Finches in California

17 Finches in California: Wildlife in the Golden State

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The avian mascot of this sun-drenched coastal state is the aptly named California quail. This rather robust bird is recognizable by its striking black tuft and head feathers which contrast with a curved white stripe at the head, and gray feathers which turn brown flecked with white towards the rump.

This gregarious ground dweller is also a prolific layer – it is capable of laying as many as 16 eggs at a time.

The Island scrub-jay is also another of California’s bird species. This rather beautifully colored corvid with a plumage in rich blue at the upper surface, can only be found on Santa Cruz island and is known for having a penchant for snacking on other birds’ eggs.

There are 681 bird species in California. A pretty impressive number which places it in the select company of states with over 500 bird species.

The number of finch species which visit, pass through, or live there all year round is pretty impressive too with no less than 17 of them living in Oregon’s southern neighbor.

Here you will be able to catch a glimpse of them to ensure you can identify them at a glance.


  • Scientific Name: Fringilla montifringilla
  • Length: 6 inches
  • Weight: 0.8 – 1.02 ounces
  • Wingspan: 10 inches

This species mainly lives in northern Eurasia. Although this passerine prefers birch forests, it is named for the brambles that grow abundantly in its habitat.

The plumage of males is a multicolored affair and is black at the head, a muted orange at the throat, before turning white at the undersurface. Their mantles are a blend of black and orange while their wings display alternating bands of black and orange. Females are a similar color but are rather muted in comparison. Their bills are yellow and blackened at the tips.

On occasion, these finches may cross into Alaska but rarely make it all the way down to the United States. However, in the winter of 1984, members of the species visited California to the excitement of birdwatchers in the state.

Evening Grosbeak

Evening Grosbeak
  • Scientific Name: Hesperiphona vespertina
  • Length: 6 – 9 inches
  • Weight: 1.3 – 3.0 ounces
  • Wingspan: 12 – 14 inches

Members of this species can be recognized by their rather stocky build and bold beaks. Males are brown at the head (with a bold yellow stripe above their eyes), a mustard yellow at the torso and undertail coverts. Their black wings sport bold white wedges at their centers.

Females of the species share the same wing pattern and coloring as their male counterparts. They are, however, a soft gray at their torso and a bolder gray at the head. They may also have a hint of yellow at the throat.

These birds occasionally irrupt to the south owing to a shortage of their favorite seeds and berries. Like visiting celebrities, they suddenly descend on northern California after an absence of a few years. They tend to forage at a particular spot, only abandoning it for another once they have exhausted all it has to offer.

Common Rosefinch

Common Rosefinch
  • Scientific Name: Carpodacus erythrinus
  • Length: 5.1 – 5.9 inches
  • Weight: 0.84 ounces
  • Wingspan: 10.2 inches

Members of this species are stocky with large heads and bold beaks. Males are covered in plumage which is a deep purplish red at the head, lightening to a rich raspberry at the throat, and lightening to a much paler shade at the breast and undersurface. Their dark wing feathers are also tinged with a rich red shade as well.

Females lack the distinctive red pigmentation of males and are a rich earthy brown instead. Their wing feathers, which are a darker shade, lighten significantly at their edges and tips.

Common rose finches prefer to spend most of their time in forests and thickets close to sources of water. They wait out the winter chill in gardens, cultivated areas, or woods.

Their breeding range is rather extensive and includes central and northern Europe, as well as western and eastern Asia. They prefer to spend the winter months in Southeast Asia.

Given their range, these passerines are a rather rare occurrence in California.

Pine Grosbeak

Pine Grosbeak
  • Scientific Name: Pinicola enucleator
  • Length: 8 – 10 inches
  • Weight: 2 – 3 ounces
  • Wingspan: 13 inches

Pine grosbeaks are North America’s largest finch species and can be recognized by their robust forms, solid necks, and powerful, slightly curved beaks.

Males are dusky red with long dark tails and dark wings with two white wing bars. They may have hints of gray at their sides, and flanks.

Females have olive-colored heads and rumps, pale patches beneath each of their eyes, and pale gray undersurfaces.

The species is fond of eating berries, buds, and seeds with sunflowers being a firm favorite during visits to bird feeders.

They tend to give off warbling notes that sound as though they are produced by a flute.

Pine grosbeaks prefer to live in coniferous forests at high elevations. They can be found all year round in eastern California’s central Sierra Nevada region.

Gray-Crowned Rosy-Finch

Gray-Crowned Rosy-Finch
  • Scientific Name: Leucosticte tephrocotis
  • Length: 5.5 – 6.3 inches
  • Weight: 0.8 – 2 ounces
  • Wingspan: 13 inches

These elusive passerines are the most numerous of North America’s mountain finches. They have gray heads, black crowns, and black chins. Their torsos, which are predominantly brown, are shot through with faint pink and gray.

Gray-crowned rosy-finches are fond of foraging for seeds on the ground and also help themselves to any insects or larvae they come across. The species is known for its single or short series of rather high-pitched notes.

