Finch ID tips
It’s a rush when you can confidently recognize an elusive or hard-to-identify bird. That burst of adrenaline and pride is just one of the many rewards of being a birder. But the differences between house finches and purple finches are particularly tricky. Here are some important things to know about these look-alike birds when they stop to visit your feeder.
The house finch is commonly found throughout much of the Lower 48. The range of the purple finch is restricted to the dense forests of the West Coast, southern Canada and the northeastern U.S. during breeding season. And purple finches may be seen anywhere in the southeastern states during fall, winter and spring.
Before its expansion throughout the U.S., the house finch was native to the Southwest and was acclimated to an open, arid habitat. “You see them so often in our human-dominated landscapes because we’ve created open areas similar to their native habitat,” says Trina Bayard, bird conservation director at Audubon Washington.
The difference between these birds becomes clear when you compare the adult males. Purple finches are a deep cranberry or raspberry color on most of their body. Male house finches are more orange and red with the color concentrated on their heads and chests. Females are more difficult to tell apart, so look closely at their faces: Purple finches have a bolder face pattern, with two white stripes stretching from their beaks to the nape of their necks.
The nesting habits of these two birds are completely different. House finches nest on the edges of open areas, sometimes on street lamps or in ivy on the sides of buildings. Purple finches nest primarily in forest conifers or dense shrubs, and at times in landscaped areas with trees. Neither species uses birdhouses.
“Seemingly similar birds can be really different from each other,” Trina says. “The house finch is a very social bird,” which nests in colonies or groups. Purple finches, however, often nest on their own. In the winter, they join flocks with pine siskins and goldfinches.
Both species enjoy sunflower seeds in the winter. During summer, they eat fruits and seeds from native plants, along with bugs. Both birds are drawn to feeders, and Trina suggests filling them with unhulled black oil sunflower seeds.
Kelsey Roseth is a freelance writer and passionate birder in Minnesota. She is working to create a welcoming backyard for her favorite feathered friends—maybe even some finches!
A male house finch has a rosy red face and breast, with a streaky back and belly.
A male purple finch is almost fully covered in cranberry hues.