For the Birds: Have You Been Hearing Purple Finches?

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Male Purple Finch
Photo by Christine Southwick

By Christine Southwick

I've been hearing Purple Finches in my neighborhood,  and hopefully you have been too. How would you know?

First, they have a rich warbling song, without the zirrree at the end of the song  that is indicative of the House Finch. Purple Finch males usually sing high up in a tree.

A Purple Finch can be distinguished from a House Finch most easily by sound, but also by sight if you know a couple of diagnostic points. Male Purple Finches, after their second year, are really a raspberry color — not a purple at all. Until their second year, males and female Purple Finches look the same. After molting the second year, male Purple Finches are raspberry all over (except for the belly area), including raspberry on the brown-tinged  wings.

Female Purple Finch
Photo by Christine Southwick

To me, the first thing to look for is an exaggerated eyebrow -- a whitish line that is really noticeable on the female — the male’s eyebrow is subtler and that raspberry color. The second most obvious distinguishing area is the lack of streaking at the base of their belly, the area called the undertail coverts. This makes both the male's and female's underbellies look white. With these two diagnostic points you can be pretty confident that you have Purple Finches,

House Finches are heavily streaked on their breast, belly, and undertail coverts; don’t have markings on their head; and the males have white, not raspberry, on their wings.

A pair of Purple Finches, male and female
Photo by Christine Southwick

The female Purple Finch builds her nest for two to seven eggs, far out on a limb of a coniferous tree, often under a sheltering branch. She will sometimes use a deciduous tree, or maybe even shrubs — from two and a half feet up to 60 feet above ground. The male of the monogamous pair feeds the female while she is on the eggs. Both parents feed the nestlings. The fledglings are weak fliers and stay close to their parents for about two weeks.

House Finches out-compete Purple Finches in urban and some suburban areas. Which means that Purple Finches are becoming less common as their habitats continue to dwindle.

Purple Finches are found in our moist mixed-forest and coniferous forests, especially along open edges, like those found in some people’s yards. If you have good habitat, with pesticide-free seed-bearing plants, Purple Finches may stay all summer and breed in your area.


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