First Cassin’s finch visits Gorges backyard
Published Dec. 5, 2020, Wyoming Tribune Eagle.
By Barb Gorges
By early November, our winter feeder birds are back.
House finches are the most abundant and show up every day. Juncos come when the weather’s bad. This year we are regularly hosting two red-breasted nuthatches and two mountain chickadees.
Occasionally a downy woodpecker, flicker or collared-doves fly in. The goldfinches are unreliable, but their close cousins, the pine siskins, are showing up every day. That’s unusual for them, but they are part of the flock pushed south this year due to a bad seed crop in the north.
I was gazing out the window at the birds busily flitting about the feeders and patio paving below, then realized I was seeing an odd bird in the mix.
House finches are the faded brown birds with faded stripes down their breasts. The males have pale pink heads that get redder in the spring. Pine siskins have stripes too but are smaller and their stripes are very dark—plus on their wings they have a white bar and a flash of yellow.
The odd bird had the pine siskins’ dark breast stripes, but it was the size of the house finch. It couldn’t be dismissed as an aberrant house finch because there were light-colored markings on its head that house finches don’t have and the back of the top of its head was, well, kind of a pointy topknot. Time to get out the Sibley Field Guide to Birds: “Female Cassin’s Finch,” the 103rd species to fly over or into our yard.
The males have pink/red heads like house finches, but with the topknot being the brightest. Unlike the female, their breast stripes are very faint, fainter than the house finch’s.
To get an overview of everything known about a bird species, I go online to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s “Birds of North America Online,” but it doesn’t exist anymore. It’s been rolled into “Birds of the World,” https://birdsoftheworld.org/, where my subscription is still good ($49 per year, or by the month or discounted for three years).
When I pulled up the Cassin’s finch page, I was surprised to find a notation that I’d recorded this species in eBird seven times. Clicking on that link showed my two current observations, August last year in the Snowy Range, April 2014 and December 2013 in Hartville, June 2013 in a canyon in Washington State, and July 2011 at Upper North Crow Reservoir.
This is a finch that breeds in coniferous forests of the Rocky Mountains, from just over the Canadian border to northern New Mexico and Arizona.
It can migrate altitudinally, spending the winter at lower elevations (Hartville, in Platte County, is at only 4,600 feet and Cheyenne at 6,100, compared to 10,000 feet in the Snowies) or latitudinally, flying as far south as central Mexico. Sometimes they just hang out if the seed crop is good. The one that visited us must have lost her flock.
Cassin’s finch’s closest relative is the purple finch, an eastern species, diverging from it genetically 3 million years ago. It diverged from the house finch 9 million years ago.
Ornithologists have classified Cassin’s as a “cardueline” finch, a subfamily of finches of 184 species worldwide, including the Hawaiian honeycreeper species. In North America it includes the redpoll, pine and evening grosbeaks, pine siskins, goldfinches, rosy finches, crossbills and our “rosefinches”—house, purple and Cassin’s.
Besides sharing similar skull formation, cardueline species feed their young regurgitated seeds. Other perching birds feed theirs insects. Cardueline species can grip a plant stem and extract seeds from flower heads. I see house finches and goldfinches do that in my wildflower garden all the time.
Sparrows wait until the seeds fall to the ground—I’ve never seen a junco, a species of sparrow, pluck seeds from plants or feeders, though one was experimenting last year.
I was curious if “cardueline” came from the same origins as “card” in cardinals, named for the religious figures in red robes, but red wouldn’t hold for all the sub family species.
It’s from “carduus,” meaning wild thistle or artichoke. Artichoke is a giant thistle-type plant in the aster/sunflower family. And this makes perfect sense. These finches like to pluck seeds from flower heads, including thistle, coneflower, sunflower and aster.
I’m glad my cardueline finches can also pluck black oil sunflower seed out of our hanging tube feeder since it doesn’t take long to clean out the seeds in our garden.
We look forward to hosting the birds during a winter we can’t host people.