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Sunday, 30 December, 2001, 09:43 GMT
Bird experts examine the bill
The Scottish crossbill
The Scottish crossbill may be unique to Britain
Research is being carried out by Scottish scientists to discover whether a species of bird is unique to the British isles.

They are testing the theory that the Scottish crossbill is Britain's only "endemic" species of bird - a resident found nowhere else in the world.

Ornithological opinion has long held the Scottish crossbill to be a breed apart from similar species found in the UK and in other countries.

But recognition of the bird as a distinct species has yet to be established.

Offering clues

However, experts say research is reinforcing the theory that the Scottish crossbill is unique.

A summary of the research carried out so far has been published by RSPB Scotland.

The society's Dr Ron Summers and colleagues in the north of Scotland have been carrying out the study for the past six years.

They say the Scottish crossbill's call and the size of its bill are offering clues that set it apart from the common crossbill and the parrot crossbill.

Crossbills are small birds, only slightly larger than a sparrow, which live exclusively in pinewoods.

Their bills are uniquely "twisted", with the top part crossing over the lower part to help them prise open pine cones and extract the seeds.

Their colour varies as they grow, but the adult male is a distinctive bright, brick red.

Regardless of whether the Scottish crossbill is a species or not, it is still a unique part of the biodiversity of Scotland and well worthy of conservation

RSPB Scotland's Dr Ron Summers
The distinct species of common and parrot crossbills have long been known in Britain.

However, scientists studying the birds in the ancient Caledonian pinewoods of Strathspey and other parts of northern Scotland began to suspect that they were observing three different groups of crossbills.

This third group, the "Scottish crossbill", has members with bill and wing sizes which are intermediate between the parrot and common crossbill groups, according to researchers.

Dr Summers and his colleagues found that all three types of crossbill select mates with the same size of bill, indicating that each acts as a true species.

The team also studied the crossbills' DNA, but found no differences between the three types.

Different species

A third study investigated the birds' calls, as the discovery of distinct calls among the different groups would support the idea of three separate species.

The team discovered that the Scottish crossbill has excitement calls which are distinct from the common and parrot crossbills.

The report's summary says that no definitive answer has been found to the species question.

However, it says the research carried out so far is lending weight to the recognition of a new species.

All three types of crossbill can be seen in RSPB Scotland's Abernethy Forest in Strathspey, where the research work continues.

Dr Summers said: "Regardless of whether the Scottish crossbill is a species or not, it is still a unique part of the biodiversity of Scotland and well worthy of conservation."

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