Field Guide

Finch ID tips

Birds & Blooms - - Contents - BY KELSEY ROSETH

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.

1. Range

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.

2. Coloration

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.

3. Nest­ing

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.

4. Be­hav­ior

“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.

5. Food

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.

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