Did you know that Idaho is the sixth most sparsely populated state in the USA? The absence of human habitation over vast ranges leaves a lot of wilderness for nature and nature lovers to enjoy.
But with its high elevation and northerly latitude, Idaho is also one of the coldest states, meaning that birds need to be tough to remain here year-round.
Luckily, finches are renowned for their hardiness, leaving Idaho brimming with them in all seasons. Amazingly, there are a couple more finch species found here during the winter than in summer!
Because temperatures sometimes can plunge below -40°F in Idaho, finches will be very grateful for any bird food that you offer them through the winter! Backyard feeders are also one of the best places to observe these beautiful birds up close and get to know them better.
Let’s get to know when, where, and how to spot and identify Idaho’s finches. Our list even includes one species that can be found nowhere else in the world…
- Scientific Name: Haemorhous mexicanus
- Length: 5.1-5.5 in (13-14 cm)
- Weight: 0.6-0.9 oz (16-27 g)
- Wingspan: 7.9-9.8 in (20-25 cm)
There’s no doubt that house finches are the most common finch in Idaho. They’re reported by more bird watchers than any other species on both summer and winter checklists.
Common birds of suburbs, farms, brushy woodlands, and weedy meadows, house finches are well-adapted to living alongside humans and have profited immensely from human development.
Their tame character makes these rosy-breasted finches one of the easiest species to observe in close proximity. House finches are one of the most regular visitors to backyard feeders and also love to wash at bird baths.
The bright red head, breast, and rump of the male house finch are their primary field marks, whereas females are a drab, streaky brown throughout the year. While they can easily be confused with purple finches, their cousins are very seldom seen this far west.
- Scientific Name: Spinus tristis
- Length: 4.3-5.1 in (11-13 cm)
- Weight: 0.4-0.7 oz (11-20 g)
- Wingspan: 7.5-8.7 in (19-22 cm)
American goldfinches are the most common finch in North America, and the second most frequently seen in Idaho. They’re seen here slightly more often in the breeding season, but also have a large presence here in winter, too.
It’s between March and October that American goldfinches really earn their name. During this time, males turn a brilliant golden yellow with jet-black crowns in their bid to impress females. In winter both sexes are more grayish in color.
American Goldfinches build their nest among young trees and shrubs. Formed from grass, tree bark, and feathers, females usually lay four to six eggs. If you spot them nesting, you might notice the loyal male bird bringing the female food as she incubates her eggs.
Goldfinches have a very strict vegetarian diet and live almost entirely from seeds and buds of trees and weeds. You can attract them to bird feeders by offering them black oil sunflower seeds and perhaps their favorite of all – thistle seeds.
- Scientific Name: Spinus Pinus
- Length: 4.3-5.5 in (11-14 cm)
- Weight: 0.4-0.6 oz (12-18 g)
- Wingspan: 7.1-8.7 in (18-22 cm)
Another member of the goldfinch family is the pine siskin. They can be recognized by their more streaky grayish plumage and narrower bill than their relatives.
Pine siskins are commonly seen year-round in Idaho, although they’re highly nomadic and will often appear in large flocks all at once, or not at all. Watch out for them as they travel noisily over the tree canopy in search of the pine, birch, and alder seeds that provide their sustenance.
These noisy birds can also be attracted to visit platform feeders and tube feeders to feed on the same seeds that American goldfinches love. Listen out for their metallic, rasping calls to alert you to their presence.
- Scientific Name: Spinus psaltria
- Length: 3.5-4.3 in (9-11 cm)
- Weight: 0.3-0.4 oz (8-11.5 g)
- Wingspan: 5.9-7.9 in (15-20 cm)
A smaller cousin of the American goldfinch is the lesser goldfinch. The two species often flock together, especially in winter, meaning you need a good pair of binoculars to tell them apart.
The lesser goldfinch seems to have made very swift inroads into Idaho over the past few decades. They were first recorded breeding here in 1988, and now are regularly seen here in both summer and winter.
Although older maps don’t show this species as occurring in the northwest during winter, we probed this issue and Cornell Lab of Ornithology has plenty of photos to prove they do now!
