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Brown-capped Rosy-Finches' love of snow, ice, and frigid temperatures is matched only by their love of altitudes. No other North American species from the Mexican border up breeds at as high an elevation, and they will stay in these areas even in chilling -35 C winters as long as snow depth does not obscure their food sources. They have a very restricted range which barely extends beyond the high peaks of Colorado.
The Brown-capped Rosy-Finch is a stocky, medium-sized finch. Males are cinnamon-brown overall with rosey-tipped feathers in the rump, belly, tail, and bend of wing. In contrast to the other two species of North American rosy-finches, the male Brown-capped lacks the gray on the back of the head. In flight, the underwings look silver. The female is similar-looking, but both the browns and the reds are of a much lighter shade.
The Brown-capped Rosy-Finch is found almost exclusively in Colorado, but its range extends from Southern Wyoming to North-Central New Mexico. It does not migrate but moves to lower elevations when snow cover covers high altitude food sources. Audubon Colorado has identified Rocky Mountain National Park as an Important Bird Area that is thought to support a breeding population of 1,000-2,000 Brown-capped Rosy-Finches. It is considered rare in Wyoming and rare to uncommon in New Mexico. Christmas Bird Count data seem to indicate a steady decline over the last 30 years with average annual total counts of over a thousand in the 1970's compared to about 500 in the 1990's, but more detailed analysis is needed.
In the breeding season, Brown-capped Rosy-Finches build their nests on cliffs or in caves, rock slides, or old buildings above the timberline in areas offering protection from precipitant rocks or weather and predators. They dine on seeds and insects, seeking them on rock slides, the tundra, snowfields, fellfields, and glaciers. In the winter, they eat seeds and can be found in open areas such as alpine tundra, high parks, meadows, valleys of grass, or shrubland. Males' territoriality is focused on the location of their mates at any one time rather than on a geographic area. Nests are made of grass, stems, rootlets, and mud. After hatching, young stay in the nest between 14 and 20 days and can feed themselves within two weeks after they fledge. Normally, only one clutch is produced in a season; however, replacement clutches are sometimes laid.
This species' limited range and recent drop in population make it a conservation concern. In addition, there have been few systematic studies of this species because of the difficulty of accessing its habitat and nesting sites. Thus, much information is speculative; a better understanding of the effects of human disturbance would be helpful. The species requirements during the non-breeding season particularly need further study as little is known about how much of different habitat types and natural food sources are needed to sustain healthy populations. Birds may only occasionally need certain "life-saving" habitats or food under extreme snow cover conditions but lack of such habitats or foods may increase mortality in unusual years.
No conservation actions have been directed at this species. Most high-altitude breeding areas are within protected areas or are largely protected because of their inaccessibility. However, the species is not adequately monitored or studied and consequently little is known about potential threats and causes for the apparent decline. Actions to protect lower elevation habitats that are used by the species, especially those in proximity to known breeding areas, are likely to be beneficial.
What Can You Do?
Audubon's Important Bird Area program is a vital tool for the conservation of Brown-capped Rosy-Finches as well as other species. To learn more about the Important Bird Areas program and how you can help visit: http://www.audubon.org/bird/iba/
Support local land trusts, government agencies, and other organizations working to preserve habitat in your area. Contact your state Important Bird Areas coordinator (http://www.audubon.org/bird/iba/state_coords.html) to find out if there are sites in your area important for Brown-capped Rosy-Finch that need increased protection.
Volunteers are crucial to the success of programs that monitor the status of populations of Brown-capped Rosy-Finch and other bird species. Audubon's Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is one of the longest-running citizen-science monitoring programs in the world and has helped to follow changes in the numbers and distribution of Brown-capped Rosy-Finch. To learn more about the CBC and how you can participate, visit: http://www.audubon.org/bird/cbc
Information on where Brown-capped Rosy-Finch occurs and in what numbers is vital to conserving the species. Help in monitoring this and other species by reporting your sightings to eBird. A project of Audubon and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, eBird is the world's first comprehensive on-line bird monitoring program: http://www.audubon.org/bird/ebird/index.html
Johnson, R. E, P. Hendricks, D.L. Pattie, K.B. Hunter. 2000. Brown-capped Rosy-Finch (Leucosticte australis). In The Birds of North America, No. 536 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia, PA, and The American Ornithologists' Union, Washington, D. C.
Kaufman, K.. 1996. Lives of North American Birds. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, MA.