A community science project studies the elusive, snow-loving rosy-finch
Rosy-finches are elusive birds that live high in the snowy mountains of the western United States. Researchers are tracking these birds to understand how their populations are faring in the face of climate change, and how to protect rosy-finches in the future.
I’m standing in the entryway of a lodge at the Powder Mountain ski resort, staring out the window at a mesh box sitting in the snow. Flitting in and out of the box are groups of small brown and pink birds, feasting on the sunflower seeds scattered inside. These snow-loving birds are rosy-finches, a handful of species that scientists know very little about. The box is a trap designed to capture these colorful birds so we can learn more about them.
Courtney Check, a graduate student at Utah State University and a rosy-finch research volunteer, explained that they’re extremely tough birds.
“There's like ten feet of snow out here. There's nothing around. And you know, you look at them and they're really healthy, they're full of fat. It's amazing that they're able to survive in such a harsh environment like this,” Check said.
While their hardiness is admirable, their love for harsh environments makes rosy-finches particularly hard to study.
“They hang out on the tippy tops of mountains on the tallest gnarliest cliffs, and they are just really hard to access. Rock climbers are some of the few people that have ever found a rosy-finch nest,” Janice Gardner, an ecologist at Sageland Collaborative, explained.
Many bird populations are struggling as the impacts of climate change deepen. Recently, Sageland Collaborative and a number of other organizations across the western United States have come together to study rosy-finches in an attempt to protect them from climate change and habitat degradation.
Cooper Farr, the director of conservation at Tracy Aviary, said that studying the three rosy-finch species that occur in Utah is critical to their survival.
“All three of these species are really some of the least studied birds in North America, so we’ve got these really big data gaps that limit our understanding, and so, we’re interested in trying to fill these data gaps with the hope that we can help these species persist.”
Back at Powder Mountain, a volunteer quickly yanks a string, and a door on the side of the mesh box closes, safely trapping a handful of finches inside for some quick measurements and attachment of identification bands.
Adam Brewerton, a wildlife conservation biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, described one of the rosy-finch species caught during my visit.
“It’s a gray-crowned rosy-finch. It's called “gray-crowned” because it has a very nice gray crown on the top of its head. The gray-crowned rosy-finch is mostly brown bodied, and then it has these pink feather kind of throughout its wing and across its rump. And then based off of this molting pattern, we can tell that it was born just last summer,” Brewerton said.
Taking measurements and banding birds this small is a delicate procedure.
“You’re kind of holding them firmly in one hand, while in the other hand, you know, you’re banding and taking measurements. There's all kinds of special banding tools to use, there's a special thing to open the bands and clip them on…and it's a careful process. And so, especially holding them up close, you can just really appreciate how beautiful they are,” Check explained.
Banding birds is time-consuming, but researchers can learn valuable information about where the birds came from or how long they’ve survived when someone spots them out in the wild. Many researchers across the world are banding birds, but Gardner said the Rosy-finch Project is special because researchers are attaching special bands to the finches with RFID chips embedded in them, giving us important insight into the birds’ populations.
“So this is kind of the same thing like if you microchip your pets. We put a little bracelet on the birds. And then some of our research bird feeders have the antennas that log the birds’ visits so we can keep track that the bird is yes, indeed, still around and still surviving through the winter and year to year,” Gardner explained.
These special RFID feeders are placed at ski resorts like Powder Mountain and Alta, which are favorite feedings sites for rosy-finches. Kristin Purdy, a volunteer at Powder Mountain, shared the sheer amount of data these feeders can record from the tagged birds.
“The first year Alta had 4,900 hits when this guy had 13,000. Last year, Alta had 9,000. This guy had 33,000. I know, I know! So this I mean, the amount of data we get off of this feeder is really great.”
The Rosy-finch Project relies on volunteers like Purdy to collect data from the RFID bird feeders and to conduct bird counts at regular feeders. Farr believes getting volunteers involved has been a great way to empower the public to care about the conservation of these birds.
“We have almost 200 volunteers that have been involved over the past few years, who go out and they go to bird feeder locations, either at their homes, or you know, ski areas or other places where you might see rosy-finches. And they go out and do these 20-minute counts to see if any of these three species come into the feeders. And so that really gives us a lot of new information about where these birds are, how they're distributed, some of the timing of when they're in certain places,” Farr said.
While the Rosy-finch Project is winding down for the year, there are summer volunteer opportunities related to rosy-finch habitat through Sageland Collaborative, or keep an eye out for rosy-finch feeder count volunteer information this fall. Learn more at https://sagelandcollaborative.org/.