Female lesser goldfinches build nests in trees and bushes in the spring from twigs, leaves, small roots, and tree bark. Laying between 3-6 eggs, she then sits on them for up to 12 days before hatching.
- Scientific Name: Haemorhous cassinii
- Length: 6.3 in (16 cm)
- Weight: 0.8-1.2 oz (24-34 g)
- Wingspan: 9.8-10.6 in (25-27 cm)
According to the reports submitted to ebird.org, Cassin’s finch is the only species that’s much more common in Idaho during summer than in winter.
These colorful cousins of the house finch are western state specialists, spending most of their time in mountainous coniferous forests.
While they have the same reddish breast and crown as the house finch, they’re slightly larger and have a white belly, contrasting the house finch’s brown-streaked underside.
The cup-like nests of Cassin’s finch are usually made in pine trees from twigs, bark, small roots, and reeds.
This species prefers dry, open habitats, and is often seen foraging on the ground.
- Scientific Name: Hesperiphona vespertina
- Length: 8 In (20cm)
- Weight: 2.1 Oz (60g)
- Wingspan: 14 inches (35cm)
Now moving on to the less common finches in Idaho. Evening grosbeaks are reported by around 4% of bird watchers in the summer months, and 2% in winter.
Although this may not sound like much, evening grosbeaks are not particularly common birds anywhere, so Idaho isn’t a bad place for spotting them. As the second largest finch on the continent, with a bright golden head ring and huge beak, these impressive birds are well worth looking for!
Evening grosbeaks share much of the same diet of tree seeds as many other finches. The difference is that their huge bill can crack open shells that other finches can’t get into, allowing this species to clean up after other birds have eaten all they can.
- Scientific Name: Loxia curvirostra
- Length: 5.5-6.5 in (14-17 cm)
- Weight: 1.4 oz (40 g)
- Wingspan: 10-10.75 in (25-27 cm)
Red crossbills have to be one of the most fascinating finches on the continent.
The brilliant red males and the olive green females are curiously colorful for birds of this region. Their vibrant appearance combined with their playful character has earned them the nickname ‘parrots of the north’.
Crossbills really do have bills that cross at the tips. This specialized adaptation allows these birds to pick open conifer cones to extract the seeds. For this reason, they’re seen almost exclusively in evergreen forests.
Red crossbills are seen more frequently in summer than in winter in Idaho, but interestingly these birds don’t have a regular nesting schedule! Instead, they choose to reproduce anytime that abundant food supplies are available.
- Scientific Name: Acanthis flammea
- Length: 4.7-5.5 in (12-14 cm)
- Weight: 0.4-0.7 oz (11-20 g)
- Wingspan: 7.5-8.7 in (19-22 cm)
Believe it or not, it’s only the northern half of Idaho that lies within the regular range of the common redpoll.
As some of the cold hardy songbirds on the planet, common redpolls often nest within the Arctic Circle and only tend to venture into the Northern United States during the depths of winter.
Look out for a bright ruby red crown in both sexes and a deep pink chest in males.
Flocks of common redpolls can also be identified by their noisy chatter as they forage among the tree line overhead.
- Scientific Name: Pinicola enucleator
- Length: 7.9-9.8 in (20-25 cm)
- Weight: 2.1 oz (60 g)
- Wingspan: 14.5 in (33 cm)
The world’s largest finch is spotted by around 0.8% of birdwatchers in Idaho’s winters, and around half that during the summer.
With a wingspan of 14.5 inches across, pine grosbeaks are more similar in proportion to a Northern Mockingbird than a typical finch.
Male pine grosbeaks have a lovely reddish upper body, while females are green to russet brown on their head and rump. Most of the rest of the body of both sexes is gray.
Pine grosbeaks like to travel around in small flocks looking not only for conifer seeds but also for fruits such as crab apples and mountain ash berries. For this reason, they’re sometimes seen in orchards and fruit gardens.
- Scientific Name: Loxia sinesciuris
- Length: 7.09-7.87 in (18–20 cm
- Weight: 1.0-1.6 oz (28-44 g
- Wingspan: 3.35-3.93 in (8.5–10 cm)
Now for the finch that can be seen nowhere else on the planet.
