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Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch

These small finches are found in higher elevations in the western side of North America.

Breeding in high western mountain ranges of the western U.S, and Canada, the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch is a high altitude specialist. During the breeding season, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches appear particularly tame, and can be approached to within a few feet.

Among the several subspecies of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch, two are residents, two are latitudinal migrants, and two are altitudinal migrants. Rosy-Finches occur in large flocks during the winter months.

Occupying high-altitude habitats seldom visited by humans, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches are tame when located. Two of the four subspecies of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches are migratory, and these movements take place by day, with winter flocks forming to the south of breeding areas.

Despite their extreme environment, there is little evidence that Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches suffer much weather-related mortality. Predation by falcons has been recorded, but much remains to be learned about mortality causes as well as breeding ecology.


Description of the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch


The Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch is a medium-large finch, somewhat geographically variable in appearance.  Most birds have dark, reddish-brown upperparts and underparts, with gray heads, black foreheads, and pinkish to reddish wing coverts.  Length: 6 in.  Wingspan: 13 in.

Sexes similar, though males are brighter in color.

Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch

Photograph © Glenn Bartley.


Sexes similar, though females are duller in color.

Seasonal change in appearance

In winter, Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches are similar but duller.


Juveniles are similar to adults, but duller.


Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches occur in high elevation or high latitude tundra, snowfields, and rocky islands.


Primarily seeds and insects.


The Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch forages primarily on the ground, or on snow.


Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches occur from northern New Mexico north and west to Alaska. The remote habitats occupied by rosy-finches make it difficult to monitor their population.

More information:

Bent Life History

Visit the Bent Life History for extensive additional information on the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch.

Wing Shape

The shape of a bird’s wing is often an indication of its habits and behavior. Fast flying birds have long, pointed wings. Soaring birds have long, broad wings. Different songbirds will have a slightly different wing shape. Some species look so much alike (Empidonax flycatchers) that scientists sometimes use the length of specific feathers to confirm a species’ identification.

Wing images from the University of Puget Sound, Slater Museum of Natural History

Fun Facts

The isolated occurrence of rosy-finches in high alpine “islands” of habitat has led to several different forms evolving.

Rosy-finches forage on the snow, finding food that melting reveals, or insects that have been carried aloft and deposited on the surface.


The rarely heard song is a series of whistled notes.


Similar Species

  • Brown-capped Rosy-Finches have slightly smaller bills and lack the contrastingly gray head.  Black Rosy-Finches are much darker overall.


The nest is a cup of grass moss, and lichens, and is usually placed in a rock or cliff crevice.

Number: Usually lay 4-5 eggs.
Color: White and sometimes with a few darker markings.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 14 days, and leave the nest in another 14-15 days, though continuing to associate with the adults for some time.


Bent Life History of the Gray-crowned 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 Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.


Olaus J. Murie (1944) has given the above name to the rosy finches that breed on the Pribiof Islands and St. Matthew and Otter islands in the Bering Sea, which formerly bore the same name as the birds breeding on the Aleutian Islands. He describes this new form as follows:

Similar to L. t. grieonucha in general coloration, but breast Prout’s brown, mixed with indistinct black streaks and suffusions that give it a darker appearance, graduating to black on the throat. Back almost the same basic color, though appearing paler due to more restricted black streaking and some paler feather edges. The breast color, because of admixture of black, has a more luminous, richer color effect than the mere naming of these tints would indicate. Flanks, belly, rump, and wing coverts suffused or spotted with old rose, more like geraneum pink in some lights. Back of neck and cheeks gray, as in other forms of tephrocotis. Crown and lores black. Bill black (in breeding season). Feet black.

Spring: Prebie and McAtee (1923) write: “Although a few may be present ton the Pribilof Islands] in winter the bulk of the summer residents arrive in early spring. Hahn recorded them as numerous on St. Paul April 4,1911, when they were heard singing for the first time, and as evidently pairing on April 5. Hanna, making observations on St. George in 1914, noted the birds as very common, singing and apparently mating, on March 28 and April 8, and estimated the number seen on the latter date as 500. On April 22 he considered them much more abundant than in the winter, and on May 6 estimated a total of 2,000 birds seen.”

Nesting: The same authors (1923) say: “During the summer of 1914 the writer found the bird common on St. Paul Island. On June 22 a nearly completed nest was found on a narrow shelf beneath an arched rock about 15 feet from the ground. On July 4 this nest contained its complement of 5 eggs. Another nest found the same day in a small cavity on the face of a cliff contained 5 eggs which were obviously on the point of hatching. The first young out of the nest were seen on July 2. * * * The nests are quite bulky and are built of grasses and the dry stalks of various herbaceous plants, with a lining of fine grass and feathers. Hanna found a nest on St. George in 1914 which had a lining of reindeer hair.”

G. Dallas llanna (1922) writes: “While nests have been found in old buildings, the favorite site for nest building is in some crack or crevice of the precipitous cliffs on the shores of the Pribiofs.” The nests are usually less than 25 feet from the base of a cliff, and on rare occasions may be reached by hand, “but the birds are seldom so injudicious as to run such risks.

“The length of time a female remains off her nest depends, of course, upon the state of incubation of the eggs; when she returns to it, the male settles on some favorite nearby rock and pours forth his beautiful song, repeating it time and time again. The serenity of the scene is interrupted only by some wandering finch which must be chased away most vigorously.”

Eggs and young: Hanna (1922) says: “The normal set consists of five eggs, but four and six are not infrequent. While the color is usually pure, immaculate white, in some cases there are faint reddish or yellowish brown spots or, more often, specks, many of which are almost microscopic in size.

“Two broods of young are raised each year under normal conditions, and hence this species increases rapidly in numbers if free from enemies. The period of incubation is not definitely known, but the second sets are laid by August 1 in the majority of cases. It is believed that the same nest is used for both sets, or at least the same location. Sometimes it appears that a portion of the old nest is torn out and then reconstructed.”

