Hey guys, welcome back! We’ve reached bird number ten! For pretty much anyone in the U.S. that has a bird feeder in their backyard, chances are pretty good, you’ve had at least one of these guys visit it. If not, then you probably live smack in the middle of the country somewhere like, let’s say, Nebraska, or the Dakotas. One look at the House Finch’s range map, and you’ll notice they’re fairly widespread in the west, and in the east, but there’s an odd gap in between. What’s up with that? Well, broadly speaking, the western part is the House Finch’s native range. That’s right, they were originally a western species. The house Finch was introduced into the Eastern U.S. as part of the pet trade in the early part of the 1900s. Dubbed the “Hollywood Finch,” it became a popular pet, eventually establishing itself in the wild in the east. Audubon has a good write up of it here. Unlike other non-native species such as the House Sparrow or European Starling, the House Finch hasn’t really disrupted the native bird species, at least not nearly to the extent as those other two.
ID can be tricky, if you don’t know what you’re looking for. House Finches look similar to their native-to-the-east counterparts the Purple Finch. When I was starting out birding, I came upon a couple of Purple Finches in Central Park. I knew the house Finch well, as they nested in the Park and were there year round, while Purple Finches are migratory; only present in real numbers in the U.S. in winter. I had a birder try to tell me the difference (in the males) was the color. She described the Purple Finch as being “raspberry” in color instead of red. Well, I see it now, but back then, that bit of info wasn’t helpful to me. I read in a field guide somewhere that it’s more reliably the amount of color. A male House Finch will rarely have any red color on the wings, while the Purple Finch has much more color present. When it comes to the females, that can be a little trickier. Both are devoid of any red color. The female Purple Finch has bolder, more contrasting light/dark color in its markings, as well as a more striped face than the female House Finch.
Living in Queens, I didn’t have much of a yard, nor was I in a particularly suburban part of the borough, but I wanted a bird feeder. I found a little one that stuck to the outside of a window, and bought it and put it up in my kitchen. For about a week, all I saw at the feeder were House Sparrows. I was a bit bummed. Then one morning after I filled it, I saw a House Finch. And then another. And another! About a week later, I counted 3 pairs in the backyard at one time. They became regulars, eventually nesting nearby. I even had males feeding their fledglings in spring. And for that, the House Finch will always have a special place with me.
Like nearly all finches, the House Finch enjoys a diet of almost entirely seeds, which is why they are so common in backyards at feeders. They are about the size of a sparrow, and the drabber brown females can be confused with sparrows fairly easily. To help separate the two, first look around. House Finches almost always hang out in groups, so seeing more in the area can help ID the bird in question. Also, check out the bill. A fairly large, conical-shaped bill is a trademark of seed eating birds like finches, and while sparrows eat seeds too, most of them have smaller bills since they usually supplement their seed intake with insects. The House Finch has a beautiful, melodic song which it sings almost constantly in the late afternoon and early evening in spring. Learning this song can go a long way in finding House Finches, and can help you in IDing other bird species. Speaking of confusing ID’s and sparrows, check back next time when I’ll talk about our first sparrow species! And it’s not the House Sparrow! See you all then!