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Female Purple Finch or House Finch?

12-2-15 female purple finch IMG_0523While the eastern population of Purple Finches has declined significantly since the invasion of House Finches (a few California individuals released from a pet store in New York City in 1939 as well as natural expansion of its western range resulted in a population explosion of House Finches in the east), both species can appear at feeders. Without fail, every winter I have to relearn the field marks that distinguish these two birds. Both males and females of these respective species are quite similar, but it is the drab and sparrow-like females that send me flying to a field guide.

Three features stand out as most helpful in distinguishing female Purple Finches from House Finches. The female Purple Finch has short, dark streaks on her breast, whereas the House Finch’s breast streaks are quite blurry. The female (and male) Purple Finch has a distinctly notched tail; the House Finch’s tail is just slightly notched. Finally, and most obvious, are their respective head patterns. Female Purple Finches have a conspicuous light eyebrow stripe that contrasts with a solid, dark brown ear patch, both of which the House Finch lacks.

Being seed eaters, Purple Finches are attracted to sunflower seed feeders, and if you feed birds, this provides ample opportunity to observe these field marks. While doing so, you may notice that Purple Finches can be fairly aggressive with each other when vying for this source of food. Surprisingly, more often than not, the female prevails. (photo: female Purple Finch)

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13 responses

  1. Tara Johnson

    THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU! I Love today’s post! I do the same thing every year…

    December 2, 2015 at 6:55 am

  2. A friend of mine who knows her birds calls the Sparrows “Brown Jobs” as there are so many and they can get confusing!

    December 2, 2015 at 7:24 am

    • Yes, the little brown shorebirds that are so hard to distinguish are referred to by birders as “LBJ”s” – little brown jobs!

      December 2, 2015 at 7:49 am

  3. Gwyn Loud

    Hi Mary,
    A further complication to the purple-or-house finch challenge is that first year male purple finches look just like females!
    (See Sibley guide)

    December 2, 2015 at 8:51 am

  4. Edie Posselt

    So is this a Purple Finch?

    December 2, 2015 at 9:40 am

  5. Betsy Janeway

    Dear Mary,
    There’s a feature never mentioned in field guides, which I always use to help me tell House Finch from Purple Finch and that’s the top of their heads: House Finches have flat heads. Purple Finches have a different look, often a small crest, but their heads are never flat on top. Look carefully and I think you’ll agree.
    Betsy Janeway

    December 2, 2015 at 10:05 am

    • I do, indeed, agree, Betsy! Thanks so much.

      December 2, 2015 at 12:38 pm

  6. Dan Maxon

    Glad to hear you need to re-learn the markings every year. I often consider myself a Naturalist’s dream date to walk in the woods with, because I constantly need to relearn just about everything, and each time it’s as fun and exciting as the first time!

    December 2, 2015 at 10:18 am

    • You do sound like the perfect woods-walking companion!

      December 2, 2015 at 12:41 pm

  7. Irma Graf

    I find it comforting to know that even you, Mary, have to run for a field guide for something you see infrequently. That’s my situation with wildflowers every spring.

    December 2, 2015 at 11:22 am

  8. Fetching little capture, Mary!

    December 2, 2015 at 8:36 pm

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