By Jeannie Marcure
Did you know that a group of finches can be called a charm, a company or a trembling? Personally, I like to refer to the group that frequents our feeders as a company, since their large, invasive flocks remind me of a military company or at times even a battalion!
The various members of the finch family are some of the most colorful birds in our area and the House Finch is one of our most common and easily attracted feeder birds. Sometimes, especially in the winter months, flocks of 30 or more visit our feeders regularly, entertaining us daily with their cheery songs and devouring sack upon sack of seed!! It was while observing one of these flocks a few years ago that I first discovered a bird that looked just a little different and after some study became acquainted with the Cassin’s Finch.
Named after John Cassin, America’s first taxonomist and a renowned curator of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, the Cassin’s Finch is slightly larger than the House Finch and appears to have a larger head and a longer neck. Although both have the chunky, conical bill typical of seed eaters, the Cassin’s bill is slightly longer and flat on top, while the upper bill of the House Finch is more rounded. If you are lucky enough to get to compare two males, the difference will be quite easy to see. The House Finch male has a band of red or orange on its forehead and a wash of color on its chest, while the male Cassin’s has a rich red crown, almost like a cherry on top of its head and perhaps a faint wash of pink or red on its throat and chest. This distinctive crown is often raised to produce a short and rather spiky crest. Separating the females is more difficult, but again the Cassin’s is slightly larger and appears to have a longer neck. Also, both the male and female Cassin’s have more distinctive facial markings than their House Finch counterparts.
At this point I would be remiss not to mention that there is a third species, the Purple Finch, which could easily be confused with the other two. However, unlike the Cassin’s and House Finch, the Purple Finch is a rather rare sighting in our area and for that reason I’ve chosen not to include it in my comparison. For a detailed account of how to separate these 3 similar finches, go to:www.birds.cornell.edu/pfw/AboutBirdsandFeeding/finchIDtable.html
House and Cassin’s Finch may also be distinguished by where they’re seen. As I mentioned earlier, House Finches are commonly seen throughout our area all year long, both in rural and urban areas, while Cassin’s Finches prefer to spend their summers at higher elevations in coniferous fir and spruce forests. However, during the winter months, the Cassin’s Finches move to lower elevations and the two may intermingle in large flocks. During this time the Cassin’s Finches will readily come to seed feeders, offering the host birder a chance to study them and hone their identification skills.
Cassin’s Finches breed in open stands of conifers throughout the western mountains of North America. Their favorite foods are seeds and buds and they are often seen foraging on the ground for these as well as insects, wild berries and rock salt. They especially crave the salt and frequently visit mineral deposits. According to Sibley, Cassin’s Finches are loosely colonial while nesting and the male defends the female and a small territory around the nest. They usually breed first at the age of one year or less and, interestingly, the juvenile males stay in their female-like plumage during this first breeding season but sing like the older, more colorful males. During courtship, the male raises his crest and flutters his wings rapidly. The female begs for food from her prospective mate by flapping her wings, crouching and emitting soft cries. The male then responds with either mock feeding or by actually regurgitating a small amount of food into the female’s mouth. The nest of mosses, twigs and roots is built primarily by the female and placed in a conifer. The 3-6 blue-green eggs have dark markings and are incubated for 12 to 14 days. The altricial young fledge after about 14 days.
Unfortunately, the Montana Bird Distribution Charts currently list Cassin’s Finch as a species of concern. The primary cause of their decline is thought to be the destruction of habitat due to logging and development.