The black rosy-finch is much easier to find during the winter.
During the summer months, if you want to see a black rosy-finch, cinch up your hiking boots. The adventure will take you above tree-line and into the rocks, snowbanks and cliffs of the alpine world, about as high as you can go in any given area. These hardy little songbirds claim the highest ranges of the west as home and some biologists consider them one of the highest-elevation breeding vertebrates. Their range includes the highest mountains in northeast Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Wyoming and Colorado.
During the winter, finding black rosy-finches is a different story. These high-country denizens migrate vertically, meaning that they don’t really head south, but rather, just head to lower elevations in the same area. We discovered this last week in Yellowstone National Park where we encountered three different flocks of black rosy-finches along the road between Mammoth and Cooke City. These handsome chunky songbirds sport a gray cap that does not extend below the eye, a black forehead and chin, mostly dark gray to brown-black body with pink highlights on the wings and belly.
When snow piles up in the alpine country, it is not uncommon for these birds to find their way to bird feeding stations at lower elevations where they gorge on black oil sunflower and nijer seeds, preferring platform feeders or foraging off the ground. Sometimes they band together in huge flocks of up to 1,000 birds and forage along the margins of melting snow. They may also mingle with other species of rosy-finches or other small birds.
These are fascinating birds. For instance, the male defends a territory, but the territory isn’t a chunk of granite or a meadow. It is wherever his lady-friend happens to be. She is his territory and wherever she is, he is close by, ready to drive off intruders.
As might be expected, food is often scarce in the alpine world, requiring extended trips that may be up to 2.5 miles long. To facilitate this, black rosy-finches have a pouch at the bottom of their mouth where they can haul extra food back to the nestlings.
Black rosy-finches share a close relationship with brown-capped rosy-finches (of Colorado), gray-capped rosy- finches of the coastal mountains from Northern California to Alaska and the Asian rosy-finch of, well, Asia. These species are so closely related that from 1983-1993, they were considered a single superspecies. They also share relationships with other members of the finch family such as crossbills, evening and pine grosbeaks, goldfinches, Cassin’s finch, redpolls and more.
The crazy thing about black rosy-finches is that there are so few of them. The total population is estimated to be only 20,000 individuals with a very limited and disjunct breeding range. A breeding range map for black rosy-finches look like a bunch of amoebas scattered along the highest mountain ranges in the central portion of the Rocky Mountains. That alone is enough for Partners in Flight to list them as a Red Watch List species, with a Continental Concern score of 17 of a possible 20, a dubious honor they share with only 18 other bird species.
Part of the concern about black rosy-finches is climate change. As the climate warms, the breeding habitat for these birds will shrink as the treeline, the place where trees stop growing, creeps up hill. Since they already live at the tops of the mountains, there really isn’t much room for them to move. Some habitat will open up as the last of the permanent snowfields melt, but this may only delay the inevitable.
I hope that black rosy-finches will be able to adapt to climate changes that will transform their world. Until then, I would love to share my bird feeders with them.
Help Idaho Wildlife
When we traveled across the state in October 2017, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates. Buying wildlife plates is a great way for non-hunters and hunters alike to support wildlife-based recreation like birding.
C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles!
See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live.
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Island Park Builders Supply (upstairs)
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Harriman State Park, Island Park
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho