Today’s column was created by Susan Patla in an act of considerable kindness; she’s a busy nongame biologist with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. You’ll like it. Last Tuesday’s storm brought in more than snow and wind. A number of black rosy-finches appeared at local bird feeders along with gray-crowned rosy-finches, which often hang around Jackson throughout the winter.
The diminutive black rosy-finch, with striking pink highlights, is a lover of wind-swept alpine ridges. It nests at over 11,000 feet elevation. Not surprisingly it is one of the least-studied birds in Wyoming, if not North America. In summer black rosy-finches can be found in the high mountain ranges of western Wyoming, southwest Montana, central Idaho and northern Utah and Nevada. They winter in mountain valleys as far south as northern New Mexico and Arizona.
Over the next few years, we expect to learn more about this species thanks to two recently funded studies: a banding study supported by the Meg and Bert Raynes Wildlife Fund and the Biodiversity Research Institute and a graduate habitat study supported by Wyoming Game and Fish State Wildlife Grant money and the University of Wyoming.
The isolated, high-elevation nesting habitat not only makes research difficult but has also fomented continued disputes over the taxonomy of the rosy-finch genus overall (Leucosticte — Greek for dabbled white in reference to the variegated colors of males). Ornithologists argue over whether there are different species of this bird, such as the three species found in Wyoming, or just geographic variants of the same species. To split or lump … Ah, that is the question.
The gray-crowned rosy-finch nests farther north and west with a range extending up to the Aleutian Islands, northern Alaska and the Yukon. It has a number of subspecies. Olaus Murie, in fact, described and named a subspecies on the Pribilof Islands in 1944.
The brown-capped rosy-finch has a much more restricted range in western Colorado, with a few birds slipping into northern New Mexico and southeast Wyoming to nest.
A species, as defined by Christopher Leahy in “The Birdwatcher’s Companion,” is a group of organisms that freely interbreeds and is isolated reproductively from other groups. In one of the only studies completed on rosy-finches, Norman French in the 1950s reported finding zones of interbreeding between black and gray-crowned rosy-finches along a 50-mile-long zone on the Montana-Idaho border in the Bitterroot Mountains. However, given that such overlap is limited and that birds may have strong fidelity to the mountain range where they hatched, these finches are still considered separate species. But stay tuned.
A recent paper out of Europe suggests that all eight described species of rosy-finch (or mountain finch) found in North America and Eurasia should be lumped. If this were to happen, one could expect much howling from the uber-listers of the birding world. Perhaps some of the future work in Wyoming will help throw light on this species puzzle.
Katy Duffy and Carl Brown successfully trapped and banded 10 black and five gray-crowned rosy-finches with federal silver leg bands. The blacks also were marked with two colored leg bands on the left leg to identify individuals. Band reports from these birds may provide some clue as to where these birds that show up in Jackson in March-April nest and winter. Any observations of black rosy-finches, banded or not, would be greatly appreciated. Call or text Carl at 360-601-3736. Citizen science in action!
Field Notes: A long-billed curlew tagged with a satellite transmitter on the National Elk Refuge last year by the Intermountain Bird Observatory (another Raynes Wildlife funded project) showed up in town this past week also. After wintering on the coast of Mexico south of Mazatlan, this hardy migrant stopped over in New Mexico for a week before zooming back home to hopefully nest successfully again.
Raptors continue to court and build nests madly. Great gray owls are settling in on eggs. A red-naped sapsucker was working his way around an aspen tree pausing to get a drink from the dripper. The song of ruby-crowned kinglets has begun to fill the air along with chattering finches, melodious robins, cooing doves, and chorus frogs. The melody of the Western meadowlark can be particularly charming this time of year, but recent reports of meadowlarks feasting on juncos and other small finches during the recent storm in eastern Wyoming has somewhat colored how one might interpret their song.
Earth Day is this week. Celebrate in style at the Center for the Arts, courtesy of the Nature Conservancy and Jackson Wildlife Film Festival. There will be free events on Sunday: Picnic for the Planet, 2-5 p.m., followed by the Wild and Scenic Film Festival, 6-8:30 Included in the activities will be a showing of a short film produced by Jen-Ten on Meg and Bert Raynes — so appropriate for that day.