Purple and House Finches

We pay close attention in winter, via the internet, to bird experts to the north. Their observations indicate that no food shortages occurred this year with bountiful crops of wild seeds, nuts and fruits for the birds. They tell us to not expect large southerly invasions of finches, including Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins. Thus far their predictions are right on the money.

About the only northern finches at our feeders now are several American Tree Sparrows, although they are known to nest in northern Wisconsin. The one finch that everyone who feeds birds appears to be having in greater numbers than in past years is the American Goldfinch. Bear in mind that these finches are not, in a sense, migratory. They do nest in our state in considerable numbers, but the fact that the males lose their brilliant yellow plumage leads some people to think that they have gone elsewhere. Actually they’ve been here all the time and apparently had excellent breeding success.

This appears to be a female House Finch on the left and a male on the right.

Two other finch species visit our feeders – the Purple and the House Finches. The House Finches are outnumbering the Purples. With there being quite a few people who are or have been licensed bird banders in our region during the past 50 or so years, plenty of good data is available. The champion Purple Finch banders for years were Henry and Edna Koenig of Sauk City.

It was common during the winter months, especially from 1962-1966 when they banded 5,359 Purple Finches and 1,569 Evening Grosbeaks, that a visit to their modest little residential home would let you see about 600 Purple Finches along with a hundred or more Evening Grosbeaks feeding at one time on the Koenig’s handout of sunflower seeds.

Rather than inform visitors that their birds went through about 3,000 pounds of sunflower seeds per winter, they said that they fed upwards of a ton and a half of seeds. Edna, with a chuckle, said that it sounded like more!

Bird banders, including myself, who have studied the Purple Finches over the years, have accurately described them as erratic wanderers. They will patronize home feeding stations in prodigious numbers one year, and then be scarce to totally absent the next. I found this to be true in March of 1963 when I banded a little more than 600 at a friend’s home northwest of Green Bay near Mill Center.

My high for one day was 180, a time when I firmly experienced the biting power of these birds. Believe me, they didn’t simply give you a hard nip and let go, they got ahold of a finger and squeezed firmly and long enough to cause blood to flow! I learned in short order how to safely hold one of those little biters. As a matter of fact, practically all birds strongly resent being touched by the human hand. My best, most exciting and revealing recovery of one of the 600-plus Purple Finches I banded that spring was the one recaptured by a fellow bander near Prince George, British Columbia, 61 days after I had banded it. This is about 1,800 miles away as the crow flies (oops, as the finch flies!).

Here is a brilliant male House Finch.

For those of you who are fortunate to have Purple Finches coming to your handouts, bear in mind that the purple, or more fittingly raspberry-colored individuals, indeed are males, but the heavily streaked brown and white birds can be first-year or early second-year males, as well as young or adult females. In other words it’s not a matter of simply calling the brown finches the females.

What an ecstatic, easy flowing musical warble the males produce. These persistent singers can be quite variable, pouring forth loud, rich, warbling songs one month and pleasant soft arias the next, somewhat like a gently boiling tea kettle.

Their nesting range extends from central Wisconsin to central Canada, where it stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific. One could describe them as being strictly tree-dwelling birds of the forest, never far from evergreen trees especially. They winter from southern Ontario and southern New England clear down to the Gulf of Mexico.

The scarcity of this bird one year and its abundance the next is one of the Purple Finch’s maddening charms. Perhaps this is why we enjoy birdwatching so much – there is always the thrill of the unexpected.

It wasn’t until 1989 in late August that we saw our first House Finches in Door County. Our friend Peg Hoffman, who at that time lived near Gills Rock, reported to us that she had recently begun seeing the somewhat bright orangey-red “Mercurochrome-colored” male House Finches along with the rather drab brown-streaked females at their feeders. Several days later we spent a few pleasant hours visiting with Peg and enjoying the colorful House Finches along with other species that were coming to their feeders. This was our first sighting of these birds in Wisconsin. What made the morning so perfect was being able to see raspberry-colored and also brown Purple Finches along with the House Finches.

House Finches have been common native dooryard birds of western U.S. for many years. Being colorful singers and easy to trap, some enterprising pet dealers got the brainstorm to trap and sell them in New York as cage birds, labeling them “Hollywood Finches!”

A very likely, but not positively, pair of Purple Finches; the male is on the left.

This illegal act was quickly stopped by inspectors from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. However, in order to avoid prosecution, quite a few pet dealers simply released their Hollywood Finches outdoors, and these colorful and hardy creatures have been steadily moving westward, liberally populating the country with their kind ever since. Do you suppose they’re searching for Hollywood?

To give you an idea of the reputation of this bright little “ragamuffins,” like the House Sparrow in Wisconsin, they have been denied the protection of law in California. They are said to outnumber House Sparrows in the Northeast where they are especially unpopular at birdfeeders. They become very “hoggish” and dominate the feeders. They are also known to do considerable damage in fruit orchards.

On the positive side is the indisputable fact that they are noxious weed-seed eaters par excellence. Thistle and dandelion seeds rank among their favorites. One ornithologist said, “They may nest anywhere. They even use old nests of other birds such as Robins and Orioles and, being very tolerant of people, won’t hesitate to nest near slamming doors.”

Years ago, friends of ours left their Christmas wreath hanging on their front door until nearly Easter. They were very surprised the day they decided to take the wreath down to find that a pair of House Finches had built a nest nicely tucked into the wreath and were already feeding young.

Undoubtedly there are “dyed-in-the-feathers” feeders of birds that will condemn the little House Finches from their very first arrival to their yards. Personally I’d just as soon have House Finches!