Illustration by Diane Pierce
This noisy finch is relatively secretive during the breeding season, yet forms large, gregarious flocks during the winter. It is found during summer mainly in coniferous forests across boreal Canada and in the Rocky Mountains; its winter movements are both erratic and irruptive, likely due to fluctuating food supply. Polytypic. Length 8" (20 cm).
Identification A large, stocky, boldly patterned finch with a very short tail and heavy bill. Male: uniquely patterned, the body is a rich golden brown, becoming darker brown on head and black on crown. Both the forehead and eyebrows are bright golden yellow. The tail and wings are black; the latter has contrasting pure white secondaries and tertials. The pale yellowish green bill is large for a finch. Female: the body is grayish brown above, buffier on underparts, collar, and rump. The throat is almost whitish and has a distinctive dark malar stripe. Like the male, the wings are black, but the secondaries are not as pure white and have a dark edging, and a white base to the primaries forms a white patch visible in a folded wing. There are large white spots at the end of the tail. The wing and tail pattern are conspicuous in flight. Juvenile: the male looks like an adult male, only the body is a duller uniform brown and the eyebrows are a dull yellow. The female looks like the adult female.
Geographic Variation Three subspecies in North America. The eastern vespertinus tend to have shorter bills and broader yellow eyebrows than the southwestern montanus. Western brooksi is also long billed. Flight calls different.
Similar Species Only the hawfinch has a similar pattern.
Voice Call: flight calls of eastern birds a ringing clee-ip or peer; western birds give a clear, whistled tew, similar to the olive warbler but louder. Song: seldom heard and poorly described.
Status and Distribution Breeding: coniferous forest and mixed woods, mainly in mountains in the west. Winter: Sometimes common at lower elevations and south of breeding range. Often seen in flocks at seed feeders. Rare to casual in southern states. Vagrant: casual in spring north to Alaska.
—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006
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