Bird of the Month: Purple Finch
By Andy McCormick
Length 6 in
Wingspan 10 in
Weight 0.88 oz
AOU Band code PUFI
As we spread out into many rural areas this spring, we will undoubtedly hear the beautiful, bubbly song of the Purple Finch. In the early spring before breeding season begins Purple Finches will sing as a group. Once paired for nesting, male Purple Finches will sing as solitary sentries at the top of a tree defining their territory. Don’t be fooled however, by a drab looking finch that also might be singing from a similar perch. That is likely to be a first-year male that does not have its red adult feathers yet. It gets a spring season to practice its craft before having to actually attract a mate.
Purple Finches are not really purple. They are more of a rose red. That is, if it is a male that has had a good diet. The red of these finches and many birds is the result of their eating foods containing carotenoids, the source of yellow, orange and red coloration in birds. The red finches including Purple, Cassin’s, and House Finches are able to convert these pigments to red. Some birds do this better than others, so in the field we can see finches with varying shades of red. This can make distinguishing one of these three species from the other very challenging. This problem of identification is covered in many field guides and you are encouraged to study the differences among them.
The female Purple Finch looks very different from the male and has no red on it at all. It is very boldly marked on the face with bright white eyebrow and moustache stripes which distinguishe it from the female House and Cassin’s Finches. The undertail covets for both the male and female Purple Finch are white feathers with no streaks on them.
Purple Finches in Washington have a limited migration and will move to lower elevations in the winter months. Beginning in February and into May, Purple Finches will move back to the breeding range in coniferous forests and oak woodlands along streams. The nest is a compact, open cup of twigs, weeds, and strips of bark lined with fine grass, moss and animal hair built on the outer ends of tree branches (Kaufman). The eggs are a pale greenish blue with black and brown markings. Incubation lasts about two weeks and the birds take flight in another two weeks.
Purple Finches have not adapted to humans the way the House Finches have and they remain in mostly rural areas away from human development. This may be changing as Purple Finches are seen at some feeders. Their population is considered stable in western North America, but decreases of 50% or more in central and eastern North America have been seen in areas invaded by House Finches and after the introduction of House Sparrows.