Northern Quebec Crossbill Released

Crossbill at Le NichoirOn a clear spring-like day this March, Le Nichoir released a healthy White-winged Crossbill in a large spruce stand, ending a two-month stay for the injured bird originally found 1,200 km north of Montreal, in Waskaganish, Que.

The female Crossbill (Loxia leucoptera) had made the nine-hour journey to Le Nichoir last December in the care of the couple who spotted the juvenile bird and looked after it until they were able to make arrangements to travel to Hudson.

After a full examination, Le Nichoir confirmed that the bird had had a fracture of the coracoid (part of the scapula), sustained from a dog attack. The fracture was calcified, so the bird had complete mobility in its wing and was able to fly extremely well.

Le Nichoir’s main task was to make sure the Crossbill was in the right condition for release and not habituated to humans. Habituation can occur when wild animals spend time in a domesticated environment and stop seeing humans as predators. Usually, habituated birds cannot survive in the wild or integrate with birds of their own species when released.

To overcome this concern, the Centre placed the bird in a cage surrounded by mirrors, so the Crossbill would think she was in the company of conspecifics. This particular bird loved seeing her reflection and would spend hours chirping to herself! The cage was also garnished with natural cut branches that the Crossbill would shred in minutes.

With the help of Chris Clouthier from the Morgan Arboretum, a forested reserve at McGill University in Montreal, Le Nichoir provided the Crossbill with a variety of coniferous cones from trees such as white cedar, white pine, and different species of spruce. The bird devoured them all, says the volunteer who took care of her daily.

“The Crossbill would get very excited when she was given fresh new cones,” says Rita Reynolds, of Saint-Lazare, Que. “She immediately knew which ones were new additions and busied herself with inspecting them all and choosing which ones she would have for breakfast.”

Mimicking the bird’s natural diet as much as possible, Le Nichoir also offered the Crossbill a variety of seeds and nuts (especially pine nuts), insects, insect pate and calcium supplements.

“I discovered that she loved unshelled peanuts and almonds,” Rita says, “not to eat but for the sheer thrill of being able to open the shells.”

The selection of seeds and nuts ensured the bird was getting the proper nutrition and, as a bonus, helped her to sharpen and maintain the length of her beak. A Crossbill’s beak is adapted to allow the bird to extract seeds from coniferous cones, which she does by gently prying open the scales of the cone.

After a two-month stay at Le Nichoir, the bird was ready for release. But first, the Centre consulted local ornithologists and biologists about the best approach, as Crossbills are typically found in Northern Quebec, and not Montreal.

Location and timing are important considerations when releasing birds, especially flocking birds. Other birds of the same species must be within the area at the time of release. The release should also take place before migration. Crossbills return to the North in March, and Le Nichoir wanted to make sure the rehabilitated Crossbill did not miss the migration.

So the decision was made to release the bird in early March at the Morgan Arboretum, where there is a good supply of cones and Crossbills have been sighted in the past.

The bird was sent off in a large spruce stand under clear skies and unusually warm temperatures.

“Without any hesitation, she flew up into a spruce tree,” says Rita. “Then, she started to sing her ‘happy’ song! I was so proud of her.”Rita adds that the care the bird received at Le Nichoir prepared the Crossbill well for survival in the wild. 

“I was confident that she would have no trouble in recognizing conifer cones and finding enough to eat,” she says. “And hopefully, she will find a mate to join her on her trip back home.”