Crossbills are appropriate birds for the Christmas season.
There are two species—red crossbill and white-winged crossbill.
Both qualify as symbols of Christmas.
Both are red overall. The white-winged crossbill has white wing bars, of course, and the red crossbill can be blotchy at this time of year, with patches of gray or even green mixed in with the red.
The crossbills come from the north, being among the suite of finches that show up in the northern states from time to time.
They are strongly associated with evergreen forests.
And they show up only in winter—at least reliably.
Plus, they are even less common than Santa Claus.
The Grand Forks County checklist counts both crossbill species as “occasional” year around. That means, according to the list’s definition, that the birds are “seen less than once every three years.”
Robert Stewart in “Breeding Birds of North Dakota,” published in the mid 1970s, said red crossbills apparently breed intermittently around the state, and white-crossbills are hypothetical nesters, based on breeding season records.
Both species are known to nest in northern Minnesota—more an evergreen country than any part of North Dakota.
Red crossbills have been reported in East Grand Forks this year, and last season I had red crossbills in pine trees I planted at our place west of Gilby, N.D., when we moved there after the 1997 flood.
The crossbills, I said then, rewarded my effort in planting the trees.
They did not reward my search for them last week, however.
Both crossbill species are named for their appearance, including the uniquely crossed bill. This allows the birds to extract seeds from cones of conifers.
They are thus both specially adapted and limited to a life in evergreens.
Both species do come to feeders, however.
My experience is that red crossbills are more likely here than white-winged crossbills—but that’s based on individual observations, not on any kind of serious survey.
Red is an important element in Christmas symbolism. In the United States, this heavily favors the cardinal as a Christmas icon. The cardinal probably appears on more Christmas cards than any other bird—certainly far more than either of the crossbills or the redpolls, which I nominated earlier as symbols of Saint Nicholas—also known as Santa Claus.
But cardinals fail on another criterion, though. They come from the wrong direction.
Cardinals are southerners, by and large. It’s true that cardinals have moved north and west in the last quarter-century or so, perhaps a response to the expansion of bird feeding, perhaps as a result of climate change.
In any case, cardinals now are regular in much of our area, but they are not common here—so they are still special, another criterion for Christmas symbolism.
The snowy owl is also a frequent Christmas symbol, qualifying because it is associated with the North—not quite the North Pole, of course, but the High Arctic.
Snowy owls wander southward every year. Probably, the Grand Forks area is as good a place to see them as any in the Lower 48.
Snowy owls have been fewer than usual this year, it seems to me.
One common permanent resident in the Red River Valley also has Christmas connections. This is the gray partridge, the very bird of the famous Christmas carol.
Gray partridges aren’t native here. They were introduced from Europe and became established in the 1920s. Now they are common—in some years abundant—in our area. I regularly see them along rural roads, and I sometimes flush them when I’m walking.
As it happens, the partridge is an immigrant in England, as well. Medieval hunters brought them from central Europe. They made tempting targets for the falcons that noble people kept—just as they are prey for snowy owls in their new, North American range.
The partridges played a role in Christmas at the farm in Mountrail County, where I grew up. On Christmas Eve, my dad would spread grain on the driveway as a gift for the partridges. They showed up to accept his gift on Christmas morning.
Finally, I missed my much-anticipated Christmas bird, the sharp-tailed grouse, which I had hoped to see on the annual Christmas Bird Count at Icelandic State Park west of Cavalier, N.D.
The count was postponed when winter weather pushed into the area Wednesday. It’s been rescheduled for Wednesday this week, Dec. 23. We’ll meet at 7:30 a.m. at park headquarters—weather cooperating.