For the Birds: Which Red Bird is at Your Feeder?

Monday, July 10, 2017

Male Purple Finch note: red wing color
Text and Photos by Christine Southwick

We have two red-toned birds that live in our area year-round, the House Finch and the Purple Finch.

The House Finch has a wider range and is common throughout the state, the Purple Finch is more selective, and is only found this side of the Cascades.

How can you tell which finch is which?

If you are lucky, “your” male Purple Finch will be that glorious raspberry that led to its naming.

Male House Finch note: non-red wing color
But what if you have really reddish finches, that look different, but you don’t know which is which?

Here are some clues that could help you.

First, male Purple Finches have red on their wings (edges and wing-bars) and their back; male House Finches do not.

House Finches have white wing bars, with no red on their shoulders or wing edges. Both finches have red tones on their rumps.

The females are usually even harder to distinguish. 

One of the easiest way to identify a female Purple Finch from a female House Finch is to look for a clear belly on the former, rather than streaking extending from the grayish breast down to the tail on House Finches. 

Female Purple Finches have a bold head pattern (think long white-eyebrow), whereas female House Finches have indistinct facial markings.

Two Female Purple Finches note: white eyebrow, clear bell
The tails of Purple Finches are shorter than House Finches, and the bills are straighter, but honestly, these two details don’t really help me most of the time.

The buffy chevron-marked breast and clear belly, plus the head markings are what I use for a positive ID of Purple Finch females.

Another clue, House Finches are gregarious and often come to feeders here in groups, while Purple Finches tend to come singly or in pairs.

The Purple Finch’s song is a series of rich musical warbles, whereas House Finches have less-full (hoarse) warbling notes ending with a zeee. The House Finch’s song is sweet, but the Purple Finch’s rich tones always bring a smile to my face.

Female and male House Finches
note: heavy streaking on belly
Actually, it is when I first hear a male Purple Finch’s melodious notes that I look for this delightful songster. 

Imagine my delight when this year’s Purple Finch male (both male and female Purple Finches sing) was singing low in my willow tree, instead of up at the top of the evergreen trees where it commonly belts out its territorial song.

Both House and Purple finches prefer Black-oil Sunflower Seeds.


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