Food: Preble and McAtee (1923) report on the contents of 22 stomachs from the Pribilof Islands as follows:

The food in these stomachs was found to be vegetable, 75.5 percent; and animal, 24.5 percent. The plant diet was chiefly seeds, but in a few cases bits of leaves and fruiting capsules were eaten. Seeds of crowberry (Em petrum nigrum) were found more frequently than any other (i.e., in 6 gizzards) and from 20 to 40 seeds were present in certain of these stomachs. The largest numbers of seeds eaten by any of these rosy finches were 250 and 450, in two instances, of those of brook saxifrage (CAr ysoplenium beringiar&um). In one case also 160 seeds of sea parsley (Ligusticum scoticum) were contained in a single stomach. Other seeds eaten included those of grass, rush (Juncus sp.), sedge (Carez sp.), chickweed (Alsine borealis), buttercup (Ranunctdus sp.), water chickweed (Montia lontana), cinquefoil (Potentilla sp.), and bluebell (Cam panula sp.).

Of the animal food, approximately 21 percent of a total of 24.5 percent consisted of two-winged flies, 2 percent of beetles, and 1 percent of springtails. The flies consumed were chiefly crane flies (Tipulidae), and the beetles included ground beetles (Pterostichus sp. and others), leaf beetles (CAr ysomela subsulcata), beach beetles (Aegialites californicus), and weevils. Caterpillars occurred in 2 stomachs and springtails (Aptera: Collemboic) in 1. The latter insects were identified as Isotoma molacea var. mucronata, and the record is the first of the occurrence of this species on American territory.

Mr. Hahn noted the rosy finch feeding on seeds of poochka, or wild parsnip (Coetopleurum gmelini), and of rye grass, and Mr. Hanna observed that in winter they appeared to feed almost exclusively on the seeds of poochka.

Behavior: Hanna (1922) writes: “The males spend the greater part of the summer fighting each other. * * * Often a female may be seen pursued by a half a dozen suitors. When the female is off her nest, her mate (or, at least, some mate) is constantly close beside her, and, if rosy finches are abundant, many is the battle he has to fight. Or, as she feeds along some uarrow ledge, two contestants for her favors may now and then come tumbling down to the beach line, flapping and pecking at each other, their places as attendants being soon taken by a third party.”

Like its relative on the Aleutian Islands, this finch spends much of its time on the wing in long, swinging curves, or darting from one perch to another, seeming to enjoy its restless agility.

Voice: Hanna (1922) writes: “The beautiful song of the male was new to me then, and it seemed the most attractive feature of the desolate place. It is excelled by the song of no other species on these islands, and is rivalled there only by that of the Alaska Longspur and of the Pribiof Snow Bunting.”

Enemies: Hanna (1922) says:

These birds continued to be abundant from 1913 up to the winter of 1916: 17, when a terrible catastrophe befell them. The Pribiofe that winter were visited by a number of gyrfalcons, and these wreaked havoc among the resident land birds. * * * The first gyrfalcons killed were examined, and in their stomachs was found unmistakable evidence of slaughter: the rosy feathers of their victims. Their prey was so easily captured on the barren Pribilofs that the falcons became extraordinarily fat. So oily were they that the preparation of specimens was exceedingly difficult. The offering to the natives of a bounty of one dollar for each capture was instrumental in securing thirteen of them, a greater number than the total which had been seen on the Pribilofa since observations commenced.

When the summer of 1917 came, scarcely a finch could be found. Only one pair nested on St. Paul, and one pair on Otter Island. A few more were left on St. George, but the species would have been classed as exceedingly rare even there. * *

Through succeeding years the rosy finches were watched with great anxiety, and it was gratifying to see their numbers gradually increasing. By 1920 there were, perhaps, a dozen pairs on St. Paul Island and a hundred on St. George, but even the latter was still underpopulated.

Winter: Although a few rosy finches are to be found on the Pribilofa all winter, there is a great falling off in their numbers during late fall and winter, as most of them gradually drift away to spend midwinter on the Aleutian Islands, or as far east, perhaps, as the islands south of the Alaska Peninsula. According to the data published by Preble and MoAtee (1923), their numbers did not decrease very rapidly until December, but the birds were almost absent during January and February; and they did not return in any numbers until March.

Range: The Pribilof rosy finch is resident on the Pribilof Islands and on St. Matthew and Otter islands in the Bering Sea.

Egg dates: Pribilof Islands: 3 records, June 26 to June 28.


From the tip of the Alaska Peninsula westward, we found these large and handsome rosy finches generally distributed on all the islands we visited, as far west as Attu Island. They were breeding mainly in the crevices in the almost inaccessible rocky cliffs or among the loose rocks on the summits, but resorting to the shores and snow banks for feeding. Other rosy finches that breed inland and farther south make their summer homes in the alpine zones above timberline in the mountains. But there is no timberline in the treeless Aleutians, and these rosy finches find congenial summer homes from sea level up to the summits.

The Aleutian rosy finch breeds from the Commander Islands eastward to the western part of the Alaska Peninsula and in the Shumagin Islands; it wanders in winter eastward to Kodiak Island. A new name has been given to the rosy finches that breed on the Pribilof Islands and St. Matthew Island, farther north in the Bering Sea.

Steineger (1885) says of the haunts of this finch in the Commander Islands:

Copper Island, being one mass of rugged and cracked rocks and cliffs, with steep, often quite perpendicular, walls jutting up straight out of the ocean, is the favorite haunt of these stone-loving birds, which may be said to be fairly common on that island, occurring in pairs around the whole isle during the breeding season. * *

The “Aleutian Rosy Finch” delights especially in steep and high rocks, especially close to the sea and inaccessible to any other beings than those provided with wings. In fact, I do riot think that a single pair breeds in interior of the islands, but after the young are out, the whole family will often move inland, following the rivulets up to the backbone of the mountains in the search for insects.

