Updated: Feb 16
Rosy-finches are a beloved group of three finch species that stick to the mountains of western North America. Most winters, they show up in flocks by the thousands. This winter, there has been a different story…
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What are the rosy-finches?
The rosy-finches of North America are three species from the family Fringillidae, which consists of our common and uncommon finches, including the finches of Hawaii. This family is full of highly unique species, with various adaptation extremes showing off for survival and enjoyed by birders. For example, these rosy-finches live and breed at some of the highest elevations used by all avian life, with documentation of some birds nesting over 12,000 ft! The three species we experience in North America are the Gray-crowned, Brown-capped, and Black Rosy-Finch, and there are six or seven species globally (depending on which source you trust). They are all medium-sized finches with rather plain plumage, except for the rosy to pinkish coloration in their underparts and some upper parts. When well-lit, these finches POP!
The rosy-finches spend their summers above the treeline in mountain ranges, often on cliffs, near glaciers, and in the most extreme places that are only accessible to humans through specialized repelling and climbing efforts. Their diet mainly consists of seeds and other plant matter, but during the chick-rearing season, it includes a lot more insect matter. During winter, species come into lower elevations, feed almost exclusively on wild seed or birdseed at feeders, and form flocks that number in the thousands.
The Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch is listed globally as a species of Least Concern by the IUCN, and the Brown-capped and Black Rosy-Finches are considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The populations of these three species were likely never large, but the populations of the brown-capped and black have faced significant losses during the last 50 years. The Brown-capped Rosy-Finch has probably declined 95% during that timeframe, with a population of fewer than 50,000 birds remaining. The Black Rosy-Finch has less than 20,000 individuals remaining, but how much decline has occurred is not well known. The Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch is considered to have a stable population.
These flashy finches are not frequently seen in eastern North America, but due to their adaptation to extreme environments, neon pink plumage, social behavior, and fearlessness toward humans earn them hundreds of visits from eastern birders in winter. With population declines being seen, efforts are underway to help protect these species. But are these declines being seen in frightening real time this winter?
Where do the rosy-finches typically live?
Rosy-finches and the alpine habitat of the mountains of western North America are close to synonymous. There is a lot of overlap in breeding range and habitat, but the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch lives further north than the others.
All three North American rosy-finches are found at high elevations, near cliffs, rock faces, crevices, and crags during the breeding season. However, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches have breeding populations further north and west than the other species, from the Sierra Nevadas to the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. The Brown-capped Rosy-Finch is found breeding above the treeline throughout the central Rockies in Colorado, New Mexico, and Wyoming. The Black Rosy-Finch nests in distinct alpine locations from the central Rockies of Wyoming and Colorado to eastern Oregon and south into Nevada.
In winter, all three species share the same range, and occasionally, some individuals mix into flocks of the other two species. All three species can be found in lower elevations of the Intermountain West during winter. Still, the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch can also be found wintering in some areas of Canada and Alaska if conditions and food availability allow.
Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch Range Map
Brown-capped Rosy-Finch Range Map
Black Rosy-Finch Range Map
Take your own rosy-finch photos with the Sony RX10 IV!
All three species are found in alpine or tundra habitats during the summer. However, gray-crowns in Alaska are found on beaches and in towns. The rocky areas, cliffs, rock slides, talus, and crevices are where nesting occurs. Still, scientists and conservationists need more complete information about each species’ nesting habitat due to the extremes of their nesting environments.
All species move to lower elevations in winter when snow covers available food sources and bare ground. The rosies will move up the mountains and rugged terrain if the snowline retreats, then scurry back down if it encroaches again, in a wintry undulating dance with snow. During this back-and-forth with snowy conditions, rosy-finches appear at bird feeders, in backyards, and straying into populated areas of the Rocky Mountain region. The large flocks often seek food availability, and bird feeders provide a supplementary food source to help survive the cold, blustery, snowy weather.
However, this is where the concerns have arisen during the current winter of 2022 to 2023. Feeders that have typically experienced rosies by the thousands… sit empty. Devoid of these alpine finches. No rosy coloration. No hordes of cyclonic flocking. No rush of chips, chirps, and chews. Typically pallets of black oil sunflower seed are used each month, but currently, a single bag will last for weeks and weeks. Something seems awry.
