Finches of Cloudland: Missing Our Rosy Companions…

Finches of Cloudland: Missing Our Rosy Companions

By Dr. Lynne Spriggs O’Connor

Missing the company of a familiar flock of birds is like being without a familiar herd of elk. My husband, Harrison, and I depend upon these gatherings – seasonal comings and goings of wild creatures – as many human beings depend on the company of relatives and neighbors. On an isolated ranch, our lives revolve around those who share our natural habitat. Our daily experiences with both domestic and wild animals elicit feelings of intimacy, comfort, and often, wonder. An unusual absence is disturbing.

So it was for us last winter. From mid-October 2022 on, we spent much of our time looking with great anticipation for the arrival of hundreds of Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches who have been with us over the past 15 years as our loyal and steadfast winter companions. When the first bird arrived, immediately we stepped out to welcome our guest!  With great excitement, we gazed up and searched the sky for our first flock. That one Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch visited us multiple times each day. He fed alone at dishes we kept filled to the brim for the many more who would never appear.

Why was this single bird on his own? Was he lost, confused? Had there been some weather event that caused major casualties? Were our warmer winters finally too warm? For nearly six months, this lone fellow exemplified the many qualities we so admire in his species. We appreciated his fearless company and his great loyalty. His independence was poignant. Like clockwork, he appeared for seed each time we ate meals on the other side of windows in the kitchen. Each day, we wondered what this loss of so many birds meant. We longed for their company – for him and for ourselves.

Finch experts were reporting low numbers last year. The majority felt that early record snowfall across many parts of the West had pushed birds into different areas. We devoted ourselves fully to appreciating this one fine individual’s puzzling presence, his stalwart personality. Day after day we cared for him as best we could, until he left us mid-week in early April. Our intimacy with this single Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch became yet another surprise we are grateful to have experienced in this wilderness valley.

Our annual vigilance this year was tinged with trepidation and anxiety. Would it happen again? Would anyone arrive? On October 21st, while I was in Maine getting treatment for a concussion, Harrison called from Montana. “They’re HERE!!! Seven GCRFs have just arrived! I saw shadows in the kitchen and turned with excitement, before even knowing why!” I leapt with happiness on the other end of the phone. Back home around Halloween, we stood together at the feeding station and observed thirty finches eating. A solitary one stood still on the stone wall facing us with upturned eyes and chest lifted. He seemed as excited to see the two of us as we felt seeing him. Such a strange familiarity in his sense of integrity and connection! If we were able to tag these birds, we might have confirmed our hunch: was this our single friend? He continued to stare at us, unafraid, from only a few feet away. “SEE, I promised to bring them back and I have!”

Four years ago, during winter/spring of 2019-2020, we spent six glorious months with an exuberant flock of 450 Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches. Each day was made magical by their presence. Whilst a then-unknown virus named COVID-19 was raging, we holed up on the ranch. These magnificent birds gave us a thrilling winter we will never forget.

Until mid-January 2024, we had hardly any snow. Experts confirm this is the warmest winter and least snow in decades. In our changing environment, we feel luckier than ever to have a growing flock of Gray-crowned Rosies back! Their aerial ballet captures our attention multiple times each day. We gasp to watch the now-280 birds gathering, then separating, rising, and falling, darting sideways, then stretching out to travel far across the valley and back again; they circle the house in opulent patterns that expand and contract until, at last, a cascading river of birds pours down to us from the sky to feed. Something profound is right again with the world.

Dr. Lynne Spriggs O’Connor is a writer and rancher. She has written several blogs here for FiRN named Finches of Cloudland, and her upcoming memoir is titled Elk Love: A Montana Memoir, where she writes about her special relationship with the Rosy-Finches (and more) that have visited her and her husband over the years.

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FiRN is a nonprofit, and was granted 501c3 status in 2020. We are a co-lead on the Evening Grosbeak Road to Recovery Project, and have funded upwards of almost $8,000 to go towards research, conservation and education for finch projects in the last year plus. FiRN is committed to researching and protecting these birds and other threatened finch species like the Evening Grosbeak, Rosy-finches, and Hawaii’s finches the honeycreepers, and if you have been enjoying all the blogs and identifying of Evening Grosbeak and Red Crossbill call types (upwards of 20,000 recordings listened to), redpoll subspecies and green morph Pine Siskins FiRN has helped with over the years, please think about supporting our efforts and making a small donation at the donate link below.


Photos Lynne Spriggs O’Connor

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The Finch Research Network has a feedercam co-sponsored by Aspen Song Wild Bird Food, who is a member of Wild Bird Feeding Institute, and that went live again in Caribou, Maine in November 2023.

Please think about joining these Finch Research Network iNaturalist Projects:

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