of the traditional Christmas tree, the spruce. Deborah Robbins Millman/The HSUS

  • The crossbill's unique beak shape helps them feed on the cones of the traditional Christmas tree, the spruce. Deborah Robbins Millman/The HSUS

  • The crossbill's unique beak shape helps them feed on the cones of the traditional Christmas tree, the spruce. Deborah Robbins Millman/The HSUS

by Deborah Robbins Millman

There's a lot of knowledge flying around Dennis Yarmouth Regional High School, but something of a very different sort was flying around recently: a unique and rarely seen finch.

Students at the South Yarmouth, Mass. high school spotted the small, vividly-colored bird flying inside their school in mid-December.

After being gently captured, the bird was brought to Cape Wildlife Center in Barnstable for evaluation.

A rare bird

Cape Wildlife Center identified the bird as a female white-winged crossbill, a species infrequently seen—and, sadly, also on the decline—in Massachusetts. Normally, the birds tend to remain farther north and are most often found in northern Maine.

As the name implies, the upper and lower halves of the crossbill's beak meet to form the shape of an X, rather than matching up squarely, as most bird's bills do.

This adaptation helps the crossbill feed on smaller conifer cones, sometimes eating thousands of conifer seeds a day. Their preferred conifer? The spruce tree, recognizable to most as the traditional Christmas tree.

With the bright yellow-green feathers of the female, and the red plumage of the male, a flock of crossbills foraging on a spruce conjures up images of colorful holiday ornaments.

An early holiday gift 

Cape Wildlife Center staff agreed that the crossbill's unexpected visit was an early holiday present.

"White-winged crossbills are nomadic breeders, meaning they very seldom breed in the same place and are constantly on the move," noted CWC Medical Director Dr. Roberto Aguilar. "This is the first crossbill we've seen at Cape Wildlife Center in at least three years."

Although the little yellow bird was agitated and stressed from her ordeal, she had only minor injuries and was deemed to be in above-average body condition for her species. CWC staff stabilized her, took radiographs, and gave her anti-inflammatory medication.

Set free

Soon the colorful visitor was deemed ready for release—outside, this time. She was set free near the school, so she could easily relocate her flock, where no doubt her red-plumed mate awaited her.

"It was a pleasant surprise to get such a rare visitor," said CWC director Deborah Robbins Millman. "We hope that the excellent condition of our patient bodes well for the species' ability to rebound in Massachusetts."

Deborah Robbins Millman is director of the Cape Wildlife Center, operated by The HSUS in partnership with The Fund for Animals.

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