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Cassin's Finch

Haemorhous cassinii ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: FRINGILLIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Near Threatened

Slightly less well known than its lookalikes (House Finch and Purple Finch), the Cassin’s Finch is the characteristic rosy-tinged finch of the mountains of western North America. Small flocks twitter and forage in the tall evergreen forests and in groves of quaking aspen. Along with range and habitat, a good way to sort them out is to learn the Cassin’s Finch’s peaked head shape and thick, straight-edged bill. Males sing a rollicking song that includes mimicked calls of other birds.

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
6.3 in
16 cm
Wingspan
9.8–10.6 in
25–27 cm
Weight
0.8–1.2 oz
24–34 g
Relative Size
About the size of a House Finch but somewhat heftier; larger than a Pine Siskin.
Other Names
  • Roselin de Cassin (French)
  • Gorrión de Cassin (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The Cassin’s Finch was first collected on an 1850s expedition to the southwestern mountains by the Pacific Railroad Survey. The eminent ornithologist John Cassin, who created illustrations for the survey, called the pink-tinged finch the “greatest bird in the lot.” Cassin asked his friend and colleague Spencer Baird to name the new species after him.
  • Male Cassin’s Finches have red crown feathers thanks to carotenoid pigments, which they acquire when they swallow colorful foods like the orange berries of firethorn plants.
  • Male Cassin's Finches remain brownish and look like females during their first breeding season. During this time they sing, and this may give the false impression that both sexes sing. These young males may group into “bachelor flocks” during that first breeding season.
  • The Cassin's Finch is an accomplished mimic, often adding the calls of other species into its own songs.
  • The Cassin's Finch breeds semicolonially, with nests on average 80 feet apart. Nests are sometimes as close as 3 feet apart—this usually causes a fight between males until one of the pair gives up. If the first nest is substantially earlier than the other, however, such close nesting may be tolerated.
  • The Cassin's Finch craves salt, and is often found visiting mineral deposits on the ground.
  • The oldest Cassin’s Finch on record was at least seven years old when captured and released by a bird bander in Oregon in 1979.

Habitat


Forest

Cassin’s Finches breed throughout the conifer belts of North America’s western interior mountains, from central British Columbia to northern New Mexico and Arizona. They breed mostly between 3,000 and 10,000 feet of elevation. They often live in mature forests of lodgepole pine and ponderosa pine, but are also found in Jeffrey pine, Douglas-fir, limber pine, Engelmann spruce, subalpine fir, grand fir, red fir, pinyon pine, bristlecone pine, and quaking aspen. Some Cassin’s Finches breed in open sagebrush shrubland with scattered western junipers. They winter at lower elevations throughout much of the same range as well as farther south into Baja California and mainland Mexico.

Food


Seeds

Cassin’s Finches eat mostly seeds, as well as some insects. During spring up to 94 percent of their diet consists of quaking aspen buds; they also eat buds of cottonwood and green manzanita. They pull seeds out of ponderosa pine cones (or collect fallen seeds from the ground) and eat many kinds of fruit, including cotoneaster berries, mulberries, firethorn berries, grapes, and apples. During the summer Cassin’s Finches eat larvae of Douglas-fir tussock moths and other moths and butterflies. In late summer and early fall, they gather into foraging groups with crossbills and other mountain birds, often visiting mineral deposits to satisfy their salt cravings.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
3–6 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
0.7–0.9 in
1.8–2.4 cm
Egg Width
0.5–0.6 in
1.3–1.6 cm
Incubation Period
12 days
Egg Description
Light greenish blue, speckled with black, brown and purplish.
Condition at Hatching
Covered with sooty gray down.
Nest Description

The female builds a loose, rather frail nest in only a few days. She starts with a foundation of fine twigs, rootlets, coarse weed stems, and often lichens. The inner cup, which may be just over 2 inches across and an inch deep, is lined with fine rootlets, grass stems, plant fibers, shreds of bark, animal hair, feathers, and sometimes shreds of rope.

Nest Placement

Tree

The female chooses the nest site while the male accompanies her. The nest is usually near the top of a conifer tree or on a side branch away from the trunk, 15 feet or more from the ground. Females sometimes choose nest sites only a few feet apart from each other, but males tolerate such close spacing only if one pair is already past the egg-laying stage by the time another pair moves in.

Behavior


Ground Forager

Cassin’s Finches fly with an undulating pattern, rising when they flap and dipping when they glide. When the female starts looking for a nest site in the spring, her mate starts chasing other males from the area. By the time the pair is incubating their eggs, the male will tolerate other nest-building pairs nearby (within several feet). When making threats, Cassin’s Finches close their bill and point it toward their opponent with the neck extended and the body in a horizontal position. A female may ruffle the feathers of her forehead, breast, and back as an indication that she is not a young male, which look like females for their first year of life. Cassin’s Finches form one-on-one pairs to tend the nest, but they probably mate outside the pair bond as well. It’s not known whether they reunite with the same mate year after year. After the breeding season, they join foraging groups of Red Crossbills, Evening Grosbeaks, Pine Siskins, and other finches. Cassin’s Finches and their nests are preyed upon by Sharp-shinned Hawks, Cooper’s Hawks, Northern Shrikes, Northern Pygmy-Owls, Gray Jays, and possibly squirrels, among other predators. When threatened, the finches freeze in a crouch, moving only their throats as they make very soft alarm calls.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Near Threatened

The Cassin’s Finch has been categorized as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List since 2004, and this species is on the 2014 State of the Birds Watch List, which lists species most in danger of extinction without significant conservation action. The North American Breeding Bird Survey reports an overall decline of 2.6 percent per year between 1966 and 2010, resulting in a cumulative decline of 69 percent. The bird’s numbers dropped in Oregon, Washington, the Northern Rockies, and British Columbia in the latter half of the twentieth century, although they rose in Nevada and South Dakota during that time. Partners in Flight estimates there are about 2.9 million Cassin’s Finches, with 95 percent spending some part of the year in the United States, 5 percent breeding in Canada, and 22 percent wintering in Mexico. Despite fairly high numbers, the declining population trends led Partners in Flight to categorize the Cassin's Finch as a Common Bird in Steep Decline and place it on the 2012 Watch List. It has a rating of 13 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score. Some populations of Cassin’s Finches move around from year to year rather than returning to the same site, which makes population trends difficult to measure. Some birds may be moving into suburban areas. Selective logging and small-scale clearcutting in forests are thought to be harmless for this species, which prefers open forest habitat. Additional studies are needed to determine the factors causing declines in populations.

Credits

Range Map Help

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Migration

Resident to medium-distance migrant. Many Cassin’s Finches remain on their breeding grounds year-round. Birds at the far north of the species’ breeding range move south in late summer or early fall. Some Cassin’s Finches move south into the mountains of Mexico, returning to their breeding grounds by April or May. Throughout their range, some birds move to lower elevations to avoid the coldest parts of winter.

Backyard Tips

Cassin’s Finches may come to sunflower seed feeders, especially during winter. They also eat visit many kinds of fruiting shrubs, including cotoneaster, mulberries, firethorn, grape, and apple. Find out more about what this bird likes to eat and what feeder is best by using the Project FeederWatch Common Feeder Birds bird list.

Find This Bird

Head to mountain forests of evergreens and quaking aspen to look for Cassin’s Finches. Listen for their fast, rolling songs and be alert for flocks of small seed-eating birds—Cassin’s Finches often forage in the company of crossbills, grosbeaks, or other finches, or visit mineral deposits to eat salt.

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