Quick facts

Common names: common crossbill, crossbill, red crossbill

Scientific name: Loxia curvirostra

Family: Fringillidae (finches)

Habitat: coniferous woodland, heathland

Diet: conifer seeds

Predators: sparrowhawks; chicks and eggs vulnerable to a range of predators

Origin: native

What do common crossbills look like?

The crossbill’s distinctive feature is its thick, powerful beak that crosses at the tips. Males have a bright red head, while females are a yellowish-green with hints of grey. Males have bright red plumage, whereas females are a yellowish-green. Common crossbills are heavy-set birds, weighing roughly twice as much as a robin.

Not to be confused with: the Scottish crossbill and parrot crossbill. These species are very difficult to tell apart by sight alone, but the Scottish crossbill is only found in northern Scotland. It is the UK’s only endemic bird species, meaning it is found nowhere else in the world. The parrot crossbill is very rare in the UK, with only a handful of breeding pairs in Scotland and occasional visitors from Europe.

Credit: Buiten Beeld / Alamy Stock Photo

What do common crossbills eat?

The common crossbill specialises in feeding on the seeds of pine trees. Its unusually shaped beak allows it to extract seeds from within pine cones. It will occasionally eat buds and shoots of other plants, while insects can be taken in spring and summer.

Did you know?

Crossbills are a member of the finch family, meaning they are related to chaffinches, goldfinches and other finches.

How do common crossbills breed?

Typically, around three to four eggs are laid in spring. Chicks hatch after roughly two weeks and spend about a month in the nest before fledging. The nest is made out of twigs and moss and built high in a conifer tree.

Credit: Peter Cristian / Alamy Stock Photo

Where do common crossbills live?

Crossbills can be found across the UK, but are most numerous in the north and south of the country. The species’ reliance on pine seeds mean it is largely restricted to coniferous woodland, but can also be found on heathland with a sufficient number of pine trees. In years where food is in short supply, the crossbill population may ‘irrupt’, meaning it spreads across the country in search of feeding opportunities and may appear in areas where it is not normally seen.

Did you know?

The common crossbill and Scottish crossbill were only recognised as separate species in 2006, due to the latter having a distinctive song.

Signs and spotting tips

Crossbills are most often seen flying around the tops of trees, so be sure to look up when visiting coniferous woodland. One of the best chances to get a closer look at the species is when it comes down to pools and puddles to drink.

Crossbill song

Audio: Simon Gillings / xeno-canto.org

Credit: FLPA / Alamy Stock Photo

Threats and conservation

The common crossbill population is thought to be stable, with an estimated 40,000 breeding pairs across the UK. The parrot and Scottish crossbill are rarer, with estimated breeding populations of just 50 and 6,800 pairs respectively.