Nesting: We did not succeed in finding a nest with eggs, but Wetmore found a nest on Kiska Island on June 18, containing two fully fledged young; it was in a crevice in the rocks in an almost inaccessible place on the face of a chiT. Though the birds evidently had nests among the rocks on the summits, they were too well hidden for us to find them.

Dall (1873) reports: “On the 24th of May we found a nest, situated in a crevice of a rocky bank on the shore of Captain’s Harbor, Unalashka. It was of grass, very neatly sewed together, and lined with fine grass and a few feathers. It contained five white eggs in fresh condition, and was about twelve feet above the beach.”

Eggs: This species lays from three to six ovate eggs, with five being the number most frequently found. They are slightly glossy; white or light creamy white, and unspotted.

The measurements of 50 eggs average 24.5 by 17.3 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 28.3 by 17.0, 23.4 by 18.8, 21.3 by 16.3, and 22.9 by 15.8 millimeters.

Plumages: Ridgway (1901) describes the juvenal plumage of this finch as follows: “Uniform grayish brown, more or less washed with a more umber tint; wings and tail dusky slate, the feathers margined with paler; edges of greater wing-coverts and tertials dull buffy; no trace of pink on tail-coverts, etc., nor of gray or black on head.”

The sexes are alike in the juvenal plumage and nearly alike in all plumage, though the females may average a very little duller than the males. The seasonal changes in plumage are not conspicuous. In winter birds the pink are of a softer hue and the feathers of the breast are narrowly margined with paler. Material is not available for a study of the molts.

Food: Stejneger (1885) examined the gullets of several specimens, of one of which he says: “Gullet crammed with an enormous mass of food, consisting of (1) several dozens of a Coleopterous insect, and (2) a similar number of larvae, etc., (3) besides leaves and buds of Cocklearia, and (4) some seeds.”

We frequently saw these finches feeding on the snow banks, picking up seeds and insects which had been blown there by the high winds.

Behavior: These rosy finches are restless, roving birds, often seen sweeping over the mountains in long swinging curves; while feeding on the snow banks they were usually too shy to be approached, but about the rocky summits, where their nests are well concealed, they are very tame; they will sit on some nearby rock, chirping loudly in protest, or fly about from point to point in swinging billowy ffight, twittering constantly.

Voice: Nelson (1887) says: “This bird has no song, but utters a low, mellow chirp. * * * Dall adds that it has no song at any season, but a clear chirp-like weet-a-weet-a-weet-‘weeL”

Range: The Aleutian rosy finch is resident in the Aleutian Islands (Near Islands to Akutan Islands), Nunivak Island, western part of the Alaska Peninsula, Unga Island, and Semidi Islands. One breeding specimen was taken on Kodiak Island. Winters also on Kodiak Island.


This form has been called the gray-headed rosy finch, as its cheeks, and, in typical specimens, the entire head is gray, except the black frontal patch.

As its subspecific name implies, it is a bird of the coastal mountain districts of northwestern North America, from the Alaska Peninsula eastward and southward, breeding above timberline. J. Grinnell (1909) reports that one specimen collected of a number of leucosticte seen at Hooniah on Chicagof Island, Alaska, June 21 to 27, 1907, was L. t. littoralis. According to the observer, Dixon, the birds were “around the lower end of the melting snow slides, and the rock slides near the summit of the mountain, 2,500 feet altitude.” Alfred M. Bailey (1927) observed these finches at several places in southeastern Alaska, Glacier Bay, Juneau, and other places; they were evidently nesting in the precipitous cliffs at elevations of about 4,000 feet. In the Stikine River region of northern British Columbia and southeastern Alaska, Harry S. Swarth (1922) found them “after we emerged from the upper edge of the forest (about 3500 feet) and they evidently inhabited all of the open country from there on upward.”

Dawson (1909) writes: “This bird is the vestal virgin of the snows, the attendant minister of Nature’s loftiest altar, the guardian of the glacial sanctuaries. * * * He alone of all creatures is at home on the heights, and he is not even dependent upon the scanty vegetation which follows the retreating snows, since he is able to wrest a living from the very glaciers. Abysses do not appall him, nor do the flower-strewn meadows of the lesser heights alienate his snow-centered affections.”

Taylor and Shaw (1927) say of this hardy bird: “Apparently scorning more comfortable surroundings, the rosy finch selects for his home and feeding ground bleak and wind-swept ridges of rock, dizzy crags and precipices. This is one of the hardy quartet of birds (rosy finch, pipit, ptarmigan, horned lark) which is characteristic of the ArcticAlpine, the highest and coldest life zone on Mount Rainier.”

Nesting: To William T. Shaw (1936) we are indebted for much that we know of the nesting and other habits of Hepburn’s rosy finch, and much of what follows has been taken from his two articles on the winter habits and nesting studies of this finch. His observations were made mainly on Mount Baker and Mount Rainier, Wash., where he found several old nests, as well as nests with eggs and nests with young. Of one nesting site, he says:

“Here were domes of reddish, clinker-like, porous rock, overlain with flat stratified slabs of a very hard structure. Both formations were later referred by Dr. Win. M. Tucker of the Fresno State College, to rhyolite, differently metamorphosed in cooling. Water dripped over about half of this area. The drier parts showed irregular gasformed crypts here and there and in two of these appeared from the distance, that which looked like nesting material. One, at least, had what was distinctly shown as loose weathered ends of grass, though very old.”

