A resident of high alpine environments, the Black Rosy-Finch is a difficult bird to study. Males do not defend traditional territories, but instead defend a space around their mate. Good places to look for Black Rosy-Finches include the edges of melting snow fields, where seeds are being exposed on the bare ground and the rosy-finches like to forage.
Food is hard to find in the rosy-finch’s barren habitat, and they have special sacs beneath their mouths which allow them to carry more food back to the nest from a long distance away. Another interesting fact about Black Rosy-Finches is that during the winter they roost together in large groups in caves and old mine shafts.
Length: 6 inches
Wing span: 13 inches
On this page
Description of the Black Rosy-Finch
The Black Rosy-Finch is a dark finch with a reddish patch on the wings, a dark face, and a gray patch on the rear of the crown.
Males are mostly blackish above and below, with reddish on the lower belly in addition to the wing patch.
Females are somewhat browner, with less red.
Seasonal change in appearance
Juveniles are gray with two buffy wing bars.
Black Rosy-Finches inhabit alpine areas and barren tundra.
Insects and seeds.
Black Rosy-Finches forage on the ground or on snow.
Black Rosy-Finches breed in isolated, high mountaintops in the Rocky Mountains of the western U.S. They winter at lower elevations over a somewhat larger area. The population is not well monitored.
Male Black Rosy-Finches usually guard their mate closely, as males often outnumber females.
Black Rosy-Finches sometimes hybridize with Brown-capped Rosy-Finches.
The song consists of a descending series of low whistles. A “chirp” call is given as well.
The Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch has more extensive gray on its head.
The nest is a cup of grasses and moss and is lined with finer materials. It is often placed among boulders or in a cliff crevice.
Number: 4-5 eggs, white in color.
Incubation and fledging.
The young hatch at about 12-14 days, and fledge at about 20 days, though remaining dependent on the adults for some time.
Bent Life History of the Black Rosy-Finch
Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.
Bent Life History for the Black Rosy-Finch – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.
LEUCOSTICTE ATRATA Ridgway
The first black rosy finch was found in 1870 somewhere in the Uinta Mountains of northeastern Utah by the naturalist accompanying the Hayden Expedition of the U.S. Geological Survey. When Robert Ridgway of the Smithsonian Institution received this bird, a single specimen apparently in the first winter plumage, he described it as the young of the gray-crowned rosy finch, lie rightfully expressed doubt about this identification, however, as the latter is cinnamon brown in body color and the new specimen was dark gray or black. Nearly 4 years later five similar specimens of wintering birds from Colorado were sent him by Charles Aiken. These he described and named the black rosy finch, calling attention to the earlier error.
This species, like other members of the genus, breeds in the high rocky regions above tree line in our western mountains. Groups may be found rapidly working across a snowfield, each bird alternately hopping and walking, gleaning insects which lie numbed on the cold surface where they were carried by the wind from lower elevations. The species is as characteristic of the mountain tops as the rocks and the perpetual snow, as the tundra with its dwarfed but brilliant flowers, or as the pipit and the pika.
In winter the birds may be found in flocks with other rosy finches, gray-crowned, Hepburn’s, and, in central and southern Colorado, the brown-capped rosy finch as well. The large flocks are closely formed, the birds descending on a spot of bare ground to feed and suddenly all abandoning the spot for another farther away Recently the taxonomic status of this bird has again come into question. Mewaldt (1950) reported a specimen from the Bitterroot Mountains on the Montana: Idaho border which was believed to have characteristics of both black and gray-crowned rosy finches. More recently a thorough investigation of that mountain range has disclosed a zone at least 50 miles in length where complete and thorough mixing of the two groups occurs. To the west, in the Seven Devils Mountains near the Idaho: Oregon border, a similarly mixed population was found in 1957 (French, MS.). These were only 50 miles from a previously described dark race of the gray-crowned rosy finch, found in the Wallowa Mountains of Oregon. Thus a broad zone of hybridization or intergradation exists between the two supposed species.
Nesting: By early April the rosy finches have disappeared from their winter haunts and begun to appear on the breeding grounds. Bleak winter conditions still prevail at these high elevations when the birds return. On such a day in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah the birds were observed at 11,000 feet elevation. The snow lay deep, and the only access to the area was on skis. The only bare areas were the high rocky slopes blown clear of snow by the unceasing wind. On these the rosy finches seemed to find seeds from the previous growing season lodged between the rocks and among the small clumps of dried and abraded vegetation. A male black rosy finch attempting to display before a female was almost blown off his feet in the process.
