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Britain’s Endemic Bird

crossbill featured bird


Unique British Birds Bird

Most islands have endemic bird species, that is, birds that exist nowhere else on Earth. New Zealand, for example, has at least 40 endemic bird species, probably more. It also has many extinct endemic species.

Even countries joined to others have a good handful of endemic species; Panama, for instance, has around 12, Ecuador has about 45 and China has upwards of 50! But Britain? Well we, arguably, only have about one.

The Scottish Crossbill

Said to be the only unique vertebrate in the UK, the Scottish Crossbill is a chap to be treasured indeed. Endemic not only to the UK as a whole, but also specifically to the Caledonian forests in Scotland, Scottish Crossbills have unique songs and and flight.

The Scottish Crossbill is a threatened species and this is in large part due to the deforestation of its home. These crossbills don’t migrate and stay in the same forests all year round but those forests are now a shocking 1% of what they once were.

red crossbill
Red crossbill, almost identical to a Scottish Crossbill

Why only one endemic species?

Britain’s lack of endemic species is mostly down to the last Ice Age, which wiped out many species, as well as its once-upon-a-time join with continental Europe. That means that Britain hasn’t always been an island, so species could cross ‘borders’ with greater ease.

Also Britain isn’t particularly far from continental Europe even now, making it very easy for birds to travel to France, Belgium or the Netherlands, even if they aren’t long distance migrators. If you see how isolated New Zealand is from anywhere else, it’s easy to see why they have so many birds only in NZ!

How to Spot a Scottish Crossbill

Well, for a start, you’ll need to head to the Caledonian forests up in Scotland. The Scottish Crossbill looks extremely similar to the Parrot Crossbill and the Red or Common Crossbill and so it can be difficult to tell the three apart – to the extent that no one is quite sure how many Scottish Crossbills there actually are!

Around the size of a sparrow, our majestic endemic bird has a vivid red/orange plumage if he’s a male and a duller, green/yellow plumage if she’s a female. What makes them even more intriguing is that they have curved beaks that overlap slightly – something not found at all outside the crossbill family.

Young crossbill
Young crossbill

Why such crazy beaks? They are specifically designed to open the pine cones that these birds adore! Evolution is a breath-taking thing. The Scottish Crossbill is often seen in flocks of others and they have a distinct call.

Nesting high up in pine trees, Scottish Crossbills usually lay around 4 or 5 eggs which hatch 3 weeks after laying. Because it takes the newly hatched birds 10 days to develop their crossed bill, their parents continue to feed them as they cannot get pine seeds from pine cones without the unique crossbill.


While there is a small known population of Scottish Crossbills due to deforestation, there is an action plan in place and the government is working to restore the Crossbill’s native forest and conserve the remaining area.