Of one nest location, he says: “It was placed in a rather open space in the rock, roughly speaking about 8 inches high. It was not a secure enclosure, but was penetrated by light from two or three small openings from the side and back where the rocks did not fit tightly together besides being widely open from the front. In it the nest was set back about ten inches from the opening. * * ~ He describes another nest, located in the slab formation, as follows:

This was a bulky affair a little smaller than that of a Robin. It was constructed on the outside with considerable black, dead Usnea or tree moss (a lichen) and what seemed to be rootlets of what might be partridge-foot (Lutkea pectitwAa) which was found to be projecting down from the undercut sod of the moraine s knife edge. Quantities of rootlets, possibly of a sedge (Carex), rushes (Jun.cue) or a bent grass (Agrostis) were found although these fragments were difficult to determine. A few bits of old dead moss stems were also present in the outer wall. The lining was of grass culms which had the appearance of having been shredded to a considerable fineness in the bottom of the nest. Several Ptarmigan feathers were present in the lining.

Charles S. Moody (1910) discovered two nests of this finch while fishing along swift, rocky, mountain streams in northern Idaho. One was “situated upon a slight shelf of the rock near where the cliff takes a sharp angle. It was composed of dried grass stems, pine needles and moss. The structure was poorly made, and I am at loss to understand why the wind did not sweep it away. The eggs, which were about .94 X .50 inches were a bluish white, though I am inclined to believe this was due to the incubation, as they appeared about ready to hatch. I think that the eggs when first deposited are milk-white, from the fact that those in another nest discovered by me the next season were of that color.”

Of another nest, he says: “While picking our way around a cliff upon which tussocks of grass were growing, a Rosy Finch started from beneath my feet. She alighted on a rock not far distant, and complained about our intrusion. The nest was situated beneath one of these tussocks, and was very similar to the one just described.”

Eggs: The eggs of Hepburn’s rosy finch, usually four or five in number, are pure white and unmarked, like the eggs of other races of the species.

Young: Shaw (1936) inferred from his studies that the incubation period is about 14 days. Of four helpless young rosy finches he says: “Tender skin was noticed, irregularly tufted with fluffy gray down, which moved in the breeze. Large, dark, closed eyes,: -yellowrmimed mouths, thin, wobbly necks through which pulsed spurts of warm blood from strong heart to brain, all showing most vividly when the birds were brought from their hidden retreat to open daylight. No sound was uttered. Every effort was made by the fledglings to hide the eyes from the light.”

When 6 days old the young “weighed 56 grams for the four of them, or 14 grams apiece. They still retained the gray downy plumage of hatching; but now had in addition, blackish pterylae of pinfeathers and stubby wing and tail quills. The eyes of one or two of them were just faintly opening and they had tiny far-away voices, rarely used, at long intervals.”

At 9 days of age, “they had advanced markedly and weighed 84 grams, or an average of 21 grams apiece. They were now showing distinct signs of intelligent, awakening interest. Hunger seemed to be a rather constant stimulus. Baby down was now giving way to rather coarser resistant feathers. Eyes were all open, as also were gaping yellow-rimmed mouths on slightest provocation.”

At 14 days of age, the young were beginning to leave the nest. One of the remaining two, weighed 26 grams. “The following day no birds, young or old remained. The Rosy Finches had abandoned their glacier nesting places for the more congenial and fruitful foraging sites beside the moist edges of the retreating snow banks of the flower-clothed moraines.”

Plumages: The molts and plumages are apparently similar in all the rosy finches. The plumages are well described under the browncapped rosy finch, but there is too little material available for a study of the molts.

Food: Rosy finches are mainly ground feeders, picking up the seeds of weeds and wild plants. The Lefflngwells (1931) made a study of the winter habits of Hepburn’s rosy finch at Clarkston, Wash., and “found that 99 percent of the food consists of the seeds of weeds found abundantly on the steep slopes of the cafion walls or in the wheat fields on the tops of the bluffs, while but one percent was insect material. The seeds most commonly taken are Russian thistle, SaLsola Icali; wild grass, Sporobolus cryptandrus; Jim Hill mustard, Sisymbrium altissimum; and sunflower, Helianthus annuus.” They list six other species of plants of which the seeds are eaten.

They also mention that the summer food of both adults and young consists more largely of insect food; in 16 birds, collected by Swarth(1922) in the Stikine River region, insect “material was found to be 59 percent and vegetable matter 41 percent of the total.”

Swartli also says: “The old birds were assiduously feeding the young, and in pursuit of this duty we several times saw them fly into the air to capture flying insects, which were then carried to the waiting offspring.”

Moody (1910) writes: “Like Croasbills, they are very fond of salt, and will greedily eat anything of a saline character. There is also a small black midge, or gnat, that covers the snow on certain warm days, and these the birds devour. I have also seen them industriously picking about the tops of fir trees and on the branches of white cedars.”

G. W. Gullion (1957) recorded a bird feeding among cheat.grass, Bromus tectomim, at 6,500 feet in Nevada, Mar. 10, 1956. S. G. Jewett, W. T. Taylor, et al. (1953) mention flowers of the white heather, seeds of Russian thistle, and leaves of the saxifrage (,S’axiJraga tolmiei).

Behavior: The Leffingwells (1931) write:

The leucostictes are decidedly gregarious; all wait till some venturesome spirit shows the way to food or starts the ffight, then others follow quickly. They fly in dense masses in an undulating manner. The individual apparently keeps to no set position in the flock, which constantly whirls about, much like a group of dry leaves carried on a stiff breeze or as caught suddenly by a whirlwind and thus twisted onto another course, or set down as suddenly as it was started in ifight. Upon arrival at the [roostingi rock, the birds swirl in, close to the face of the upper portion, perching abruptly. They often circle several times about the rock; then alighting they dart from jagged point to jagged point, working down, amid much chatter, to the base, stopping at intervals to pick about the lichens, and finally go to the thistle and graas to feed a few momenta before roosting.

On several occasions, Prairie Falcons and Pigeon Hawks appeared at the rock. Their presence did not greatly alarm the finches which often ignored the intruder entirely or gave chase in flocks of fifteen or twenty individuals. Never did they seem very enthusiastic about mobbing the enemy.