These passerines prefer to build their nests in rocky overhangs and prefer to breed in alpine habitats and tundra, but will descend to lower elevations during winter. They can be found all year round in eastern California’s Sierra Nevada.

Black Rosy-Finch

Black Rosy Finch
  • Scientific Name: Leucosticte atrata
  • Length: 6.5 inches
  • Weight: 2 – 3 ounces
  • Wingspan: 13 inches

Members of this species are covered in the same brown plumage flushed with pink and gray, even at the wings. However, the key differences between them and their gray-crowned rosy-finch cousins are their heads which are only halfway covered with gray, as well as the presence of a black mask.

Black rosy-finches also prefer to breed at high elevations on the tundra. They also prefer to winter at lower elevations. Their notes are low-pitched and vary depending on their unique circumstances.

They are rarely found in California although they tend to be spotted in the eastern part of the state which they may visit during winter.

House Finch

House Finch
  • Scientific Name: Haemorhous mexicanus
  • Length: 5 – 6 inches
  • Weight: 0.6 – 0.9 ounces
  • Wingspan: 8 – 10 inches

The story of these passerines is one of illegal dealings and remarkable resilience. Originally confined to the western United States, they made their way east thanks to pet sellers involved in the illegal pet trade (the first house finch appeared in New York in 1941). Following their release into the wild, they had begun to thrive by the 1960s and subsequently spread westward to join their kin.

Males of the species are covered in a bright strawberry red at the face, throat, and chest. The rest of the torso is brown and is streaked at the chest and undersurface against a paler background. Females lack that characteristic red coloring and are covered in a mild brown with blurred streaks on their lower surfaces.

House finches enjoy buds, fruit, and seeds, and are rather fond of visiting feeders. Members of the species can be found throughout California all year round.

Purple Finch

Purple Finch
  • Scientific Name: Haemorhous purpureus
  • Length: 4.7 – 6.3 inches
  • Weight: 0.63 – 1.10 ounces
  • Wingspan: 10 inches

Male purple finches are covered in brown plumage with a delicate flush of pink. Quite often that muted color covers their heads and torsos extensively. It also extends to their wings unlike those of the house finch, which are simply brown.

Females of the species are covered in clear streaks at their undersurfaces but are brown everywhere else. Like their female house finch counterparts, they too lack that reddish pigment present in males. They also have white stripes above both eyes.

They enjoy berries, buds, seeds, and insects and prefer to breed in coniferous forests. They can be found all year round along California’s Pacific Coast (and the Coast in its entirety), as well as the northern and northeastern parts of the state.

Cassin’s Finch

Cassin's Finch
  • Scientific Name: Haemorhous cassinii
  • Length: 6 inches
  • Weight: 0.8 – 1.2 ounces
  • Wingspan: 10 – 11 inches

Members of this species are often mistaken for sparrows. However, a closer look will reveal the presence of a reddish tint at the head and chest (if they are male). Like other rose finches, i.e., house and purple finches, this species is also covered in brown plumage which pales at the chest.

Females are similar in appearance to house and purple finches, with the same muted brown coloring and streaks at the chest.

Cassin’s finches prefer to eat aspen buds, berries, insects, larvae, and pine seeds. They can mainly be found in coniferous forests in mountainous regions, and open areas with ponderosa or lodge apple pines.

The species can be found all year round in northeastern California as well as its southwest.

Oriental Greenfinch

Oriental Greenfinch
  • Scientific Name: Chloris sinica
  • Length: 5 – 5.5 inches
  • Weight: 1.1 ounces
  • Wingspan: 9.3 inches

These passerines can be recognized by the presence of green at their upper surfaces, while their under surfaces may be pale in comparison, or a dark brown. Oriental greenfinches may also have a pale gray collar at the neck. They also exhibit yellow coloring on their wings and tails, which are black with hints of white.

Oriental greenfinches can be found in gardens, parks, and woods. They enjoy eating sunflower seeds, buckwheat, and even rice.

These passerines’ breeding range includes Russia, China, Japan, and Korea. Although sightings of this species are rare in North America, they have been spotted in California.

Common Redpoll

Common Redpoll
  • Scientific Name: Acanthis flammea
  • Length: 4.5 – 5.5 inches
  • Weight: 1.12 ounces
  • Wingspan: 8 – 9 inches

This species of finch is known for its ability to withstand inclement weather in spite of its diminutive size. Common redpolls are compact, with a rounded form covered in brown streaks against a white background. They also sport a dark red patch at the crown. Males may also display a flush of pink on their chests which are less striated than the rest of their torsos in both genders. The wings of these passerines are brown with white wing bars.

Common redpolls have a reputation for being especially restless and tend to spend most of their time in Canada.

They rarely winter in the United States and are generally found in the north when they decide to do so. And although they may occasionally move even further south, they are rarely found in California.

