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Montana Animal Field Guide

Montana Field Guides

Cassin's Finch - Haemorhous cassinii

Species of Concern

Global Rank: G5
State Rank: S3

Agency Status
PIF: 3


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Copyright by Borror Laboratory of Bioacoustics, Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology, Ohio State University, Columbus, OH, all rights reserved.
General Description
Cassin's Finch is the largest of the North American Carpodacus finches (includes Purple Finch and House Finch); length is 14.5-15.5 cm (5.7-6.1 inches). Adults are sexually dimorphic in plumate traits. Adult males have rose-red coloration on the head throat and upper breast, the crown is bright pinkish-red contrasting with the paler nape and back; rump and upper tail coverts are dull rose-pink and streaked with brown. The lower breast and belly appear generally whitish, the undertail coverts with fine brown streaks. Females have an overall brownsih plumage; the head has supercillium and submoustacial regions with fine brown streaks, back and rump dusky and streaked with brown, the throat, breast and flanks whitish with crisp brown streaks. Juneniles and immatures resemble females.

For a comprehensive review of the conservation status, habitat use, and ecology of this and other Montana bird species, please see Marks et al. 2016, Birds of Montana.

Diagnostic Characteristics
Male Cassin's Finch has fine streaking on the undertail coverts and flanks, in contrast to pure white of the Purple Finch. In females and immature males, breast and flanks more cleanly white and more finely streaked in Cassin’s Finch than in Purple Finch. Larger and more chunky than the House Finch. Red on male House Finch is usually brighter and oranger, not rose-red. Male Cassin's Finch is much less streaked on the lower breast and belly than male House Finch; female Cassin's Finch with a noticable supercilliary stripe lacking in female House Finches, and the breast streaking more distinct and less diffuse. Cassin's Finch the only of the three Carpodacus finches routinely encountered higher in the mountains.

Species Range
Montana Range

Click the legend blocks above to view individual ranges.

Western Hemisphere Range


Range Comments
Cassin’s Finches occur year-round in the mountains west of the Great Plains and east of the Cascades from southeastern British Columbia and southwestern Alberta south to southern California, northern Arizona, and northern New Mexico; an isolated population occurs in Baja California Norte. They winter as far south as the interior mountains of central Mexico, well south of the known breeding range (Howell and Webb 1995, Hahn 1996).

Summary of Observations Submitted for Montana
Number of Observations: 2841

(Click on the following maps and charts to see full sized version) Map Help and Descriptions
Relative Density


(direct evidence "B")

(indirect evidence "b")

No evidence of Breeding
(transient "t")

(regular observations "W")

(at least one obs. "w")


(Observations spanning multiple months or years are excluded from time charts)

Cassin’s Finches are short-distance elevational or latitudinal migrants in some parts of their range, the movements somewhat irregular and possibly dependent on food supply (Hahn 1996). In Montana, flocks have been reported to arrive from early March to April and depart from September to October (Hand 1969, Skaar 1969, Weydemeyer 1973). Flocks usually contain fewer than a dozen birds, but 30 were seen at Missoula on 20 February 1949 (Hand 1953).

Cassin’s Finches occur in every major forest type and timber-harvest regime in Montana, including riparian cottonwood, but are especially common in ponderosa pine and postfire forests; they occur less often in lodgepole pine, sagebrush, and grassland (Manuwal 1983, Hutto and Young 1999). They often visit bird feeders and occasionally venture into alpine terrain (Johnson 1966, Pattie and Verbeek 1966).