Rosy Finches are perpetually in action, never perching longer than a few seconds at a time. It was of interest to note that, while feeding upon Russian thistle or Jim Hill mustard, which protruded through several inches of snow, they walked with a staggering motion rather than hopping as is characteristic of moat sparrows. After feeding here for a few momenta they swirled off to a ledge of rimrock to perch and chatter and then came back to the food again.

The birds begin preparation for the night long before sunset, the flock usually appearing at the roosting site between two and three o’clock. A bird enters a swallow’s nest and usually turns at once, and thrusts its head from the opening, uttering a loud cry as though challenging all others. It may remain here a few seconds or it may come out at once and repeat the same performance in another nest. Often a single bird will inspect as many as a dozen nests before finally settling in one. Usually by four o’clock the entire flock is at roost and no sound can be heard, nor can the birds be frightened from the nests.

The roosting rock, referred to above, was an outcrop of basaltic rimrock, with a perpendicular face about 200 feet high, against which were clustered hundreds of abandoned nests of cliff swallows, in which the finches roasted.

S. G. Jewett, W. T. Taylor et a]. (1953) comment on a flock of about 1,000 birds which arrived at Republic, Wash., the morning of November 12, 1920. Nervous and uncertain at first, the birds finally settled about a small, open spring, and then were tame and unsuspicious of an observer not more than 30 feet distant. On the ground the birds maintained a constant musical twitter, but the notes ceased when the birds took ffight, rising to a great height. Again, on January 10, 1918, a flock of about 50 birds took shelter from the raw wintry wind in the mud nests of a deserted colony of cliff swaUows, some birds turning around to peer out curiously.

Voice: The Leffingwells (1931) say on this subject:

While the birds are in flight there is a constant chattering, and on a dull day, when they are flying at a distance their presence can be detected first by the thin, clear notes uttered in rapid succession. The flock note is similar to that of the Evening Grosbeak though not so forceful and we have interpreted it variously as terrip or terrp; also as half whisper as peeap, peeap and cheep, cheep. The alarm note is a short, guttural, monosyllabic cheep, peep, peep. At other times it is very curt, being cha cha.

Few attempts at song were noted until the first of February and then the first song was somewhat sketchy. A notation on February 4, 1928, states that the birds were trying to sing, for some were giving softly a few connected notes. Most dominant at this time was soft cheek-ah, a soft song like that of the Purple Finch. Again on February 12, one Hepburn sat on a tree and sang a buzzy Purple Finch song. This may be the song of the birds. After this date attempts at song are common, and on February 25 a note states definitely that the males were singing. The song, a long warble, was much like that of the Goldfinch.

Field marks: Ilepburn’s rosy finch can be distinguished from the gray-crowned rosy finch, with which it is often associated in winter, by its head markings, which are distinctly visible in the field, even at a considerable distance. Hepburn’s has been rightly called the grayheaded rosy finch, for almost its entire head is gray, down to the sides of the head and throat, with only the forehead black, while in the graycrowned rosy finch only the posterior half of the crown is gray, the frontal half being black. The brown body plumage, with its rosy tints, is common to all the rosy finches, which look much like large brown sparrows.

Fall and winter: As cold weather approaches, the rosy finches desert the alpine heights, retreat to the lower slopes, and sprea.d out over the lowland plateaus. They become tame and confiding during the winter, adapting themselves to civilization and coming readily to feeding stations and window sills in their search for food.

Gabrielson and Jewett (1940) write: “The most abundant wintering Rosy Finch in the State is Hepburn’s Rosy Finch. It gathers into huge flocks that swirl along the rocky hillsides of eastern Oregon like leaves in a storm. These winter flocks are restless, except when actually feeding. They whirl up in spiral flights, then alight for a few seconds, only to start off again with little apparent reason. Usually they alight on the ground, sometimes on buildings, once in a great while in trees or bushes, and we have seen the telephone and fence wires decorated with them for a considerable space.~~ Hepburn’s rosy finch has been known to stray far from its western breeding range. A male was collected near Minneapolis, Minn., Jan. 3, 1889; another specimen was trapped and banded at Gorham, Maine, Dec. 15, 1936 (Gross, 1937).

The Leflingwells (1931) say:

With the exception of active competition for roosting places, there is little quarreling among the birds early in the winter. After the latter part of January, however, the birds become more quarrelsome. This continues with increasing vigor until shortly before the departure of the flock, when the birds seem to be paired. On March 3, 1928, we observed that at the spring there was constant fighting which consisted largely of the aggressor opening his bill as though to intimidate, and making a hissing noise. He then rushed toward the opponent, caught at its bill and the two fell, fluttering and whirling, to the ground in a circular motion.

They add that the flock breaks up somewhat toward the end of the winter, shortly before the migration begins. A bird they banded in February 1928 returned and was retaken in November 1929.

Range: Paciflc slope of Alaska to California and New Mexico.

Breeding range: Breeds from south central Alaska (Kenai Peninsula, McKinley Park), southwestern Yukon (Tepee Lake), and northwestern British Columbia (near Doch-da-on Creek) south through high mountains of southeastern Alaska and western British Columbia to Cascade Mountains of Washington, Oregon (Crater Lake), and central northern California (Mount Shasta).

Winter records: Winters from southern Alaska (Kodiak Island, Kenai Peninsula, Juneau), central British Columbia (Quesnel), and central Montana (Fort Shaw, Fort Keogh) south to northern California (Chats), western Nevada (Washoe and Storey counties), northern Utah (Bacchus), and central northern New Mexico (Vermejo Park).

Casual records: Accidental in Minnesota (Minneapolis) and Maine (Gorham).


The gray-crowned rosy finch, the type race of the species and the first of the rosy finches to be discovered, was described and figured by Swainson and Richardson (1831). They obtained only a single specimen, which was “killed on the Saskatchewan, May, 1827,” near Canton House, Saskatchewan. This race breeds in the northern Rocky Mountains, migrating east to Manitoba, south to Utah, Colorado, and western Nebraska, west to the Cascade Range, and north to Great Slave Lake. Like the other rosy finches this bird finds a congenial summer home among the mountain snowbanks and glaciers well above timberline, often up to 10,000 or 12,000 feet.

