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Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch - Learn the subspecies of this alpine finch

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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).

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Winter is upon us, and the winter finches are too. The western United States sees the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch as a winter visitor, often at bird feeders. When the big flocks appear, you may see two Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches that appear similar, with a few differences. In this article, I will highlight the large differences between the two subspecies groups of the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch.


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

The "brown-cheeked" Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch are the three subspecies of the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch 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

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Hepburn's Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch

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.