Ecological Systems Associated with this Species
  • Details on Creation and Suggested Uses and Limitations
    How Associations Were Made
    We associated the use and habitat quality (high, medium, or low) of each of the 82 ecological systems mapped in Montana for vertebrate animal species that regularly breed, overwinter, or migrate through the state by:
    1. Using personal observations and reviewing literature that summarize the breeding, overwintering, or migratory habitat requirements of each species (Dobkin 1992, Hart et al. 1998, Hutto and Young 1999, Maxell 2000, Foresman 2001, Adams 2003, and Werner et al. 2004);
    2. Evaluating structural characteristics and distribution of each ecological system relative to the species’ range and habitat requirements;
    3. Examining the observation records for each species in the state-wide point database associated with each ecological system;
    4. Calculating the percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system to get a measure of “observations versus availability of habitat”.
    Species that breed in Montana were only evaluated for breeding habitat use, species that only overwinter in Montana were only evaluated for overwintering habitat use, and species that only migrate through Montana were only evaluated for migratory habitat use.  In general, species were associated as using an ecological system if structural characteristics of used habitat documented in the literature were present in the ecological system or large numbers of point observations were associated with the ecological system.  However, species were not associated with an ecological system if there was no support in the literature for use of structural characteristics in an ecological system, even if point observations were associated with that system.  High, medium, and low habitat quality was assigned based on the degree to which the structural characteristics of an ecological system matched the preferred structural habitat characteristics for each species in the literature.  The percentage of observations associated with each ecological system relative to the percent of Montana covered by each ecological system was also used to guide assignments of habitat quality.  If you have any questions or comments on species associations with ecological systems, please contact Bryce Maxell at or (406) 444-3655.

    Suggested Uses and Limitations
    Species associations with ecological systems should be used to generate potential lists of species that may occupy broader landscapes for the purposes of landscape-level planning.  These potential lists of species should not be used in place of documented occurrences of species (this information can be requested at: or systematic surveys for species and evaluations of habitat at a local site level by trained biologists.  Users of this information should be aware that the land cover data used to generate species associations is based on imagery from the late 1990s and early 2000s and was only intended to be used at broader landscape scales.  Land cover mapping accuracy is particularly problematic when the systems occur as small patches or where the land cover types have been altered over the past decade.  Thus, particular caution should be used when using the associations in assessments of smaller areas (e.g., evaluations of public land survey sections).  Finally, although a species may be associated with a particular ecological system within its known geographic range, portions of that ecological system may occur outside of the species’ known geographic range.

    Literature Cited
    • Adams, R.A.  2003.  Bats of the Rocky Mountain West; natural history, ecology, and conservation.  Boulder, CO: University Press of Colorado.  289 p.
    • Dobkin, D. S.  1992.  Neotropical migrant land birds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. USDA Forest Service, Northern Region. Publication No. R1-93-34.  Missoula, MT.
    • Foresman, K.R.  2001.  The wild mammals of Montana.  Special Publication No. 12.  Lawrence, KS: The American Society of Mammalogists.  278 p.
    • Hart, M.M., W.A. Williams, P.C. Thornton, K.P. McLaughlin, C.M. Tobalske, B.A. Maxell, D.P. Hendricks, C.R. Peterson, and R.L. Redmond. 1998.  Montana atlas of terrestrial vertebrates.  Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, University of Montana, Missoula, MT.  1302 p.
    • Hutto, R.L. and J.S. Young.  1999.  Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station RMRS-GTR-32.  72 p.
    • Maxell, B.A.  2000.  Management of Montana’s amphibians: a review of factors that may present a risk to population viability and accounts on the identification, distribution, taxonomy, habitat use, natural history, and the status and conservation of individual species.  Report to U.S. Forest Service Region 1.  Missoula, MT: Wildlife Biology Program, University of Montana.  161 p.
    • Werner, J.K., B.A. Maxell, P. Hendricks, and D. Flath.  2004.  Amphibians and reptiles of Montana.  Missoula, MT: Mountain Press Publishing Company. 262 p.

Food Habits
Foods include seeds, especially of grasses, composites, conifers, alders, and birches, as well as buds, leaves, and invertebrates (including spruce budworm larvae).

