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Sunday, November 2, 2014

Identifying House Finch and Purple Finch

This Fall Migration has produced a nice influx of Purple Finches into southeast Pennsylvania. Each week, it seems, there are more and more reports and increasing numbers. 

The North American Haemorhous finches (Cassin’s, House and Purple) have distinct adult male and female plumages. This both helps and hinders us in making the proper identification. For all practical purposes, we will limit this blog to the two species that are currently being found in our region – House Finch and Purple Finch.

It seems that whenever we have an irruption of Purple Finches there seems to be confusion about how to separate the two species and a resulting increase in the number of House Finches misidentified as Purple Finches.  

Let’s take a look at both species.

HOUSE FINCH – this is the common “red” finch we see in our area all year. They are easily found at backyard feeders, where they indulge on sunflower seeds. They can also be found, with some regularity, in edge habitat feeding on seed heads or berries. Adult males are bright orange-red on the forehead, throat, and breast with a brown back and wings. They have brown, vertical streaks on the flanks and belly. The rump is also orange-red. Adult females and juvenile males are a plain brown and streaked overall. The face is plain without any sharp or distinctive markings. The tail on both sexes has a shallow notch.

PURPLE FINCH – this species visits our area in fall beginning in late September and can be found throughout winter until early May. Purple Finches can usually be found every fall/winter but numbers vary yearly depending on the amount of natural food available near their breeding grounds. When food is scarce in their post breeding areas (southern Canada and the New England states), they descend into the mid-Atlantic which is happening this fall. Similar to House Finches, they can be found at backyard feeders but not nearly in the numbers as House Finches. Unlike House Finches, Purple Finches can be found in a variety of habitats including mixed deciduous and coniferous woods, old fields and forest edges. Adult males have a deep pink head with a raspberry colored crown, eyeline and malar. The back is brownish with some pink edging and the rump is pinkish. Adult females and juvenile males have a brown head with distinct whitish stripes on the face. They are heavily streaked on the belly and flanks. The tail on both sexes is short and deeply notched.

Identification Keys – what to look for.

Size and Shape – Overall, House Finch appears as a slim bird, whereas, Purple Finch looks stocky or chunky.

Tail – Tail length and shape is a good separating field mark. House Finch as a short notch.  

Purple Finch has a deep notch which is a very good field mark to use especially if you’re looking at a perched bird from below or a flying bird overhead. 

Color of adult males – House Finch shows a bright red-orange over the head, face, breast and upper belly. Purple Finch shows a soft, purplish-red or raspberry red color to head down to the belly.

Face pattern of adult females – Female House Finch has a very plain brown face with fine brown streaking throughout. Female Purple Finch has a nice dark brown head and a face that has a bold white eyeline and malar stripe. Both of these white streaks are hard to miss. If these are not present, you probably are looking at a female House Finch.

Flank streaking – Adult male House Finches have a considerable amount of brown streaking to the flanks and belly. Adult male Purple Finches have a varying amount of brown streaking with some birds having little if any streaking. 

Adult female House Finches are covered with fine to medium brown streaking along the flanks and belly. Adult female Purple Finches have prominent thick brown streaking in those areas.

Even distant birds in flight can be identified if you get a good look. Concentrate on the general size and shape, overall color, rump color, tail and flanks.

Call notes – Luckily for us, both species call frequently when flying. Learning the call notes of both species will go a long way in helping you make the identification. I would guess that about 70% of the Purple Finches I have identified this fall have been “heard only” birds passing overhead.

House Finch makes a “cheep” similar to a House Sparrow. 

Purple Finch makes a sharp “pic” or “tek” note. 

I hope this blog will help with your finch identifications.

Photographs by the author.

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