I brake for birds!

On the Crane Lake Road and the country roads of northern Minnesota, you can do that, brake for birds. After it snows in Crane Lake, the County snowplows spread their salt and sand mixture up and down the 30 mile length of the Crane Lake Road. This necessary practice seems to attracts hundreds of birds. The species of bird seen, depends on the season or the time of year.

In the fall the show starts out with Dark-eyed Juncos. You see the flick of white tail feathers as they fly away from the roadsides. Then as it starts to get colder and snowier, the Snow Buntings come through. Some people call these birds “Snowbirds”, I like that a lot, and indeed at that time of the year I wish I was a Snowbird.

Redpolls eating grit 

As winter sets in, Redpolls and Pine Siskins seek out the grit. And there’s always the occassional gatherings of the beautiful Evening Grosbeak.

Then when its really cold, Pine Grosbeaks flock to roadsides to pick grit. That is when I apply the brakes the most. It seems that the birds that come through and pick grit on the roads have migrated from someplace else. Most likely for us that would be the high arctic tundra or the heavily forested and remote boreal forests. These birds are unfamiliar with ‘civilization’ as we know it. Simply put, they don’t know what cars are.

In the same vein, they don’t know what birdfeeders are either. The best way to get these birds coming to your feeders is to spread seed on the ground. Because they’re unfamiliar with feeders and the bounty they hold, the birds must find the feed first on familiar territory, and for them that’s either in the trees or on the ground.

While many more birds are attracted to roadsides in winter, some birds visit roads for their grit year around. The two species of Crossbill; either the White-winged or the Red Crossbill, are one of those birds. 2008 was a fantastic year for White-winged Crossbills. Due to an abundant crop of Spruce cones, White-winged Crossbills have invaded Minnesota! They are being reported from southern Minnesota, much to the delight of birders down there.

Crossbills must take in a lot grit as it is used to grind up the hard Pine and Spruce seeds that they depend on. A couple years ago, there were Red Crossbills in Crane Lake all winter. Every morning they would be down on the roadway picking at salt and sand. It was amazing the amount of sand these birds would eat!

Red Crossbill Beak 

The other day I found this beautiful male Red Crossbill in the middle of the road. He had hit a car. Their crossed bill is indicitive of what they do to cones to reach the seed. Many times I will pull over (if it’s safe) and throw road-killed birds into the ditch. To me, this seems more dignified than the pathway of the highway.

Crossbills, of either species, do occassionally come in to feeders. Maybe with so many in the area this year, we will be lucky!

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