Unlike red crossbills, Cassia crossbills don’t migrate but remain in the same territories in Cassia County year-round.
The reason for this peculiarity is that Cassia County is full of lodgepole pines, a conifer with cones so tough that squirrels can’t open them! With their incredible, specialized bill, Cassia crossbills can access the nutritious seeds that few other animals can, and so do very well in the locality.
Formerly recognized as a distinct species from the red crossbill in 2017, the Cassia crossbill was given the Latin name ‘Loxia sinesciuris’ roughly translating to ‘crossbill without squirrels’!
- Scientific Name: Leucosticte tephrocotis
- Length: 5.5-8.3 in (14-21 cm)
- Weight: 0.8-2.1 oz (22-60 g)
- Wingspan: 13.0 in (33 cm)
The most common of the rosy-finches, the gray-crowned rosy-finch, is seen from New Mexico to Alaska but rarely east of the rocky mountains.
The majority of sightings of these birds in Idaho are in winter. Although a few nesting territories do exist in northern parts of the state, these birds usually travel to Canada and Alaska for breeding.
While there are some regional variations in this species, these birds have a chocolate-brown to pinkish body with gray and blackheads. At first glance, they may recall a sparrow, and their flight call also sounds rather like that of a house sparrow, but their fast-paced husky song is quite different.
As high-altitude specialists, gray-crowned rosy-finches may well be the highest breeding bird in North America, even nesting on snow-covered Mount Denali!
- Scientific Name: Leucosticte atrata
- Length: 5.5-6.3 in (14-16 cm)
- Weight: 0.8-1.1 oz (22-32 g)
- Wingspan: 13.0 in (33 cm)
A rarer cousin of the gray-crowned rosy-finch is the black rosy-finch. Unlike their relatives, however, black rosy-finches are entirely confined to the interior west.
Seen from Northern New Mexico to Southern Montana, black rosy-finches are absent from the northern reaches of Idaho. They’re mostly winter birds here but are also occasionally found breeding along the border with Montana.
Because they frequent the same habitats and often join flocks with other rosy-finch species, identifying these birds can put your birding skills to the test!
Although this species looks and sounds very similar to the gray-crowned rosy-finch they can be distinguished by their darker overall color, with less pink plumage in the winter.
- Scientific Name: Loxia leucoptera
- Length: 5.9-6.7 in (15-17 cm)
- Weight: 0.8-0.9 oz (24-26 g)
- Wingspan: 10.2-11.0 in (26-28 cm)
White-winged crossbills are much rarer than red crossbills in Idaho and are only spotted by around 0.2% of birdwatchers in the winter, and less than that during the summer.
This species looks fairly similar to red crossbills but is slimmer, with a longer tail and white patches on their wings which give them their name.
White-winged crossbills also have a more northerly distribution than their cousins and, according to Sibley’s Guide to Birds, are only regularly seen in Northeastern Idaho.
- Sibley Guide To Birds, 2nd Ed
- Sibley, David Allen (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
Last update on 2023-12-10 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
Two More Very Rare Finches in Idaho
There are a couple more finch species that are even rarer than the ones we’ve listed and are considered accidental in Idaho.
Readers from the Eastern states will be very familiar with the purple finch, the colorful cousin of the house finch that’s a frequent sight from the East Coast to the Midwest. They rarely stray this far west, however.
Hoary redpolls, otherwise known as Arctic redpolls on the other hand, rarely venture this far south! Even more of a northerly extremist than the common redpoll, hoary redpolls sometimes remain within the Arctic Circle year-round!
The high altitude and frigid conditions of Idaho turn out to be an ideal place to see finches! While several species use the vast expanses of wilderness as a breeding ground, even more of these hardy birds can be spotted here during the harsh winters.
The conifer-covered mountains of Idaho are not only a favorite haunt of finches though. The vast forests of the Gem State also make the ideal habitat for woodpeckers! We’ve compiled a comprehensive list of woodpeckers in Idaho here, and I bet you can’t guess how many there are!