The territory of these birds is unusual in that it centers around the female bird. It moves wherever she moves, even if it means leaving nest and eggs unguarded. Whether the female is feeding, selecting a nest site, or building a nest, her mate stays with her and continually has to drive away the one to several males constantly trying to attract her attention. This situation apparently results from the dearth of females. All observations in both winter and summer indicate that males outnumber females approximately six to one. The actual causes of this unbalanced sex ratio, which can hardly be advantageous to the birds, remain obscure.
Another consequence is that the entire work of selecting a nest site and building the nest falls to the female, the male being quite occupied by others of his kind. One female examined potential nest sites on a cliff for 8 days before finally deciding upon one and beginning nest construction on the ninth day. The nest is usually completed in 3 days. Nest building has been observed as early as June 11 and as as late as July 14.
The nest is placed in a crevice or hole at some almost inaccessible location on a vertical cliff. It is thus well protected from above and on all sides but one, which remains as an entrance. In a single unusual case the female had built her nest among the rocks of a talus slope where it was practically as well protected. The nest itself is a cupped structure, completely supported from below except when the sides happen to rest against the walls of the nest cavity. The base is generally of mosses, which may be growing in the cavity, and the upper portion is made primarily of grass, with some feathers, hair, and moss mixed in. The lining is of finer grass and hair.
Eggs: Of the eight sets of eggs that have been observed, including three sets reported by F. W. Miller (1925), three nests con~amed five eggs, four nests contained four eggs, and one contained three eggs. The last of these was a replacement after the first set was destroyed, which may account for the small number. The egg is pure white and ovate pyriform in shape, giving the impression of being rather long and unusually pointed at one end.
The measurements of 16 eggs average 22.1 by 16.0 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure £3.4 by 15.7, 21.0 by 16.3, £1.0 by 16.3, and 23.3 by 15.3 millimeters.
Young: After 12 to 14 days of incubation the eggs hatch, producing helpless young covered on the dorsal surfaces with sparse long whitish down. At the approach of the parent bird, the gaping of the young bird exposes the bright red lining of the mouth contrasting sharply with the yellow edge of the bill. As in incubation, the task of brooding a.nd feeding the young falls to the female. After the first week the male helps feed his offspring and both parents then continue this function until the young are independent.
On the 4th day of nest life the eyes of the young birds are opening and the nestlings begin chirping, especially at feeding time. On the 7th day the feathers begin breaking from their sheaths and, by the 11th day, the nesting bird appears completely covered by feathers. The young leave the nest at approximately 20 days of age. After this they remain among the rocks where their gray color makes them very difficult to locate, even when they call frequently. The young birds are probably fed by the parents for as long as 2 weeks after leaving the nest. During this time the young beg energetically from the parent whenever it is near and follow it as it retreats. The adults use this trait to lead their young in flight to a safe place among the tumbled rocks, where they leave them by flying off too rapidly for the young to follow. In such places several families become consolidated in a single flock. After they are thus assembled parental care of the young wanes and ceases.
Plumages: The general coloration of a bird in juvenal plumage is lilac-gray, darker dorsally. The contour feathers have somewhat brownish edges, providing a faint buffy color, especially ventrally. The flight feathers are darker. The secondaries show broad bufly margins and the central rectrices a narrow margin of the same color. The remaining rectrices and especially the primaries show distinct but very narrow whitish margins. The primaries and their coverts have narrow margins of pink, wider proximally on the remiges. The nasal tufts are whitish, as in the adults.
In late August or September the first winter plumage is acquired by a partial postjuvenal molt. The rectrices, remiges, wing coverts and perhaps some of the tail coverts remain unchanged. With the exception of slight difYerences in these feathers, the first winter plumage is similar to the adult winter plumage.
There is no prenuptial molt, the adult breeding dress being acquired by wearing off of the dusky, grayish, brownish, or pinkish edgings of the feathers. Unlike the other members of the genus Leucosticte in North America, the black rosy finch shows rather strong sexual dimorphism. The body and head of the male are sooty black, with a light gray crescent extending from eye to eye over the back of the crown, and a pink wash on the belly, flanks, and tail coverts. The flight feathers are nearly as dark centrally as the contour feathers but are lighter below, the ventral aspect of the extended wing appearing almost pearl-gray. The primaries of a fully adult bird have even more extensive white and pinkish edgings than those of the juvenile. The pink color is most pronounced along the bend of the folded wing where the overlapping primaries, secondaries, and their coverts make an almost solid area of pink. However, the intensity of this color may vary considerably in any single population. The female is generally duller than the male, with less extensive pink and a gray crown patch that may be barely detectable.