A male Cassin's Finch’s breeding territory is centered around a female rather than on a specific piece of terrain, in part because populations contain many more males than females, so competition for females is intense (Samson 1976). During winter, Cassin’s Finches form dominance hierarchies, similar to other species that gather in flocks after the breeding season. However, females tend to dominate males, a trait shared by House Finches and Purple Finches but few other passerine species (Samson 1977). Why females are dominant over males is not clear, but it may relate to a nomadic life style that results in a lack of site fidelity to specific winter areas, lack of stable flock membership, and a male-biased sex ratio. Nevertheless, survival of females in winter is enhanced by preferential access to food and roosting sites. Cassin’s Finches were one of three finch species that regularly appeared in flocks during summer on the grounds of the University of Montana’s Biological Station on Flathead Lake. Outdoor experiments conducted by Bennetts and Hutto (1985) demonstrated that the finches were attracted to bare soils containing increased concentrations of sodium and calcium salts from building construction, but it wasn’t clear why the finches had an extra-dietary need for these salts. BBS data from 1980-2007 suggest a nonsignificant decline in numbers of 7.9% per year in Montana and a significant decline of 3.9% per year survey-wide. Cassin’s Finches were recorded every winter on Montana CBCs from 1979-80 to 2009-10 (mean = 92 per winter), with a high of 203 birds on nine counts in 2000-01 (0.16 birds per party hour) and a low of six birds on two counts in the winter of 1980-81 (0.01 birds per party hour). The largest single counts were 144 birds at Hamilton on 30 December 1988 and 105 at Libby on 18 December 1993.

Reproductive Characteristics
Generally a single-brooded species with 4 to 5 eggs per clutch. Incubation period is 12 to 14 days. Young are able to fly about 14 days after hatching. Breeding has been poorly documented in Montana but generally occurs from late May through July (Skaar 1969, Weydemeyer 1975, Montana Bird Distribution Committee 2012). A nest found under construction on 29 May 1968 at Lubrecht Experimental Forest was the first reported for the state; it was later abandoned (Manuwal 1968). A nest was found under construction on 20 June 1996 at Bear Canyon in the Pryor Mountains, and two nests were reported on 11 July 1993 between Miles City and Mizpah. The nest is an open cup of twigs, grasses, and rootlets placed near the tip of a tree branch. Montana nests have been reported 9 m above the ground in Douglas-fir and 2 m above ground in big sagebrush (Manuwal 1968; P. Hendricks, personal obsservation).

No management activities specific to Cassin's Finch are currently occuring in Montana. Cassin’s Finches are one of the more abundant birds in early postfire conifer forests, where their numbers can increase significantly regardless of fire severity; attraction to these sites may result from increased seed resources. They also are attracted to harvested forests and stands where postfire salvage logging has occurred, although these habitats may serve as ecological traps (Hutto 1995, Hutto and Young 1999, Smucker et al. 2005). Given their occurrence in burned and harvested forests, the population declines that have been identified recently are difficult to explain.

Threats or Limiting Factors
No significant threats have been identified that account for apparent population declines, unless recent extent of severe wildland fire in conifer forests has produced postfire ecological traps for Cassin's Finches. There is no evidence that the incidence of Mycoplasmal Conjuntivitis or West Nile Virus among Cassin's Finches is as extreme as in some populations of House Finches in the western U.S.