Where are the rosy-finches this winter?
This question haunts Facebook birding groups, message boards, text chains, and private conversations across much of the Rockies. Where have the rosy-finches gone this winter? Birdwatchers at large are pointing to suggestions of avian flu (H5N1) or other calamities. A recent discussion I had with one of the leading finch researchers in North America offered glimpses and explanations of hope that may put birders at ease.
Presenting this question to Matt Young, President and Founder of the Finch Research Network, garnered an answer that should offer resolve to rosy-finch lovers. Matt says, “Really, [the rosy-finches] will stay in the fields, hitting weed seeds until you get snow cover. Right? Then you don't see them at feeders until that food source has been covered. Well, I’m thinking, … the snow came so early and covered all the food in the fields that they basically had to figure out where else to go, which is not abnormal historically.” Matt discussed the historical use of the Intermountain West desert regions and habitats by rosy-finches. We both agreed these areas are often under birded, surveyed, and recreated in winter.
The food for finches: sunflower seed!
Matt also sits on the Western Rosy-Finch Project, and the sentiment appears to be shared by many committee members, “You know, if you look historically, rosies used desert areas. And so the thought is, they got out of Dodge because of [how] much snow covered the fields.” While groups like the Finch Research Network often track boreal food sources, food availability in western states may not be as well known. If natural food sources are bountiful in wintering habitat, the lack of a need to supplement with feeders might also keep rosy-finches afield. Regardless of the answer, Matt is hopeful that as the snow retreats, bird lovers and feeders will begin seeing pulses of rosy-finches from all three species in March.
To support the Finch Research Network, I suggest becoming a member to help continue research for saving North America's finches.
If you have rosy-finches visiting your feeders, home, or a nearby area, please submit these sightings to eBird!
Does avian flu impact rosy-finches?
Matt and I discussed this concern. However, there is currently little to no research or evidence suggesting a significant jump is likely to be made from waterfowl to Passerines by HPAI H5N1. Additionally, if transmission was possible and would cause mortalities, rosy-finches do not share many habitats with the species most responsible for avian flu spreading across the continent. In our estimation, blaming avian flu for the missing rosy-finches is not adding up. Yet. I would still encourage birders to keep their feeders clean using recommended methods and to remove feeders if any known carrier species of avian flu begin to visit feeders regularly.
Will the rosy-finches come back?
Matt is hopeful that spring will bring a new tide of rosy-finches. In the meantime, birders are encouraged to seek out the lowland deserts and rocky areas that rosy-finches would winter in without the aid of our collective bird feeders. “I think it'd be interesting to just to get out and see if there's any big flocks near [those areas] that nobody's picking up,” Matt acknowledged. During this time of year, those open areas offer less biodiversity, but at least one hardy species may be sheltering large populations away from our settled areas. So, if you are missing the rosies, it may be time to put on a heavy jacket, fuel up your vehicle, and brave the rough country where these flying roses could likely be hiding out.
How to attract rosy-finches?
Rosy-finches are a medium-sized ground finch. They prefer large, stable perches, meaning platform feeders are optimal for attracting their flocks. Stable platforms are best, but hanging platforms will work if there is no other option. They prefer open-air feeders, so avoid using feeders with roofs or overhangs. Their native seed choices are not found in stores, so using black oil sunflower seed is the best option to placate these hungry little beasts. Be wary; a large flock of rosy-finches will drain a 50-lb sack of sunflower seed in a day or two. If your feeder area has a lot of trees, this may deter rosy-finches from drawing into your feeders. They prefer open country and sky, where their flocks can move quickly from site to site. Of course, that does not mean you should clear your land of trees. This is only an explanation of why you may not receive rosy-finches at your feeders, even if you are within the bounds of their ranges.
Look to the desert and the skies.
The missing flocks of rosy-finches are concerning. While avian flu is rampaging its way through waterfowl and raptors, all bird lovers are concerned about the impacts it could have on already struggling songbird populations. Luckily, finch researchers have offered us a hopeful tone that indicates these birds may simply be doing what they do best in harsh conditions: surviving.
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