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Cassin's Finch

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The other rosefinch

Are you the quiet sibling? Are you the one who never got the attention like your smarter, faster, taller, cuter, older, younger, funnier, more athletic, more academic, or over-all better sibling, even cousin? Me too! As you grow up, you learn that some people just seem to garner more attention than others. Sometimes it is deserved, other times it is not. And I think it is most often the latter, as some people just know how to get more notice from others. 

This is also true with birds. Everyone tends to focus on birds that stand out, either because they are brightly colored or are large in size. Everyone, even non-birders, can remember seeing their first eagle, but how many even notice, let alone remember, seeing a cowbird, or a pine siskin, or other such small, less-spectacularly equipped bird? Exactly my point. 

And such is our bird of the month: the Cassin’s Finch. It might look nondescript to the uninformed, those who can’t tell a coot from a widgeon, but to us fans of the feathered the Cassin’s Finch is an interesting, if not compelling, species. Even if it is not as pretty as its cousins. It is the other rosefinch.

The Cassin’s Finch, named for the famed American ornithologist John Cassin, is a member of the American Rosefinches—a trifecta of related and similar looking birds which includes the House Finch, the Purple Finch, and our bird of the month. These birds share similar size, habits, and colorations. The Purple Finch is a pretty bird and the most colorful of them all, but it is a vagrant in our region. Meaning, it shouldn’t be here, but it occasionally wanders in. The House Finch is common resident and can be seen at almost any time of the year and is a beauty in its own right. But to most eyes the Cassin’s is a bit less flashy and is often overlooked. But it can probably beat its cousins in a sing-off. Put your money on the less-distinctive one. 

The Cassin’s Finch is a mountain bird that resides in the high-altitude coniferous forests of western North America, from Mexico in the south to just barely into British Columbia in the north. There are also two disjunct populations in South Dakota and northern California. While it is normally a year-round resident, meaning it doesn’t generally leave the county during the course of the year, it might move up or down a bit in elevation—heading up the mountains in the spring and back down again in the late fall. And that is when you and I might get our best opportunity to see this special bird: in the off-season. It abandons the snowy slopes of the mountains to the skiers and comes down to join the valley folks for the winter. And I’m glad it does. 

Like its cousins the House finch and the Purple finch, the dominant color for the male Cassin’s finch is a hue of red, in this case a reddish pink. Field marks are important in differentiating between it and the other rosefinches, especially the House finch as they might share the same haunts with the Cassin’s in the winter. 

The male Cassin’s is most noted for its bright red crown, which sports a small though distinctive peak. In contrast, the House finch will be more orange-red and its head will be more rounded, lacking the pointed crown of the Cassin’s. While both species sport color on their faces and chests, again the Cassin’s will trend toward rosy pink while the House finch leans toward a orange-red. Both males will have brown backs, with varying degrees of red-wash overtones, but the bellies are different. Whereas the House finch has obvious brown streaking on its belly and flanks, the Cassin’s finch has little or only faint streaking. This is apparent in the field. 

Another field mark is the beak. The Cassin’s finch has a sharp, definitively triangular-shaped beak, where as the House finch’s is more rounded, as the triangle-shape is less defined. 

In both species of birds the females are heavily streaked, reminding me of a pine siskin. Your best bet on differentiating between a female Cassin’s and a female House is a combination of their beak shape and their association with the male—as birds of feather do tend to flock together. The female Cassin’s also has the same peaked silhouette of the male. There are no rosy hues in either female bird.

These birds will come to your feeder. They are seed-eaters. I have never seen them visit my suet feeder, but they do come to my regular feeder. 

For some unknown reason the Cassin’s finch is a bird species in decline. Though it is still very common and numerous, it is less so today than it was in the past. The reasons are not known. As it prefers open areas in the mountain forests it inhabits, it does not seem to be negatively impacted by logging. But in some areas there have been measurable declines in numbers, so this is an area of concern.   

Remember, winter is a great time for birding. Your backyard feeder might never be more popular. Indeed, it could be a lifesaver for some individual birds if the winter is severe, making natural foods less available. And winter gives you an opportunity to see birds that you might otherwise not be able to identify, as this is one of the few times that these bird species come to you, rather than you having to go to them. Happy birding!

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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

Tagged as:

birding, A Bird in Hand, Cassins Finch, finch

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