I have seen Desert Finches exactly once. They were in Kazakhstan, where they belong. Desert Finches have never been reported anywhere in the western hemisphere and have definitely not shown up in the southern United States. So when a comment appeared on my post about Desert Finches in which the commenter claimed that there was a Desert Finch coming to her feeder in Jonesboro, Arkansas, well, I did the only thing a birder can do. I let her know that she was crazy.
You almost certainly do not have a Desert Finch in your backyard in Arkansas. Much more likely (though still pretty unlikely) would be one of the three North American rosy-finches (Black, Gray-crowned, and Brown-capped). I would say to go ahead and try to get even a lousy photo and we here at 10,000 Birds can try to help you ID it.
A couple of days later, when I received an email from the commenter that had two pictures attached, well, one might say I was surprised. Shocked would be another good word.
Both images of the Desert Finch in Arkansas are copyright Ron Howard and used with permission.
Other excellent images by him can be seen here.
There were three possible explanations for the images of a Desert Finch sharing a feeder with House Finches. They are:
- Someone who is VERY good at photoshop and really bored was playing games with my head. Suspects included anyone who had been taken in by my harmless April Fool’s Day prank (but this idea was quickly eliminated…the folks involved were just too friendly and the bird too outlandish to be an effective prank).
- Somehow someone had managed to capture a Desert Finch and transport it to Arkansas where it escaped and discovered the wonder of free buffet service.
- A wild Desert Finch had managed to fly from Asia to the United States and this was a first North American record, in which case this was a VERY BIG DEAL!
Before deciding which of the three possibilities was most likely I enlisted the aid of some fellow bird bloggers while asking for more information from the bird’s host. Randomly, Nate, Patrick, and Will were signed into Facebook at the time so they are who I asked for advice as to how I should proceed (if this was a first North American record, well, people needed to know, but who?). It was Nate who managed to figure out that explanation two was the most likely when he found a place in nearby London, Arkansas that sells Desert Finches at 120 USD a pair! Now, I am not saying that the bird at the feeders necessarily escaped from the bird-selling place (I’ve left a message for them and not heard back) but it seems more likely that it escaped from there or a similar location than it flying from Asia under its own power. Though, well, anything is possible, and the bird does not exhibit any feather wear that would be expected from an escaped cage-bird.
What I found even more amazing is how the bird was found and identified, information which the finder of the bird was willing to share:
I first saw the bird (which I nicknamed Kahzy after your pictures and location) on the afternoon of December 30. I have a feeder tray raised about 5.5 feet in the air and noticed an unfamiliar bird. I grabbed the binoculars and kept looking at him. He was in with a group of finches, and stayed in the tray probably a minute or even two. He then flew as something startled all the birds.
I started looking in my North American field guide for this bird and could not find him. I went through it 3 times, looking at male, female, immature, etc. Obviously, I still couldn’t find the bird’s picture. I sat down and made a written list of his characteristics and then called my 88-year old aunt who introduced me to birding. I gave her the list and she started searching all her North American books, too.
Kahzy came back again that same afternoon an hour or so later. I verified my list against what I was viewing. Auntie called back and said she couldn’t find the bird. So, I turned to the internet and thought about what kind of bird he might be. I decided with that bill and knowing he was a seed eater, I googled “black billed finch.” After 12 or 13 pages of pictures, I came across your pictures. I left a note on your blog letting you know that I’d seen one, too.
So, I called and left a message with Ron (whom I’d never met; just knew about him from a neighbor). He’d just got in from another birding adventure and called me back the next day. He asked if he could come over and sit on my deck during the morning and afternoon on January 1. We said, “Sure,” knowing that he would have the camera to take the necessary pictures to prove our story credible.
I don’t know if he really believed my story before he saw the bird or not. I had pulled up your pictures and let him look at them before he started waiting, camera in hand. Ron didn’t see the bird that morning, but he did get some shots of him later that afternoon. I knew by the excitement of a much more experienced birder that I wasn’t crazy and just imagining things. At this point, my husband, Kirby, was the only one not to have seen our Desert Finch. He just missed seeing him as Kahzy only stayed long enough for Ron to get a dozen or so photos before he flew away. Ron also came back on January 2 and took the photos you’ve seen. It’s almost as if he was posing for Ron.
Kahzy has come by to eat on the seed tray every day. (Today is Day 5.) We must be on his afternoon route. Today was the first day I had seen him eat on another feeder. He actually chased another finch out of a Vista Dome feeder. I had not seen this behavior in the 4 previous days. Afterwards, he also ate on the ground below this feeder. He finished off the afternoon back at the seed tray before leaving for the day.
New birds are fun to see, research, and mark in my field guide. However, the Desert Finch has really excited us, and his coloring continues to amaze us.
Anyway, this story serves as a precautionary tale: sometimes the most absurd birds DO show up in the most unexpected places and one shouldn’t dismiss outlandish sighting reports out of hand. Wherever Kahzy came from he is a gorgeous bird that anyone would love to have visit their feeder! Make sure that you have binoculars, a pen, paper, and a decent camera at hand near your feeder station because something crazy could show up at your house next.
If anyone has any information about escaped Desert Finches or the likelihood of very-long-range vagrancy in the species please leave a comment below.