Crossbill faces unique tests

Heritage of the wild
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The Independent Online
ROS WYNNE-JONES

The Scottish crossbill, at presentundergoing genetic testing to determine whether it is a separate species, may be the only bird unique to British shores.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is funding DNA testing to clear up doubts over the birds taxonomic status. If it turns out to be a different species to the common crossbill then it is the UK's only endemic species.

Like the common crossbill, the Scottish bird takes its name from its unusual beak, which is specially developed to extract seeds from pine cones in its coniferous habitat.

Only fragments of the ancient Caledonian pine forests remain and the Scottish crossbill appears to be dwindling with them, which is why it appears on a list of 116 endangered animal and plant species which are having rescue plans designed for them. There are estimated to be only 1,500 adults in Britain.

The plans are being drawn up by the biodiversity steering group, a committee of government scientists, academics, wildlife conservation charities and civil servants.

"We don't know about the Scottish crossbill's taxonomic status yet, but in the meantime we are giving the bird the benefit of the doubt," a spokesman for the RSPB said.

The crossbill family all have large heads because of the muscles that power the birds' strong jaws, and the Scottish crossbill has even been known to use its beak to swing from twig to twig. While the common crossbill is smaller, the RSPB spokesman said, "Scottish crossbills are amazingly agile. They are acrobatic feeders and they occasionally do a trapeze job, using their beaks."

The red grouse was once considered a species unique to Britain, but it has since been found to be a sub-species of the willow grouse found in Scandinavia. "The Scottish crossbill is our last hope for a bird of our own," the RSPB said.

The steering group is proposing to promote the protection, creation and management of native pinewoods and monitor sites frequented by Scottish crossbills, while the work to clarify the taxonomic status of the bird continues.

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