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Legend of the Crossbills

The Legend of the Crossbill

It’s that time of year again. If you are Christian or Jewish, this is a special week for you. Officially known by Christians as “Holy Week” and by Jews as Passover, it is also informally known as Bible week or Toga week based on the number of Bible-based dramas and documentaries on television. There are various Charlton Heston movies like “The Ten Commandments” and “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” and documentaries that try to use science to explain Bible miracles. You could probably go several hours straight just watching Jesus and Moses movies.

So, in honor of this special time of year, I dedicate my birding column to the legend of the crossbill. It is the closest thing in birding to a Toga movie.

A crossbill is a bird that looks somewhat like a cardinal or finch, except that it as a unique bill. The top and bottom halves of its beak do not meet, as they do in most birds. Instead, they overlap at an angle, with the top usually veering left and the bottom veering right.

Scientists claim that the reason for this odd beak is that crossbills eat conifer seeds, and a bill of this type helps them open the cones to get the seeds. According to Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection, a beak like this would originally begin as a mutation. The bird with this mutation would be able to eat more seeds than those with standard beaks. They would live longer and have more offspring (who would be likely to share the gene for the overlapping bill). Eventually, over thousands of years, a new species of crossbills would evolve from their finch-like ancestors

That explanation is rather boring, however. There is a much more colorful explanation for the beak of the finch.

According to medieval legend, crossbills injured their beak on Good Friday trying to pull the nails out of Jesus’s hands as he was nailed to the cross. His blood spurted onto them, giving them their red color. All of the crossbills from that point on also had curved bills and red feathers.

So which story is true? That’s up to you to decide. There are crossbills that breed in Israel, so there may have been some around that day. Animals are known to do heroic things. Various animals have rescued their owners from fires and carbon monoxide leaks. Pigeons performed acts of heroism in W.W.II. So it could have happened that way.

Even if it didn’t, it’s a cute story, and it’s the inspiration for a poem by Longfellow which was set to music.


On the cross the dying Saviour
Heavenward lifts his eyelids calm,
Feels, but scarcely feels, a trembling
in his pierced and bleeding palm.

And by all the world forsaken,
Sees he how with zealous care
At the ruthless nail of iron
A little bird is striving there.
Stained with blood and never tiring,
With its beak it doth not cease,
From the cross it would free the Saviour,
Its Creator's son release.

And the Saviour speaks in mildness:
"Blest be thou of all the good
Bear, as token of this moment,
Marks of blood and holy rood!"

And that bird is called the Crossbill,
Covered all with blood so clear,
In the groves of pine it singeth,
Songs, like legends, strange to hear.

Happy Holidays!

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