For the Birds: House Finch or Purple Finch?

Monday, July 8, 2024

House Finch pair note white on wings
Photo by Chris Southwick
By Christine Southwick

So you have a reddish bird on your feeder. What is it?

In our area it will be either a House Finch or a Purple Finch (Cassin’s Finches are higher up in the mountains).

Firstly, both birds are reddish tinted—to my eye there is no purple in a Purple Finch—raspberry coloring yes, but definitely not purple.

The house finch, especially in early spring can be bright red, and can be easily confused with the Purple Finch at first glance.

Lucky for us there are some distinct differences.

House Finch males have brownish wings with white wing bars and no red on their shoulders or wing edges. (Note: depending on food, some House Finches can be orangish, but that is not common.) House Finches of both sexes have streaking from their breast all the way to their tail.

Purple Finch pair note clear belly on female.
Photo by Chris Southwick
Purple Hinch males have a delightful raspberry red coloring over most of their body, except for their clear white underbellies. 

Their wings have a brownish undertone, but the raspberry wing bars and edges dominate. 

Their bellies, and those of the females are clear white, without streaking. Both House Finches and Purple Finches have reddish coloring on their tails.

One of the easiest physical differences is that Purple Finches have an exaggerated eyebrow—white on the female, raspberry on the male-just lighter than the rest of his head.

Females of both finches are brownish with no red at all. The best way to tell the adult female Purple Finch from the adult female Purple Finch is to look for that eyebrow. Purple Finches have shorter tails than House Finches, but that usually doesn’t help me.

House Finch female Photo by Craig Kerns
Not all brown-colored finches in the summer are females. 

Young males of both House Finches and Purple Finches are without any red until their second year, when they molt into their adult plumage.

For me, the easiest way to identify Purple Finches is to hear them singing their rich melodious song that end with clear notes. 

The House Finch’s song usually ends more quickly and with muted notes. 

Purple Finches appear chunkier that the House Finches which often appear thinner. 

Then I look for those other diagnostic clues.

Male Purple Finch note eyebrow
Photo by Chris Southwick
Enjoy these year-round birds. Often you will have only a couple of Purple Finches, but if you have House Finches there will usually be several.

Purple and House Finches nest in trees, usually evergreen, but do not use nest boxes. 

Their favorite birdseed is sunflower seeds—with or without shells. Water, especially this hot summer, will help bring them in.


Anonymous,  July 10, 2024 at 2:26 PM  

Typo? "The best way to tell the adult female Purple Finch from the adult female Purple Finch is to look for that eyebrow. "

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