If I'm birding and thinking about Neapolitan ice cream -- chocolate, vanilla and strawberry -- I must be looking at gray-crowned rosy finches.
Gray-crowned rosy finches wear warm chocolate colored body feathers with vanilla and strawberry accents in their wings; their sides and bellies are a little strawberry flavored, too. Add a gray crown or full gray head and bright yellow beak for toppings and they look positively scrumptious. This is one of the most colorful species we might see in winter, the only season this bird appears in the state.
Gray-crowned rosy finches migrate to Utah from their breeding grounds in high mountain ranges from the Sierras north through the Cascades and Northern Rockies, to the Brooks Range in Alaska. Others come here from Alaska's and Canada's coastlines. Our state's alpine tundra habitat where few people live is far more hospitable to them than winter at the edge of the Bering Sea or within the Arctic Circle.
When snow covers natural food supplies on rocky talus and gravel slopes, the birds flock to high elevation feeders near the timberline for the free smorgasbord.
I hear the first sign of an inbound flock: Multiple one-note chirps, sometimes hard, sometimes soft and lisping. A handful of rosy finches approaches the aspen grove above the feeder, undulating and dispersed in flight, and joins others already perched in the trees.
The call is similar to one I heard last July from a pair of Utah's year-round rosy finch species, the black rosy finch, at over 10,000 feet on Bald Mountain Trail in the Uintas.
But there are few black rosy finches present; virtually all are gray-crowned. They filter into the treetops and perch briefly, surveying for predators and other disturbances. Something sets them off and a few birds flush in the direction they came from. Oops! False alarm; they circle back to the trees and land again. This happens a couple times. Rosy finches are flighty birds.
Their calls change from the sharper and more agitated chirps to a soft, relaxed "Chew. Chew." And then, they descend one by one to the feeder or to the seed spilled on the snow below. Their numbers build on the ground until the mass seethes in a frenzy of feeding. A signal, perhaps an alarm call or fast movement, flushes the flock and they return to the treetops.
Sometimes it seems like they barely alight before they flush; patient feeders, they're not. I wonder how they get enough to eat. But they must get their fill because finally, the birds perch quietly in the treetops to rest, call an occasional "chew" and preen.
Preening is essential for a bird's health and feather condition, especially for birds that live in harsh environments like windswept mountains or coasts. Outside of feeding and resting, preening may take the next largest chunk of a bird's day.
I watch a single black rosy finch in the flock of gray-crowned preen for at least an hour. He turns at an extreme angle and probes the preen gland above his tail to access and distribute oil that waterproofs his feathers. He probes his breast, perhaps running individual feathers through his bill to realign tiny hooks called barbicels that keep a feather's barbs linked, thereby maintaining the feather's aerodynamic capability. He fluffs and shakes from head to tail, possibly to loosen and flush feather lice.
It sure is a lot easier for humans to clean our clothes by throwing them in the laundry, but then again, donning clean clothes still doesn't help us fly.
After a long rest and preen session, the flock signals their imminent departure by chirping again. The chirps increase to a frenzy as if asking, "Should we go? Should we go?", and then they're off, birds stringing singly from the trees until they're departing a half-dozen or dozen at a time. Perhaps they're flying to a roost area in thick sub-alpine firs or to catch some afternoon sun while nestled among boulders at a rugged cliff face.
The gray-crowned rosy finch will remain in Utah until late March, when a combination of improving weather and increasing photo period triggers the birds' northward migration to icier places. And then, we wait until November for their return and another serving of their chocolate, vanilla and strawberry treat.
Kristin Purdy can be reached at email@example.com.