Red Crossbill

Red Crossbill
  • Scientific Name: Loxia curvirostra
  • Length: 7.9 inches
  • Weight: 2 ounces
  • Wingspan: 12 inches

Males of this species are covered in brick red plumage which turns dark at the wings. Certain individuals may actually be covered in plumage which is a combination of red and green.

They also have crossed mandibles which enable them to be especially efficient at opening cones.

They simply use them to prise the scales of a cone open and lift out the seed with their tongue. The species mainly feeds on pine seeds but also on insects and larvae.

Red crossbills tend to prefer coniferous or mixed coniferous and deciduous forests. They can be found in northern California and its extreme southwest all year round.

White-Winged Crossbill

White-Winged crossbill
  • Scientific Name: Loxia leucoptera
  • Length: 5.7 – 6.7 inches
  • Weight: 0.9 – 1.40 ounces
  • Wingspan: 11 inches

Males of the species are covered in red plumage with a black mark on the cheek, and hints of gray at the flanks and close to the wings. Their wing feathers are dark and display two white wing bars. Females are mostly gray with hints of bronze at the head and chest. Their wings also display the same pattern and coloring as those of their male counterparts. Their tails are also forked.

White-winged crossbills prefer to eat the seeds of firs, larches, and spruces and also enjoy eating insects. They also eat snow when they feel thirsty.

They can generally be found in Alaska and Canada’s spruce zones. Because their range lies far to California’s north, they are rarely found in the state. However, they have been known to wander as far south as Colorado. That said, California is not included in their extreme southern winter range.

Pine Siskin

Pine Siskin
  • Scientific Name: Spinus pinus
  • Length: 4 – 5.5 inches
  • Weight: 0.40 – 0.60 ounces
  • Wingspan: 7 – 9 inches

Pine siskins are light brown at the head and heavily covered in brown streaks at their upper surface. Their lower surface, on the other hand, is pale and covered in darker streaks. They also have a yellow wing bar on the greater coverts. The base of their primaries and the edges of their flight feathers are also marked with yellow.

These social birds form small groups to search for insects and seeds and will occasionally hang upside down to get at a tasty morsel. They can be found in coniferous woodlands as well as rural gardens.

The species can be found in northern California all year round. It can also be found in its southwest. However, it may winter in the rest of the state.

Lesser Goldfinch

Lesser Goldfinch
  • Scientific Name: Spinus psaltria
  • Length: 3.5 – 5 inches
  • Weight: 0.3 – 0.4 ounces
  • Wingspan: 6 – 8 inches

These cousins of American and Lawrence goldfinches are covered in green or black at their upper surfaces, while their under surfaces are lemon yellow. They also have black wings with white wing bars. Both females and juveniles are covered in plumage which is yellow-brown at the upper surface, and a mild yellow at the under surface. Their wings also lack the vivid contrasts visible in males.

Lesser goldfinches enjoy eating berries, buds, and flowers as well as daisy, thistle, and wild sunflower seeds. They are also partial to salt.

The species can be found in western California all year long and may also be seen in its southeastern region in the same capacity.

Lawrence’s Goldfinch

Lawrence’s Goldfinch
  • Scientific Name: Spinus lawrencei
  • Length: 5.5 inches
  • Weight: 0.4 – 0.7 ounces
  • Wingspan: 8 – 9 inches

Unlike other members of the goldfinch family, Lawrence’s goldfinches are predominantly gray as opposed to golden. Males also have a black mask which stands out against the paler coloring of their head feathers. Their chests and wings, however, display hints of yellow. The wings of the species are black and white. There is also more white at the center of their undertail coverts.

Females are generally a more muted color compared to their male counterparts. Like other finches, members of this species are granivores although they enjoy eating insects.

They can be found in western and central California all year round.

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch
  • Scientific Name: Spinus tristis
  • Length: 5.5 inches
  • Weight: 0.4 – 0.7 ounces
  • Wingspan: 8 – 9 inches

Male American goldfinches turn brownish gray in winter with hints of yellow at the shoulders, around their eyes, and at their throats. Their under surfaces during the season are a paler gray compared to their upper surfaces. In summer they turn a golden yellow, while their beaks turn orange, and their foreheads and loreal areas turn black.

Females look similar to males in winter but turn to a light yellow-brown during summer. The species is known for its fondness for thistle seeds, although they will also eat others they deem suitable. American goldfinches are also partial to insects.

They can be found in open fields and marshes and enjoy visiting bird feeders. American goldfinches can be found all year round in western California.


Compared to most other states, California’s versatility in terms of finches that either visit, are rare vagrants, or call it home, is especially impressive.

Bird watchers not only have a chance to view frequently seen species, including mountain finches such as gray-crowned rosy-finches, but also grosbeaks such as pine grosbeaks which remain in the state all year long.

The state is also home to other species that are somewhat uncommon such as Cassin’s finches, Lawrence goldfinches, and lesser goldfinches.

Its amazing diversity in this regard can also be seen in the fact that sightings of rarer species such as the common rose finch, the oriental greenfinch, and even the brambling have also occurred within the state.

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