The gray-crowned rosy finch seems to migrate well inland, along the mountain ranges or in their vicinity, largely avoiding the coastal areas. Ralph B. Williams writes to me from Juneau, Alaska: “During banding operations from March 22 through April 3, 1948, the writer trapped and banded a total of 300 Leucosticte tephrocotis littoralis and 6 Leucosticte tephrocotis tephrocotis. * * * The resultant research into the available literature on the occurence of the subspecies tephrocotis in the Alexander Archipelago failed to bring to light any data, but I have been able to discover several records with reference to littoralis.”

Nesting: Strangely enough, I cannot find in the literature any account of the nesting of the gray-crowned rosy finch in what is now known to be the breeding range of this typical race of the species. There are plenty of references in the literature under the name of the gray-crowned, but these all prove to be referable to the Sierra Nevada rosy finch, which had not been separated from the former at the time that the articles were published.

Mrs. Florence Merriam Bailey (1918) found these finches with young in Glacier National Park, which is probably near the southern end of its breeding range, but she does not say that a nest was actually found. However, as its summer haunts are similar to those of the other races, it seems fair to assume that its nesting habits are also similar.

Eggs: The four eggs in the collection at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology measure 21.5 by 16.7, 21.9 by 16.1, 22.0 by 16.3, and 22.1 by 16.1 millimeters.

Plumages: In a general way, the plumages of the rosy finches are very much alike in both sexes, though the females are always paler and less rosy. It has been contended that the sexes cannot be distinguished in life. J. C. Merrill (1880) has made a study of the winter plumages of the two forms of the species at Fort Shaw, Mont., pointing out certain details by which the sexes can be distinguished. The reader is referred to his paper.

In its feeding and other habits, this rosy finch does not differ materially from the other races of the species. Laurence B. Potter, of Eastend, Saskatchewan, has sent me the following notes submitted by Charles F. Holmes. of Dollard, Saskatchewan: “On December 15, 1940, I noticed a dozen rosy finches, with one Hepburn’s among them, feeding upon weed seeds on the south side of my graineries; they were not at all alarmed at my presence, and remained about the yard for several days, going in and out of the various buildings and even roosting at night among the rafters. About December 20, the flock of 12 was increased to perhaps 200; t~hey settled in the tall poplars, not unlike the habit of snow buntings and looking just as odd. They swarmed over the roof of the house, their feet sounding like hail as they landed, and in a few minutes were literally covering my feeding board, cracking and husking the seed and squabbling for place. At one time I counted 50 feeding on the board including two Hepburn’s whilst the overflow of some hundred fed upon the ground. As far as I could judge, the Hepburn’s seemed to be in ratio of 1 to 70, though sometimes 1 to 50.

“In front of the house was a car; they perched upon the radiator, flew in at the windows and sat upon the steering wheel; and when I went out to place more feed upon the board, they sat upon my head and walked over my shoes.

“As long as so many fed upon the board at one time, they were fairly peaceable, but when two or three remained, one in particular became very hostile, refusing place to all and sundry and fairly romping up and down from one end of the board to the other in his efforts to police it. He would hump his back, fluff out his feathers and, with his topnot erect, dash at any intruder.”

P. M. Silloway (1903) writes of the behavior of these finches in Fergus County, Mont.:

A regular winter resident at Lewiston, where it is known as “brown snowbird.” It generally appears about the first of November, though in pleasanter weather it may not be observed before the 8th or 10th. * *

The leucostictes are our English sparrows in social manners. They feed at the door-steps, or in the yards. On a warm winter morning I have seen from forty to fifty of these birds sitting on a wood-pile in the door-yard, sunning themselves and gleaning from refuse. In the late afternoons the individuals of a flock scatter out to accustomed nooks for the night. A particular male, and sometimes a female, have regular sleeping nooks in the porch of the writer’s home, and long before nightfall the birds seek their quarters. I have seen one enter a tubular eavestrough, there to spend the night. Frequently they flutter under projecting eaves, and cling to some projecting support for the night.

The leucostictes feed on the seeds of the dwarf sage, or glean from the snow about the bases of such plants. They are fond of gleaning along the hillsides at the margin of the snowy areas. In the spring, when a thaw is taking place, a flock will congregate on a spot eight or ten feet across, all pecking industrially from the bare ground. They also frequent the margins of dry ditches, and a walk or fence on sloping ground, where exposed areas can be found, are favored feeding-places. * *

Very early the leucostictes give evidence of the approach of the nuptial season. After the middle of January, one male will frequently chase another coquettishly, like meadowlarks in amorous sport. Occasionally at this season a male will sit for a few moments, uttering a pretty little trill, like tree: ree: ree-ree-ree: ree: ree enunciating the syllables with great rapidity. As the season approaches, and the warm sunshine of late February announces the further advance of the vernal period, the leucostictes increase in their musical numbers. Sitting on the ridge of house or barn, generally at the end of the ridge, alone or in small troops, they utter their wheezy chants, sometimes with no more force than that used by the grasshopper sparrow, sometimes with greater force and more varied expression.

The males sing also while sitting on the ground, appearing to be picking up morsels of food, and singing as a frequent variation. In such instances the song has a ventriloqulal effect, appearing to issue from a point much farther away. A male singing on the ground will sidle toward a female, and if she coyly takes wing a reckless amorous pursuit will follow. * *

In early March the wing-bars of their plumage become more prominent, the purple of the sides to show more noticeably, and the colors generally to assume their vernal or nuptial hues. By the middle of April the last of the leucostictes has disappeared.

