Abstract Background Diet-derived carotenoid pigments are concentrated in the retinas of birds and serve a variety of functions, including photoprotection. In domesticated bird species (e.g., chickens and quail), retinal carotenoid pigmentation has been shown to respond to large manipulations in light exposure and provide protection against photodamage. However, it is not known if or how wild birds respond to ecologically relevant variation in sun exposure. Methods We manipulated the duration of natural sunlight exposure and dietary carotenoid levels in wild-caught captive House Finches (Haemorhous mexicanus), then measured carotenoid accumulation and oxidative stress in the retina. Results We found no significant effects of sun exposure on retinal levels of carotenoids or lipid peroxidation, in replicate experiments, in winter (Jan–Mar) and spring/summer (May–June). Dietary carotenoid supplementation in the spring/summer experiment led to significantly higher retinal carotenoid levels, but did not affect lipid peroxidation. Carotenoid levels differed significantly between the winter and spring/summer experiments, with higher retinal and lower plasma carotenoid levels in birds from the later experiment. Conclusion Our results suggest that variation in the duration of exposure to direct sunlight have limited influence on intraspecific variation in retinal carotenoid accumulation, but that accumulation may track other seasonal–environmental cues and physiological processes.