Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch: Learn the subspecies

Updated: Mar 26

Have you seen the rosy-finch with an all gray head?

Hepburn's Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch and Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch
Hepburn's Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch (rear) and purported (Cassin's) Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch (front).

Winter is upon us, and the winter finches are too. While the Rockies have two species of breeding rosy-finch, the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch is a winter visitor to much of the state. Often found at feeders, you can see the obvious variation in the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch when big flocks appear! Below, I will highlight the large differences between the two subspecies groups.

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Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch (Brown-cheeked form)


The "brown-cheeked" Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch are the three subspecies of the GCRF with gray restricted to the top of the head, resulting in a brown cheek. All three subspecies have breeding populations in the lower 48 and can be difficult to separate in the field. Most individuals that show up in the interior west are Leucosticte tephrocotis tephrocotis, or the nominate Gray-crowned or Cassin's Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch.



To distinguish the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch from Hepburn's (or other gray-cheeked) Rosy-Finch, look at the photo below. The top arrow points to the gray crown which has a bottom boundary that does not extend below the eye. The bottom arrow points to the brown auriculars, which is the most obvious identification tip for distinguishing these two rosy-finch subspecies.


Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch vs Hepburn's Rosy-Finch
Identification points for Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch vs Hepburn's Rosy-Finch

Hepburn's Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch (Gray-cheeked form)


The "gray-cheeked" Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch are the three subspecies of the GCRF with gray extending down past the auriculars, resulting in a gray cheek. Only one of the subspecies has a breeding range extending into the lower 48 states. The other two subspecies are restricted to breeding and wintering grounds on the island chains off of Alaska. The subspecies regularly seen wintering in the interior west is Leucosticte tephrocotis littoralis, or Hepburn's Rosy-Finch.


To distinguish the Hepburn's Rosy-Finch from the more common Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, check out the photo below! The top arrow points to the gray crown that extends into a hood well below the eye. The product of this extensive hood results in what the second arrow shows, the gray auriculars, or gray cheeks.




Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch Range Map

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch Range Map
Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch Range Map

The map above shows the general range for the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, including all subspecies.


Hepburn's Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch Range Map

Hepburn's Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch Range Map
Hepburn's Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch Range Map

The map above shows the general range for Hepburn's Rosy-Finch. Both maps are very generalized and do not predict exactly when and where you can find these birds!


The winter range is not helpful in identifying these two "forms" of rosy-finch. Use the simple tips above to establish your identification! If you have rosy-finches visiting your feeders, make sure to report them in eBird! Rosy-finches are not well studied and every new piece of information is extremely helpful!

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