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Posts tagged “Haemorhous purpureus

Purple Finches Irrupting

Every year a Winter Finch Forecast ( ) is published which predicts which finches in the northern boreal forests might be extending their range south due to a poor food supply farther north. These larger-than-normal movements of birds are referred to as irruptions, and they happen every year, to varying degrees with varying species. 

This year’s Winter Finch Forecast predicted that Purple Finches would irrupt southward, following the large spruce budworm outbreak (producing short-term population increases) and poor mast crop in much of the eastern boreal forest.  The past few days have proven the forecast right and signaled the start to a large-scale irruption event. Once Black Bears have gone into hibernation and your feeders are up, keep an eye out for ever-increasing numbers of Purple Finches (as well as irrupting Evening Grosbeaks).

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Feeding Habits of the Purple Finch

12-21-16-purple-finch-074Purple Finches feed mainly on seeds, buds, blossoms, nectar, tree fruits and occasionally insects. In winter, when they are mainly eating seeds, nuts and fruits, they use their beak and tongue to crush seeds and extract nuts. In the summer, when feeding on nectar, Purple Finches use their beak to crush the calyx at the flower’s base and extract the nectar with their tongue, leaving the upper flower parts undamaged.

Other random facts regarding the Purple Finch’s eating habits include following: Research shows that Purple Finches weighed in the early morning increased their body weight by 3.5 grams (13.5%) when re-weighed in the afternoon. Carotenoid pigments in their diet are thought to be necessary for the normal development of male Purple Finches’ raspberry red plumage. The mean handling time of a single sunflower seed is just over a minute and they prefer thin to fat sunflower seeds.

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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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Canadian Conifer and Deciduous Tree Seed Crops Affect New England’s Winter Bird Population

11-10-15 pine siskin 185Every year Ron Pittaway publishes a forecast of the movements of winter finches in the upcoming winter ( Although his report focuses on Ontario, he includes the effect that the Canadian seed crops have on northern New England’s winter bird population. A poor crop of a given seed (spruce, birch, etc.) in Canada inevitably drives finches that feed on that seed to search for food elsewhere, often further south. For instance, because White Spruce crops are low in Ontario this year and high in northern New England, we may well see high numbers of Pine Siskins (see photo).

Pittaway predicts we may also see higher than usual Purple Finch numbers (poor cone and deciduous tree seed crops in Ontario), perhaps White-winged Crossbills (poor spruce cone crop in Ontario), and more Common Redpolls (poor birch seed crop in Ontario) this winter. Time to fill feeders, sit back and see how accurate his forecast actually is!

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