Red Crossbills and the Cone Crop across the Adirondacks and Northeast 2023-2024: What will 2024-2025 bring?

Red Crossbill and the Cone Crop across the Adirondacks and Northeast 2023-2024: What will 2024-2025 bring?

By Matthew Young and Nicolas Main

With the 2023-2024 cone crop year and the Type 2 and 4 Red Crossbill invasion mostly in the books, we wanted to give a bit of an overview of the last year before pivoting a little towards this year’s cone crop year (2024-2025). Crossbills start moving around more come May-June looking for the next developing cone crops, so the below article will focus on July2023 to April 2024.

The Red Crossbill is known for using their unique bill for prying seeds out of conifer cones, but unlike the White-winged Crossbill, it is known to be able to use a much wider variety of conifers to meet their energy requirements for nesting. This is due to this species having a stronger jaw musculature. In the Northeast it can get at seeds from soft-coned conifers such as spruces (i.e. red and white spruce) and hemlocks; the semi-soft coned conifer eastern white pine; and hard coned pines such as red, jack, pitch, scotch and Japanese black pines.

Overall, this was a great cone cycle year (July 1 2023-June 30 2024) for Red Crossbills in New York and the Northeast. There have been many confirmed breeders from this cone cycle from across the northeast, but confirming birds to breeding takes time and effort, and the numbers of birds that successfully nested is likely higher than represented in the eBird records.

Figure 1. Red Crossbill reports across New York and neighboring areas from July 2023 to April 2024.

As many Red Crossbills utilize a wide range of tree species, unique call types with slight differences in bill sizes can maximize feeding on different types of cones — small billed birds like type 3 can better utilize hemlockx, whereas large billed birds like Type 2 can better utlize a variety of hard-pines. We made note in the field of several different call types, many of which were unique for the year in terms of abundance in the Northeast. Out of the 12 Red Crossbill call types in North America, we detected a total of six different call types throughout the time period (Types 1, 2, 3, 4 and 12; a single type 5 has been recorded in MA, NH and Maine as well). We had an excellent invasion of western call types 2 and 4. This was the best Type 4 invasion in the Northeast in at least 25+ years, and one of the top three best invasions for Type 2 during the same time period. The expected Type 12 was also common with a few Type 1 and couple Type 3 records around as well. Note there were many records of Red Crossbills in New York state this cone cycle year that weren’t recorded and therefore identified to call type.

Figure 2. Red Crossbill (Ponderosa Pine or Type 2) eBird reports throughout the Northeast for July 2023 – April 2024.
Figure 3. Red Crossbill (Douglas-fir or Type 4) eBird reports throughout the Northeast for July 2023 – April 2024.
Figure 4. Red Crossbill (Northeastern or Type 12) eBird reports throughout the Northeast for July 2023 – April 2024. Type 12 is the most abundant year to year in this region.
Figure 5. Red Crossbill (Appalachian or Type 1) eBird reports throughout the Northeast for July 2023 – April 2024 – Type 1 is the most abundant year to year in this region.

Tree species are known to synchronize their food crops across vast areas, and this past cone crop year much of the eastern Adirondacks through the Northeast had an excellent Eastern white pine cone crop. Crops on most other trees were below normal this past food cycle year however (July-June).

From Saratoga, NY and Queensbury, NY along the Northway (Rte 87) to around Elizabethtown, NY white pine is the dominant tree, and since July 2023 Red Crossbill call types 2, 4 and 12 were utilizing the bumper white pine cone crop in these eastern areas seen on the above maps (see eastern Adirondacks). Along this same corridor of Rte 87 of New York in North Hudson, there was a large group of 40+ Red Crossbills utilizing the abundant eastern white pine crop. Many were singing, gritting, and interacting with each other, highlighting the importance of good crop of a coveted tree species and its correlation to the presence of probable breeding. However, there was still some variability across the different regions of the Adirondacks and Northeast, with some areas having excellent crops, and others with more average crops. As you drove into the high peaks areas of the Adirondacks the crop was more variable, and there were even sections in the Northwestern Adirondacks along Rte 56 where the crop was nearly non-existent. In the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts the white pine crop was also spotty, but in Connecticut River Valley it was massive, and this area really was the epicenter for this past year’s northeastern event. Interestingly, and owing to the boom-bust cycle of how trees often produce good crops one year to be followed by a poor crop the next, the eastern white pine crop in the Berkshires was excellent in 2022-23, but poor to average in 2023-2024.

Figure 6. Breeding Bird Atlas map for Red Crossbill in NY 2020-2024.

It is that time again to start assessing the new food crops for the upcoming food cycle year (July 2024 onward). Crops are forming now, and we’re due for a good spruce and tamarack crop here in the northeast — there are hints this is indeed taking place. It is likely however that the many Type 2 and 4 Red Crossbills that came our way the past cycle will mostly all return to the Western United States soon if they haven’t already.

Please help us with the Winter Finch Forecast 2024 (which will come out near the end of September) by gathering some information on the newly forming food crops. We like to collect information on conifers, but also on birches, alders, maples, Mountain ash and more. By taking part in the iNaturalist Citizen Science Finch Food Assessment Project you too can become a Finch Forcaster by clicking here:


Nicolas Main: I helped collect data in the Adirondacks for this past food cycle year. I started seriously birding March of 2017 and have been pursuing a career in Ornithology since. I’m a rising senior at Paul Smith’s College up in the Adirondacks in NY focusing on Biology and Environmental studies. My love and passion for birds started when I finally found my first Pileated Woodpecker at a young age 

For more on Crossbills, see Sax Zim Bog’s executive director Sparky Stensaas’ YouTube video::

For more on the Evening Grosbeak project, also see Sax Zim Bog’s executive director Sparky Stensaas’ YouTube video:

Sparky’s YouTube channel can be found here:

For more on Red Crossbills, see this Life List podcast:

FiRN is a nonprofit, and was granted 501c3 status in 2020. We are a co-lead on the Evening Grosbeak Road to Recovery Project, and have funded upwards of almost $8,000 to go towards research, conservation and education for finch projects in the last year plus. FiRN is committed to researching and protecting these birds and other threatened finch species like the Evening Grosbeak, Rosy-finches, and Hawaii’s finches the honeycreepers, and if you have been enjoying all the blogs and identifying of Evening Grosbeak and Red Crossbill call types (upwards of 20,000 recordings listened to), redpoll subspecies and green morph Pine Siskins FiRN has helped with over the years, please think about supporting our efforts and making a small donation at the donate link below.


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Red Crossbill North American Foraging Project:

Evening Grosbeak North American Foraging Project:

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