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Cassin's Finch Life History


ForestsCassin’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.Back to top


SeedsCassin’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. Back to top


Nest Placement

TreeThe 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.

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.

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.
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Ground ForagerCassin’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.Back to top


DecliningThe Cassin’s Finch has been categorized as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List since 2004, and this species is on the 2016 State of North America's Birds' Watch List, which includes bird species that are most at risk of extinction without significant conservation actions to reverse declines and reduce threats. Declines are particularly noteworthy in the Northeast. Partners in Flight estimates a global breeding population of 2.9 million, with 95% spending some part of the year in the U.S., 5% breeding in Canada, and 22% wintering in Mexico. It is a U.S.-Canada Stewardship species, and rates a 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. Back to top


Hahn, Thomas P. (1996). Cassin's Finch (Haemorhous cassinii), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2019). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2019. Version 2.07.2019. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

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