We have been hearing for years that "Red Crossbill" may eventually be split,
perhaps into as many as nine separate species. Listers who would like to
take advantage of the split may wish to identify subspecies now and hold
them "in escrow" pending the change. If and when the change occurs, they can
then up their life lists by replacing "Red Crossbill" with two or three or
more newly-named species.

I did it when they split "Brown Towhee."  I saw my first "Canyon Towhee" in
1965 and my first "California Towhee" in 1966, then got two for one when
A.O.U. named them in 1989.

Unfortunately, Red Crossbill subspecies are more difficult to ID than the
two brown towhees were. The towhees were permanent residents in separate
ranges and were easily distinguishable by obvious field marks. Crossbills in
Missouri are away from their breeding range, and the distinctions among
subspecies are more subtle. The most important distinction may be the bird's
call. Absent a clear recording of the call, it may be extremely difficult to
convince a records committee to approve even a very good photographic

The foregoing said, I can remember when Thayer's and Herring Gulls were
thought to be so similar in appearance that they were assumed to be one
species. I also note that some ornithologists now want to lump Thayer's Gull
with the Kumlien's subspecies of Iceland Gull. Yet we see posts to this list
claiming Thayer's gulls and/or Iceland Gulls almost daily at this time of
year. If we can learn the subtle distinctions between these gull species, it
may also be possible to learn to distinguish crossbill subspecies.

So, if you really want to have the big life list ASAP, get out your
parabolic recording device and your long lens camera and start documenting
those Red Crossbills at the feeder!

Bob Fisher
Independence, Missouri
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The Audubon Society of Missouri's Wild Bird Discussion Forum
ASM Spring Meeting: May 1-3, 2009 in Columbia, MO.