In his notes from Salida County, central Colorado, Edward R. Warren (lOlob) says:

Rosy Finches were unusually abundant about Salida the winter of 1908-9, which, as stated above was very severe, and especially so in the higher mountains where the birds usually stay. Frey says in his notes: “Thousands of these birds were here at all times during the winter. Every snow that came would drive them down to the valleys; when the south hills became bare they would split up in small bunches and scatter and climb up as the snow receded. I have taken all four varieties from a single bunch, and might say at a single shot. They seemed to be all varieties together, and the Gray-crowns were most plentiful, with Browncaps a close second, and about one in four or five would be Hepburn’s, and a very few black ones. These birds fed almost entirely on the tumbleweed (Russian thistle) seeds, and their throats and crops were literally crammed with them.”

Range: Alaska and Yukon to California, New Mexico, and Nebraska.

Breeding range: Breeds in the mountains from northern Alaska (Brooks Range), central Yukon, and western Alberta south to southeastern British Columbia (Indianpoint Mountain, Moose Pass) and northwestern Montana (Glacier Park). Recorded in summer in central northern Washington (hart’s Pass) and in western Mackenzie (Fort Resolution).

Winter range: Winters from southern British Columbia (Chilhiwack, Clinton, Cranbrook), central Alberta (Jasper Park), southern Saskatchewan (Skull Creek, Indian Head), and southwestern Manitoba (Birtle) south to northeastern California (Chats), central Nevada (Reno), central Utah (Provo), northern New Mexico (Cimarron), northwestern Nebraska (Sioux County), and southwestern South Dakota (Rapid City).

Casual record: Casual in Iowa (Sioux City).

Migration: T he data deal with the species as a whole. Early dates of spring arrival are: Wyoming: Yellowstone National Park, February 28. Montana: Anaconda, March 12. Alberta: Banif National Park, February 26. British Columbia: Lytton, April 6.

Late dates of spring departure are: Arizona: Grand Canyon Village, March 23. Colorado: Colorado Springs, April 18; Walden, April 17 (median of 10 years, April 6). Utali: Provo, April 20. Wyoming: Jackson Hole, April 26; Laramie, April 13 (average of 7 years, March 25). Idaho: Moscow Mountain, May 11. Montana: Anaconda, May 8. Alberta: Veteran, May 9; Athabaska Landing, May 3. California: Big Creek, May 6. Oregon: Camp Harney, March 22. Washington: Pullman, March 31 (median of 5 years, March 15). British Columbia: Lac Ia Hache, April 26.

Early dates of fall arrival are: British Columbia: Lac la Hache, October 25. Washington: Pullman, October 17 (median of 7 years, November 1). Oregon: near Enterprise, October 30. Nevada: Ramsey, November 15. Alberta: Banif, October 4; Glenevis, October 8. Montana: Big Sandy, October 1. Idaho-Moscow, October 21. Wyoming: Wyoming Peak, October 5; Laramie, October 25 (average of 7 years, November 17). Colorado-Walden, October 31 (median of 8 years, November 13). New Mexico: near Cimarron, November 11. Utah: Zion National Park, November 4. Saskatchewan: Eastend, October 27. South Dakota: Black Hills National Forest, October 29. Nebraska: Blue Springs, November 2.

Late dates of fall departure are: Alberta: Banif, November 3. Wyoming: Yellowstone National Park, December 7 (average of 7 years, November 17).

Egg dates: Alaska: 104 records, May 14 to August 11; 65 records, June 9 to June 30.

California: 25 records, June 15 to July 17; 17 records, June 30 to July 10.


Alden H. Miller (1939a) gave the above name to the rosy finch that is known to breed only on the Wallowa Mountains of Oregon, its winter range being undetermined. He gives it the following suhspeciflc characters:

Similar to L. t. tephrocotis, but cinnamon brown of ventral surface duller and more sooty, the feathers bearing either dusky areas or dusky shaft streaks immediately distal to the downy gray basal parts. Black throat area grades less abruptly into breast. Streaks of back somewhat darker and broader and feather margins distinctly more neutral brown, with less yellow and red-brown pigment.

Wollowa differs from L. t. dawsoni of the Sierra Nevada of California in slightly sootier under parts, and in much darker, less tawny dorsal surface. Some individuals of waUowa are almost indistinguishable from dau,soni ventrally but the dark, broad dorsal stripes of wallowa are in no instance closely approximated in dau,soni. Wallowa differs from dawsoni, as does L. t. tephrocotis, in greater average depth of bill and in more pointed wing tip.

Range: Oregon and Nevada.

Breeding range: B reeds in Wallowa Mountains of northeastern Oregon.

Winter range: Winters south to central western Nevada (Ramsey, Reno).


Joseph Grinnell (1913) gave the above name to the rosy finch of the Sierra Nevada, “in recognition of the services to Ornithology of William Leon Dawson.” He gives it the following diagnostic characters: “As compared with its nearest relative, Leucosticte fephrocotis tephrocotis Swainson, of the northern Rocky Mountain region, in British America and western Alaska: genend coloration in all plumages grayer toned, less intensely brown, size slightly less, the bill being distinctly less in bulk, and wing averaging more rounded; juvenal plumage much grayer especially anteriorly both above and below; breeding females less different; breeding males least different, but still perceptibly less vivid in the chestnut about the head.”

Its breeding range seems to be confined to the Sierra Nevada, from Eldorado County on the north to Tulare County on the south, in California. Dawson (1923) gives its range as follows: “At least the higher portions of the central and southern Sierras from Nevada County south to Olancha Peak; also sparingly about the higher peaks of the White Mountains; retires in winter to lower levels, chiefly easterly.”

All the rosy finches seem to prefer to make their summer homes and rear their young in what we humans would consider most unattractive, even forbidding, surroundings, and this southern member of the tribe is no exception to the rule. In the bleak and lofty heights of the Sierras, from 10,000 to 13,000 feet above sea level, among towering cliffs and rocky slopes, where snowflelds remain all summer, these hardy birds find congenial summer homes.

