Crossbill. European Or Common Crossbill. Shell Or Shield-Apple. Figure 1 [top left]

Varioud bird eggs

Of those curious birds called Crossbills, from the peculiar construction of the bills, the points of which cross each other, there are three species known in this country, but two of them, namely, the Parrot and White-winged Crossbills, are very rare, only a few specimens having been taken here. The more common kind is a migratory bird, coming in large flocks at very irregular intervals, and visiting more especially those parts of the country where there are woods and plantations of fir and pine, of the seeds of which they are very fond, extracting them with great dexterity from between the scales of the cones; for this operation, the projecting points of the bill appear to be well adapted, as well as for picking out the apple-pips, as they are called, and kernels of other fruits; hence the name shell-apple given to the bird, which was a not uncommon visitor to the English orchards in former times; thus in a curious old record we are told that "In the yeere 1593 was a greate and exceeding yeere of apples; and there were greate plenty of strang birds, that shewed themselves at the tyme the apples were full rype, who fedd uppon the kernells onely of those apples, and haveing a bill with one beake wrythinge over the other, which would presently bore a greate hole in the apple, and make way to the kernells; they were of the bignesse of a bullfinch, the henne right like the henne of the bullfinch in coulour; the cocke a very glorious bird, in a manner al redde or yellowe on the brest, backe, and head."

We would not advise our young readers to take the above as a lesson in spelling, although it is a very lively and faithful picture of the Crossbill, great flocks of which were English visitants in 1254, 1593, and 1791, when a bird-catcher in Bath caught one hundred pairs, which he sold for five shillings each; again in 1806, 1828 and 9, and 1835; ever since which time they have generally remained with us in greater or lesser numbers, having been probably induced to do so by the greater abundance of fir plantations. They are very lively birds, chattering and making a shrill noise while engaged in their favourite occupation of picking out seeds; they swing about on the branches of the trees often head downwards, and are very nimble and graceful in their movements, and so fearless of the approach of man, that they can frequently be taken with a hand-net, or knocked down with a stick.

That the Crossbill sometimes breeds in this country there cannot be a doubt, but it does this only as an exception to the general rule; the nest, which has been found at various seasons, has been described as of a loose texture, not unlike that of the Common Greenfinch, though not nearly so well nor so carefully built; the eggs also are not unlike those of that bird but larger. In Norway and Sweden, where the bird habitually breeds, the nest is built in the uppermost branches of the pines and firs; it is composed of grass, moss, and the finer portions of these trees; one has been found here on an apple tree, and another on a fir, and another, near Dartford, in Kent, on the lowest fork of a pine; this was composed of dry twigs, but no eggs were laid in it, the curiosity of frequent observers having driven the bird away.

Although we have placed this among our familiar  British Birds, the eggs to English collectors are rare and difficult of attainment, and should be prized accordingly. The scientific name given to the species is Loxia curvirostra, both the terms having reference to the shape of the beak, the first coming from the Greek loxos, curved, and the latter from the Latin curvus, curved or bent, and rostra, the beak. By some naturalists Europæa  is the generic term, and this so closely resembles the English name as to require no explanation.