Species of Greatest Conservation Need: Brown-capped Rosy-Finch

Brown-capped Rosy Finch. All photos by © Joe Lewandowski/CPW

YOTB_stacked_KThe brown-capped rosy-finch goes by a delicate name, but it is one tough little bird that lives year-round in Colorado’s high country. While biologists don’t have much information about the brown-capped rosy-finch, there is concern that the population might be declining. Colorado Parks and Wildlife researchers, along with other collaborators, have started a project to learn more about the species and are inviting the state’s bird watchers to help gather information.

In CPW’s State Wildlife Action Plan, the brown-capped rosy-finch is identified as one of the 55 tier 1 “Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN)” in Colorado. Based on anecdotal evidence from the National Audubon Society’s Annual Christmas Bird Count, numbers of brown-capped rosy-finches are down, raising concern among scientists that climate change could be affecting the finch’s high-altitude habitat.

There are three species of rosy-finches ‒ brown-capped, gray-crowned and black. All reside at high altitudes, but each occupies a different breeding range and has a distinct plumage. CPW researchers are specifically studying the brown-capped rosy-finch, a bird almost solely endemic to Colorado.

“Anyone who has hiked above timberline or who lives in a mountain town has probably seen these birds,” said Amy Seglund, a Species Conservation Coordinator for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in Montrose. “But there is relatively little known about their life history. They nest on cliff faces, so it’s difficult to find and access their nests to determine how many eggs they typically lay, how their young survive and how far they travel throughout the year.”

In February, Seglund and fellow CPW Conservation Coordinator Liza Rossi teamed up with staffers from the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies and Erika Zavaleta, Ph.D., from the University of California at Santa Cruz to begin the study. They are capturing all three Rosy-Finch species at feeders near Telluride, Evergreen and Gunnison. After capture, they examine the birds to determine sex, age and body condition. They also attach a small band to a leg of each of the birds.

Colorado bird watchers are asked to keep an eye out for finches that have a blue, black, green or red band. If you see these, please send an email to the researchers at:  Rosyfinchreports@gmail.com

Banding has been used by avian researchers for decades to track bird movements. A blue or black band is being placed on the birds captured near Telluride, green bands are being placed on birds captured in Evergreen, and red bands are being placed on the birds captured in the Gunnison area.

Here’s how Colorado bird watchers can help with the study:

  • Report sightings with locations, species of Rosy-Finch, the number of birds and the band color to this email address: Rosyfinchreports@gmail.com.
  • Be as specific as possible regarding the locations.
  • Make a note of which leg the colored band is on if possible.
  • The colored bands are easy to see with binoculars when birds are at feeders or close by in trees.

“It will be extremely helpful to the study if people report sightings of banded birds. We know these birds are nomadic, but we don’t know if their movements are localized or if they travel farther across the landscape,” Seglund explained. “Getting an idea about their movements is very important to the study. By reporting sightings, bird watchers will contribute significantly to our understanding of the Rosy-Finch.”


The researchers will continue capturing birds throughout the winter. When the finches move to higher altitudes this spring and summer, CPW researchers will fan out across the tundra to try to find birds in their expected habitat. This survey work is known as an occupancy study and will help scientists determine how well-distributed the birds are in Colorado. The surveys will also provide density estimates, which allow researchers to evaluate long-term population trends.


Bird Conservancy of the Rockies

The Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, based on Colorado’s Front Range, is a conservation, education and research organization that aides agencies, private landowners and scientists with a wide variety of bird studies throughout the West. Zavaleta is focusing on the Brown-capped Rosy-Finch, but is also interested in the other two species.

Year of the Bird

2018 has been declared “the Year of the Bird” by National Geographic Society, the Audubon Society, BirdLife International and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. This is also the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Act Treaty, one of the most important laws ever enacted for wildlife conservation and protection. The treaty is between the U.S. and Canada. For more information on the Year of the Bird and related activities, please visit http://cpw.state.co.us/Year-of-the-Bird.

Written by Joe Lewandowski. Lewandowski is a public information officer for the Colorado Parks and Wildlife southwest region.

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