The postnuptial molt takes place during approximately the same time of year as the postjuvenal molt and is complete. During this time also the solid black pigmentation of the bill begins to fade until the winter condition is attained, when the bill is yellow except for the very tip, which remains black. It starts to darken again during March just prior to spring migration.
Food: The rosy finches subsist primarly on a diet of seeds but supplement this with insects when they are available. During the first few days of nest life the young are given only insects the female collects in the vicinity of the nest. When the young birds begin receiving more seeds, both parents are kept busy making long trips to the tundra where they show a preference for foraging along the edges of melting snowbanks. In winter large flocks settle on any spot of bare ground to search for seeds, or they thoroughly examine plants, such as Russian thistle, protruding from the snow.
During the breeding season rosy finches of both sexes develop a pair of gular sacs capable of considerable distension and opening from the floor of the mouth. This accessory food-carrying structure is definitely advantageous to a species whose nest may be some distance from the feeding grounds. Besides the North American species of rosy finches, gular sacs are known only from one other fringillid, the pine grosbeak, Pinicola enudeator (see French, 1954).
Analysis of the contents of crops and gular sacs of 70 summer specimens of black rosy finch has sbown that the food of these birds consisted of 97.2 percent seeds and 2.8 percent animals, including mites, nematodes, and various insects. The seeds were those of the small tundra plants abundant in the habitat where the birds are found, the following genera being the most abundant: Siversia, Arabis, Smelowslcia, Silene, Lewisia., Sibbaldia, Cia ytonia.
Behavior: Rosy finches are very social birds. It is unusual to see an individual alone. During most of the year they may be found in large flocks, feeding together and flying off together. Only at the approach of breeding do negative social forces develop strongly enough to cause antagonism and breaking up of the groups. The groups re-form in late summer, even while the young are still being fed by the parents, as the positive social forces recrudesce.
The flocks are closely knit and, when one bird chirps and flies, the entire group literally explodes in an effort to follow. With two young birds raised in captivity, the one irresistible stimulus was flight. If one bird flew over the other’s head, the second bird immediately forgot what it had been doing and flew in pursuit.
The flight of the black rosy finch is distinctive. Quick strokes of the wings followed by a glide, seemingly with almost folded wings, result in an undulating path of flight. Viewed from beneath, the luster of the undersurfaces of the wings shows plainly when they are in motion.
Voice: The black rosy finches use only three primary notes, which, plus variations, serve all purposes. These birds, therefore, cannot be considered as having a true song. The three call notes are: A descending rather harsh chew or t8ew note somewhat similar to the chirping of an English sparrow, a low, throaty sharp pert, and a high piercing peent.
Flocks in flight utter a call which resembles pert-pert-chew. It is heard most frequently in winter flocks and probably serves to hold the group together. When the birds go to roost on a high cliff, their roosting or territorial calls may be heard clearly from below even when the birds cannot be seen. This call consists of a series of chew notes, each one on a different pitch, uttered rapidly and continuously. During the breeding season it seems to function in spacing the birds. The high peent seems to serve as an alarm note, generally being given when a bird is startled, and resulting in the nearby birds either crouching or taking sudden flight.
Field marks: The distinctive coloring of this species has been described under plumages and the characteristic undulating flight in the section on behavior. The long pointed wings give the rosy finch an appearance in flight somewhat similar to that of the mountain bluebird, Sialia currucoides. The latter, however, does not exhibit the undulating path of flight, nor does the pipit, Antivus 8ptnoletta. These two birds are the ones most likely to be mistaken for rosy finches in summer. On the ground pipits walk rather than hop, as the rosy finches do frequently, but the typical bobbing or rocking of the pipit serves to distinguish this species. The same characteristics serve to distinguish the birds in winter, with the additional feature that rosy finches then occur in large flocks, frequently numbering into the hundreds of individuals.