  • Literature Cited AboveLegend:   View Online Publication
    • Bennetts, R.E. and R.L. Hutto. 1985. Attraction of social Fringillids to mineral salts: an experimental study. Journal of Field Ornithology 56(2): 187-189.
    • Hand, R. L. 1969. A distributional checklist of the birds of western Montana. Unpublished. Available at Mansfield Library, University of Montana, Missoula.
    • Hand, R.L. 1953. Bird notes from western Montana. Condor 55:44-46.
    • Howell, S. N. G., and S. Webb. 1995. A guide to the birds of Mexico and northern Central America. Oxford University Press, Oxford, United Kingdom.
    • Hutto, R. L., and J. S. Young. 1999. Habitat relationships of landbirds in the Northern Region, USDA Forest Service. U.S. Forest Service General Technical Report RMRS-GTR-32, Ogden, Utah.
    • Johnson, R. E. 1966. Alpine birds of the Little Belt Mountains, Montana. Wilson Bulletin 78:225-227.
    • Manuwal, D. 1968. Breeding bird populations in the coniferous forests of western Montana. M.S. thesis. University of Montana, Missoula. 176 pp.
    • Manuwal, D. A.  1983.  Avian abundance and guild structure in two Montana coniferous forests. Murrelet 64(1):1-11.
    • Marks, J.S., P. Hendricks, and D. Casey. 2016. Birds of Montana. Arrington, VA. Buteo Books. 659 pages.
    • Montana Bird Distribution Committee. 2012. P.D. Skaar's Montana bird distribution. 7th Edition. Montana Audubon, Helena, Montana. 208 pp. + foldout map.
    • Pattie, D.L. and N.A.M. Verbeek. 1966. Alpine birds of the Beartooth Mountains. Condor 68: 167-176.
    • Samson, F.B. 1976. Territory, breeding density, and fall departure in Cassin's finch. The Auk 93(3): 477-497.
    • Samson, F.B. 1977. Social dominance in winter flocks of Cassin's finch. The Wilson Bulletin 89(1): 57-66.
    • Skaar, P.D. 1969. Birds of the Bozeman latilong: a compilation of data concerning the birds which occur between 45 and 46 N. latitude and 111 and 112 W. longitude, with current lists for Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, impinging Montana counties and Yellowstone National Park. Bozeman, MT. 132 p.
    • Smucker, K.M., R.L Hutto, and B.M. Steele. 2005. Changes in bird abundance after wildfire: importance of fire severity and time since fire. Ecological Applications 15(5): 1535.
    • Weydemeyer, W. 1973. The spring migration pattern at Fortine, Montana. Condor 75:400-413.
    • Weydemeyer, W. 1975. Half-century record of the breeding birds of the Fortine area, Montana: Nesting data and population status. Condor 77:281-287.
  • Additional ReferencesLegend:   View Online Publication
    Do you know of a citation we're missing?
    • American Ornithologists’ Union [AOU]. 1998. Check-list of North American birds, 7th edition. American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C. 829 p.
    • Casey, D. 2000. Partners in Flight Draft Bird Conservation Plan Montana. Version 1.0. 287 pp.
    • Clement, P. 1993. Finches and sparrows: an identification guide. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton. 500 pp.
    • Confluence Consulting Inc. 2011. Montana Department of Transportation Wetland Mitigation Monitoring Reports (various sites). MDT Helena, MT.
    • Dobkin, D. S. 1992. Neotropical migrant landbirds in the Northern Rockies and Great Plains. U.S.D.A. For. Serv. N. Region Publ. R1-93-34. Missoula, Mont.
    • ECON, Inc., Helena, MT., 1987, Wildlife and habitat characterization, Paupers Dream Mine Project Site, Lewis & Clark and Jefferson Counties, Montana. June 25, 1987. In Pangea Mining Co., Inc., Paupers Dream Project.
    • Ehrlich, P., D. Dobkin, and D. Wheye. 1988. The birder’s handbook: a field guide to the natural history of North American birds. Simon and Schuster Inc. New York. 785 pp.
    • Eng, Robert. L., 1976?, Wildlife Baseline Study [for West Fork of the Stillwater and Picket Pin drainages]
