This section is from the magazine "Birds Illustrated by Color Photograph". Also available from Amazon: The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology.
AMERICAN CROSSBILLS are notable for their small size, being considered and described as dwarfs of the family. Their food consists exclusively of pine, fir, and larch, which accounts for the fact that they are more numerous in Northern latitudes where these trees abound. When the cones are abundant they visit in great numbers many places where they have not been for years, appearing at irregular intervals, and not confining themselves to particular localities.
They are very social even during the nesting season. Their nests are built among the branches of the fir trees, and there they disport themselves gaily, climbing nimbly, and assisting their movements, as parrots do, with their beaks. They will hang downward for minutes clinging to a twig or cone, seeming to enjoy this apparently uncomfortable position. They fly rapidly, but never to a great distance. "The pleasure they experience in the society of their mates is often displayed by fluttering over the tops of the trees as they sing, after which they hover for a time, and then sink slowly to their perch. In the day time they are generally in motion, with the exception of a short time at noon. During the spring, summer and autumn they pass their time in flying from one plantation to another."
The Crossbill troubles itself but little about the other inhabitants of the woods, and is said to be almost fearless of man. Should the male lose his mate, he will remain sorrowfully perched upon the branch from which his little companion has fallen; again and again visit the spot in the hope of finding her; indeed it is only after repeated proofs that she will never return that he begins to show any symptoms of shyness.
In feeding the Crossbill perches upon a cone with its head downwards, or lays the cone upon a branch and stands upon it, holding it fast with his sharp, strong pointed claws. Sometimes it will bite off a cone and carry it to a neighboring bough, or to another tree where it can be opened, for a suitable spot is not to be found on every branch.
The nest is formed of pine twigs, lined with feathers, soft grass, and the needle-like leaves of the fir tree. Three or four eggs of a grayish or bluish white color, streaked with faint blood red, reddish brown, or bluish brown spots, are generally laid.
The following poem is quite a favorite among bird lovers, and is one of those quaint legends that will never die.
From the German of Julius Mosen, by Longfellow.
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.