Enemies: The main enemy of the black rosy finch is the Clark’s nutcracker, Nucijraga columbiana. These birds have been observed destroying nests, eggs, and young of the rosy finch and have been suspected of other nefarious activities (French, 1955). A longtailed weasel, Mu~tela frenata, was once seen carrying off a young black rosy finch, with the adult bird chirping noisily over its head. On another occasion two weasels were searching among the rocks of a talus slope, again with rosy finches protesting nearby. This time their search was unsuccessful. In most cases the young birds are susceptible to the predations of these or other mammals for only a brief period, just after leaving the nest.
In a nest in the Absaroka Range of Wyoming the nestling black rosy finches were infested with blood-sucking larvae of a fly, later identified as belonging to the genus ProtocaUiphora. The harm resulting to the young birds could not be determined. They at least survived to the time of leaving the nest.
Fall: The rosy finches start to flock in the high mountains by the time the young birds become independent of the parents. These flocks coalesce until they may be composed of several hundred individuals. These hardy birds remain at high elevations until well after freezing weather sets in, where they have been seen regularly throughout October and as late as November 2 in the Uinta Mountains and the Wasatch Mountains of Utah. At about this time the birds begin to appear in the valleys and deserts at lower elevations and start using their winter roosts in these areas. The exact paths and distances involved in the migration are not yet known, but a comparison of the summer and winter ranges indicates that the birds probably move about 300 miles and several thousand feet in altitude in the process.
Winter: The winter range of the black rosy finch includes Utah, the southern half of Wyoming, and the western half of Colorado. The species has been reported in adjacent parts of Arizona, in Nevada, and even in extreme eastern California. These and the other rosy finches have communal winter roosts which they use year after year. Where the winter ranges of two or more kinds of rosy finches overlap, these birds will occur in mixed flocks that will use the same roosts. At a cave in Bingham County in southeastern Idaho, gray-crowned rosy finches, L. t. tephrocotis, and Hepburn’s rosy finches, L. t. littoralis, regularly may be found roosting together in winter. In southwestern Wyoming and throughout Utah the black rosy finch occurs with these two, and in central and southern Colorado a fourth, the brown-capped rosy finch, L. australis, joins the winter flocks.
The winter roosts provide overhead shelter and escape from the wind. Known roosts are few, but those that have been observed include cave entrances, mine shafts, abandoned cliff swallow nests, and such man-made structures as piers, out-buildings, and barns. The birds leave the roosts at daybreak to forage in surrounding areas and return by midafternoon. Although feeding flocks met with during the day are large, the birds seem to return to the roost in small groups. The birds settle on their individual perches within the dimly lighted cave or structure well before sundown.
Banding carried on at two roosts approximately 8 miles apart west of Salt Lake City, indicated the birds returned night after night to the same roost. Only rarely did birds banded at one roost appear at the other, even when released more than 15 miles away and an equal distance from either roost.
Range: Central Rocky Mountains.
Breeding range: The black rosy finch breeds in the high mountains of north to southwestern Montana (Bitterroot Range south of Lob Pass, Anaconda Range, Madison Range, and Crazy Mountains). East to western and northcentral Wyoming (Big Horn Mountains, Absaroka Range, Teton Mountains, Gros Ventre Range and Wind River Range). South to northern Utah (Uinta Mountains and southern Wasatch Mountains) and northeastern Nevada (Jabridge Peak and Ruby Mountains). West to central and western Idaho (Lost River Range, Sawtooth Mountains, and Seven Devils Mountains).
The above range includes the areas (Seven Devils Mountains and Bitterroot Range) where intergradation or hybridization with the gray-crowned rosy finch occurs freely.
Winter range: In winter the black rosy finch is found in the valleys and lower elevations r&crth at least as far as northwestern Wyoming (Mammoth, Dubois, Jackson, LaB arge and Pinedale). East to central Colorado (Boulder, Evergreen, and Cation City). South to northern New Mexico (northwest &f Vermejo Park), southern Utah (Kanab and St. George), and northern Arizona (Grand Canyon). West into Nevada (Pioche, Tonopab, and Reno) and as far as eastern California (Bodie and Chats).
Casual records: Casual in eastern Oregon (Wallowa Mountains) and eastern Montana (Terry).
Migration: Late dates of spring departure are: Colorado: Cation City, April 20; Walden, April 18. Utah: Provo, April 20. Wyommg: Yellowstone National Park, April 5. Montana: Anaconda, May27.
Early dates of fall arrival are: Wyoming: Yellowstone National Park, October 9; Sheep Mountain, November 24. Utah: Provo, October 10; Saltair, October 31. Colorado: Golden, November 13. New Mexico: Vermejo Park, Colfac County, November 29.