Gray-crowned Rosy Finch (Ceqpilunaq)

Artwork by Frank Keim

by Frank Keim

What an amazing finch (sparrow) this is. No one will see it during the nesting season unless you are exploring the high ridges of the highest mountain ranges in the LYK Delta. If you’re up there, though, there is no mistaking this friendly bird, since it is the only one that is curious and trustful enough to land within just a few feet of your face and check you out.

If you happen upon them feeding somewhere in those mountain fastnesses, they will let you walk right up to them. Once I stood next to one for 20 minutes feeding on a pile of leaf and grass litter left behind by small rodents as insulating material for their nest under the snow in winter.

From their wintering habitat at the edge of the Great Plains, they start for Alaska and mountain ranges as far north as the Brooks Range in March or April, and arrive in the high mountains of the Delta when there is still snow on the ground. They are tough birds, and as soon as they fatten up on wayward seeds and insects cast on the snow by high winds, their hormones begin to signal it’s time to get serious about nesting.

After a few preliminaries, including at least one courtship display where the male faces the female, half-spreads and lowers his wings, then raises and lowers them slowly, as in a series of bows. A buzzy cheeping call may be a part of the mix. Both sexes gather nesting material, but only the female constructs a bulky cup-shaped nest made of grass, rootlets, lichen and moss, then lines it with fine grass, hair and feathers. She builds it in a crack or hole in a cliff, or on a small cliff ledge under an overhang, and occasionally in a well-protected location on the ground.

The female lays 4-5 white eggs, sometimes with reddish-brown dots, and incubates them for about two weeks. Both parents help feed the young, which leave the nest after two to three weeks, then follow their parents who continue to feed them for another two or three weeks after fledging, usually into late July or early August, when they are on their own. The parent birds are monogamous, and a male will defend the nesting territory during the entire breeding and nesting season — and not just the immediate nesting spot but wherever the female and male go to feed.

Rosy finches feed mainly on the ground, but many fly up to catch insects in flight. During summer they eat mostly insects, including cutworms and others that were caught in mountain updrafts and frozen in snowfields. They also find much to eat in high meadows near snowfields, where the snow has recently melted. When breeding, both males and females develop throat pouches, known as gular sacs, to carry food to their chicks, something possessed by only one other North American bird, the Pine grosbeak.

With a bird as unique as this one, I’ll mention a few more cool facts about them:

—Although recently there was only one designated species of Rosy finch in North America, there are now three distinct species recognized, with the Gray-crowned rosy finch being the most widely distributed and abundant form.

—The Gray-crowned species is divided into six subspecies, with the Pribilof Island and Aleutian Island forms being particularly large, weighing twice as much as the smaller forms.

—Because of the remoteness of its breeding sites, few nests have ever been found.

—The oldest recorded bird was an Alaskan female who was 6 years, 7 months old, and she was still quite lively when she was released.

—Since there are Rosy finches in Eurasia, they have many other names, such as Roselin brun and Roselin a tete grise in French; Schwarzstirn-Schneegimpel in German; and Pinzon Montano Nuquigris in Spanish. I found no specific Yup’ik name for the bird, although they are known generically as ceqpilunaq (imitative?). Their scientific name is Leucosticte tephrocotis, Greek, meaning, white-dappled gray crown.