    • Farmer, Patrick J., and Thomas W. Butts, Western Technology & Eng., Inc., Helena, MT., 1994, McDonald Project Terrestrial Wildlife Study, November 1989 - November 1993. April 1994. In McDonald Gold Project: Wildlife & Fisheries. [#18]. Seven-up Pete Joint Venture, Lincoln, MT. Unpub. No date.
    • Farmer, Patrick. J., et al., Western Technology and Eng., Inc., Helena, MT., 1984, Montana Tunnels Project Baseline Terrestrial Wildlife Study. December 14, 1984. In Application for a Hard Rock Operating Permit, Montana Tunnels Project, Jefferson County, Montana. Vol. 3. Environmental Baseline Reports. (Centennial Minerals, Inc., Hydrometrics, 1984?)
    • Goodell, J. 2012. Morse Land Company Breeding Bird Inventory And Analysis. High Desert Museum. Bend, OR. 42 pp + Appendices.
    • Hahn, T.P. 1996. Cassin's finch (Carpodacus cassinii). Species Account Number 240. The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, ed.). Ithaca, NY: Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology; Retrieved 3/25/2008 from The Birds of North America Online database
    • Hoffmann, R. S. 1960. Summer birds of the Little Belt Mountains, Montana. Occasional Papers of Montana State University No. 1, Missoula.
    • Hutto, Richard L. 1995. "Composition of Bird Communities Following Stand-Replacement Fires in Northern Rocky Mountain (U.S.A.) Conifer Forests". Conservation Biology. 9 (5): 1041-1058.
    • Johnsgard, P.A. 1992. Birds of the Rocky Mountains with particular reference to national parks in the northern Rocky Mountain region. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. xi + 504 pp.
    • Lenard, S., J. Carlson, J. Ellis, C. Jones, and C. Tilly. 2003. P. D. Skaar’s Montana bird distribution, 6th edition. Montana Audubon, Helena, MT. 144 pp.
    • Mewaldt, L. R., and J. R. King. 1985. Breeding site faithfulness, reproductive biology, and adult survivorship in an isolated population of Cassin's finches. Condor 87: 494-510.
    • OEA Research, Helena, MT., 1982, Beal Mine Wildlife Report. June 17, 1982.
    • Saunders, A. A. 1912. A horseback trip across Montana. Condor 14:215-220.
    • Sibley, D. 2014. The Sibley guide to birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY. 598 pp.
    • Skaar, P. D., D. L. Flath, and L. S. Thompson. 1985. Montana bird distribution. Montana Academy of Sciences Monograph 3(44): ii-69.
    • Stearns-Roger Inc., 1975, Environmental baseline information of the Mount Vernon Region, Montana. January 31, 1975.
    • Sullivan, S.L., W.H. Pyle, and S.G. Herman. 1986. Cassin's finch nesting in big sagebrush. Condor 88:378-379.
    • Thomas, J. W. (ed). 1979. Wildlife habitats in managed forests: the Blue Mountains of Oregon and Washington. Agriculture Handbook 553, USDA, Forest Service, Wildlife Management Institute, Washington, DC. 512 pp.
    • Thompson, Richard W., Western Resource Dev. Corp., Boulder, CO., 1996, Wildlife baseline report for the Montana [Montanore] Project, Lincoln and Sanders counties, Montana. In Application for a Hard Rock Operating Permit and Proposed Plan of Operation, Montanore Project, Lincoln and Sanders Counties, Montana. Vol. 5. Stroiazzo, John. Noranda Minerals Corp., Libby, MT. Revised September 1996.
    • U.S. Forest Service. 1991. Forest and rangeland birds of the United States: Natural history and habitat use. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service Agricultural Handbook 688. 625 pages.
    • Western Technology & Engineering, Inc. (WESTECH)., 1991, 1991 Bull Mountains Mine No. 1 Terrestrial Wildlife Monitoring Study. In Meridian Minerals Company Bull Mountains Mine No. 1 Permit Application, Musselshell County, Montana. Vol. 7 of 14: Section 26
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Citation for data on this website:
Cassin's Finch — Haemorhous cassinii.  Montana Field Guide.  Montana Natural Heritage Program and Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.  Retrieved on September 29, 2016, from