Grinnell and Storer (1924) call this “the most typically alpine of all Californian birds. The mountaineer does not meet with it until he reaches the main Sierran crest or at least the loftiest of the outstanding spurs.” Nesting: Dawson (1923) writes:

The cliff-nesters find their favorite sites available in June, and they, accordingly, fall to early in the month. The moraine or rock-slide nesters expect their home sites to be buried in snow until late in June; and, subject to the variation of the seasons, nest complements may be expected in such situations at any time from the 1st to the 20th of July. The noisy scenes of courtship, therefore, may extend from the middle of May to the middle of July; but the actual nesting is conducted so quietly, so decorously, that the inexperienced student is likely to be utterly deceived.

The nests of the Leucos are always fully sheltered. They are set back in niches or placed under boulders, sometimes in chambers of generous proportions, and always beyond the reach of rain or snow. * *

Some of the nests are drab-looking affairs, especially where weathered grasses are the only materials available. Some, however, are wonderfully compacted of mosses, and are lined with feathers or other soft substances. * * * The nests are, naturally, of the sturdiest construction, with walls from one to three inches in thickness, with hollows deeply cupped. * * *

A long and interesting account, fully illustrated, telling of the discovery of the first nest of this bird, was published by Milton S. Ray (1910), to which the reader is referred.

James B. Dixon (1936) gives the following measurements of what he considered to be a typical nest: “Outside diameter, 43~ inches; inside diameter, 2~ inches; outside depth, 2~ inches; inside depth, 1% inches.”

Eggs: This rosy finch lays from three to five eggs, more rarely the latter. They are like the eggs of the other subspecies, pure white and unspotted. Dawson (1923) gives the average measurements of 10 eggs as 22.5 by 15.6 millimeters.

The measurements of 40 eggs average 21.6 by 15.7 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 24.1 by 17.0, 23.1 by 17.5, 19.7 by 15.6, and 21.6 by 14.8 millimeters.

Young: Dawson (1923) writes:

The pace of the Leuco day quickens when these white ovals part and naked babies, to the number of four or five, are born into this world of snow-glare and hunger. The parents, however, have capacious throats, or crops, and to obviate the handicap of a long haul, comparatively infrequent visits are made to the nest. I have seen parents making trips every five minutes, but ten- or fifteenminutes are more usual, with half an hour, or such a matter, for older birds. Food material rarely protrudes from the parental beak, but the nature of the visit, whether parental or conjugal, may be surely determined by the presence or absence of the foecal sac, the laden diaper, without which no self-respecting parent will quit the presence of his (or her) offspring. * * *

Alden H. Miller (1941) has made the interesting discovery that rosy finches are provided with “buccal food-carrying pouches,” which facilitate carrying considerable quantities of food from distant feeding grounds to nests. These a&e$illy described and illustrated in his article, to which the reader is referred.

Dixon’s (1936) observations indicate that the female does all the incubating and will not tolerate the male near the nest until after the young have hatched; from then on the male seemed to do more than half the feeding; the young remained in the nest about 14 days and were fed after leaving it.

Food: Grinnell and Storer (1924) write:

Our findings in the Yosemite Park and elsewhere along the Sierras tend to show that the food of the Leucosticte even in summer consists predominantly of seeds, with possibly buds, of the dwarfed plants which grow at and above timber line. This is contrary to the testimony of several observers, who, upon seeing the birds hopping about the edges of snow banks where numbers of benumbed insects are often seen stranded on the snow, conclude that the birds are engaged solely in gathering these “cold-storage bugs.” * *

The present contention as to the prevalently vegetable character of the food of the Sierra Nevada Rosy Finch is upheld by the contents of the crops of several of the birds taken for specimens in August, 1911, in the Mount Whitney region. These crops, ten in number, were subjected to careful examination and their contents found to consist 91 per cent of small seeds, and 9 percent only of insects.

Dawson (1923) writes:

As the season advances and the area of the snowfields is reduced, the Leucos resort to the south slopes of the peaks, where yellow-winged locusts and deer-flies and the hardy butterflies, notably Vanessa californica, hold forth. These they pursue on the ground, or else seize in midair by dextrous leaps from below. They feed also at the lower levels over the heather beds and in the vicinity of the cirque lakes, Once I saw a company of these Leucos feasting on caddis-flies. So eager had they become that they alighted upon the stones which protruded above the water of a shallow lake, where they could seize the becoming caddis-flies as they crawled out of their chrysalis cases.* * *

Behavior: Except during the nesting season rosy finches are not particularly shy and may often be approached. Behavior about the nest is thus described by Dixon (1936):

During nest building the female exercised no caution in approaching the nest and paid little attention, if any, to anything except building her nest as quickly as possible in the place she had selected. After egg laying, and particularly after incubation had begun, this condition changed. After incubation had begun, the female upon leaving the nest would drop vertically to the lower part of the cliff and then change her course to suit the direction of her destination. In returning to the nest extreme caution always was exercised. Usually the approach was made from level with the nest or slightly higher; and alighting first some distance from the nest the bird would carefully look the situation over and would then fly about half way to the nest and repeat the performance. If satisfied that the coast was clear she would then fly directly to the nest and enter with hardiy a wing flutter to indicate where she had disappeared. In no instance did we see the male feed the female either on the nest or near it.

Ray (1910) writes: “The Rosy Finch * * * is ever active either on foot or wing, among the rocks, along the cliffs or while feeding on stranded insects upon the snow. Endowed by nature to combat the fierce gales which prevail almost continually in these high altitudes, this bird possesses great power in its broad stretch of wing. The flight is rapid, in long, graceful, sweeping curves, and the birds mount hundreds of feet even against the strong head winds without much apparent effort.”

Range: The Sierra Nevada rosy finch is resident in the Sierra Nevada (Mount Tallac, Olancha Peak) and White Mountains of central eastern California; probably also in the Inyo Mountains. Recorded in winter in central western Nevada (Reno).

Egg dates: California: 1 record, July 14.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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