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The House Finch

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Photo by Matthew Hunt via Wikimedia Commons Photo by Matthew Hunt via Wikimedia Commons

A sweetheart of a bird

As I have written in many previous articles, if you want to see certain birds you simply have to go to them.  It is unlikely that you will ever see a Clark’s Nutcracker or a Spotted Sandpiper in your neighborhood.  You might, but it is unlikely.  And I suppose that this is the mark of a birder’s zeal: how far a person is willing to travel, how much time willing to devote, or how much money willing to spend, to see different species of birds.  Some active birders will travel wherever necessary to add species to their life list; others not so much. Personally, I’m somewhere in the middle. I spent a week in southern Texas, binoculars in hand, actively scouting out unfamiliar bird species (email me, I’ll share what I saw), but that is only because my oldest son lives in that unlovely part of the country.  It was exciting. But would I travel there with the exclusive intent of adding bird species to my life list? Probably not.  

That being said, it is a wonderful hobby to add bird feeders to your backyard so you can bring species to you. And included among these is the delightful House Finch—one of my all-time favorite species. This is a sweetheart of a bird! How so? Let me share.  

House finches are relatively common, but also friendly. They will visit almost any backyard and seem to set up a nest in every neighborhood. Granted, the male does not sing as memorably as, say, a song sparrow, but he sure tries. His soft warble has a jaunty little tune. Nor is he as dapper as, say, an American Goldfinch, but still a beauty compared to many other species. And if you put out feeders filled exclusively with sunflower seeds, you’ll be in a better position to get these fine little folks as visitors.  

So, how would you know a House Finch if you were to see one? Color mostly. As is typical with many of our songbird species, the male is more gaudily attired than the females. This is, of course, all for the female’s benefit as the male risks life and limb in his resplendent attire to win the fancy of the camouflaged females. The House Finch male sports a distinctive red on his head, throat, and upper breast.  Otherwise, he is brown and streaked. The female is perfectly nondescript, grayish-brown and heavily streaked. In fact, you might not be able to positively identify the female apart from her association with the quite distinctive male. Both wield large, heavy, nut-cracking beaks.  

On rare occasion you might even spot a yellow or orange male House Finch. I’ve seen this coloration only twice in my birding “career.” This mis-coloration is caused by the bird’s diet and is a fairly recent phenomenon. Male birds that feed heavily from feeders rather than wild foods do not receive the red hues that are drawn from a natural diet. I was surprised when I first saw my first example. I asked myself, what do we have here? 

The House Finch has two cousins with which it might be confused, the Cassin’s Finch and the Purple Finch. To complicate the picture, all three of these species live in our area, but in my experience none are as common as the House Finch. The Cassin’s Finch seems to prefer less urban settings. This male has less red, most of which is limited to the face and head, and practically no streaking on the whitish-gray breast. The Purple Finch are more uniformly red than a House Finch, but not quite as vivid. And no, Purple Finches are not purple in color.  

Prior to game laws that currently prohibit such things, House Finches were commonly trapped and sold as caged birds. Originally this species was strictly a West Coast bird, but intentional releases of captive birds on the East Coast established breeding populations there. Now the House Finch is found almost everywhere in these United States, with only some of the prairie states devoid of its presence.  It is even present in Hawaii.    

Give yourself a treat: if you currently do not have House Finches in your neighborhood then change your bird seed from the generic mix to only black sunflower seeds. Trust me, this will attracted this and other little finches (and less of those pesky House Sparrows!). And then you too will be able to see why these fun little birds are among my favorites. Happy birding!

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Jeff 08/08/2012 04:40:39
I've had * ton of these little ones in my backyard pretty much from my birding beginnings about 9 years ago. The only problem I've had is the eye disease they get and spread quickly. I keep an eye on my feeders very closely, clean up around them and make sure they are clean but they can still spread it. This year has been without such incident thankfully.

I do agree that when the male puts his mind to it he can belt out some pretty impressive song.
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Author info

Michael Turnlund Michael Turnlund is a Sandpoint resident who teaches at Clark Fork High School. An avid birder, he's happy to share his knowledge of the area's avian wildlife

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A Bird in Hand, house finch

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