Winter Birdwatching: Spotting purple finches

Discovery Place Nature

This time of year, birds depend on our feeders for an easy meal.

Black oil sunflower seeds are a type of seed that many different species of birds love. With its high fat content, it is a great supplemental seed to provide for our feathered friends.

Among the common species that come to our feeders, sometimes uncommon birds make an appearance and it can be exciting to see them.

One of those birds is the purple finch (Carpodacus purpureus). Purple finches are uncommon winter visitors at bird feeders this time of year.

They are often overlooked because they look like the house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus). The house finch originated in the western part of the United States, was introduced to the east around 1950 and has spread all over the country since. They are a common sight around our bird feeders and nesting around our homes.

Superficially, the males are the most confusing because they can look so similar. The females have more distinguishing differences. The female purple finch looks more like a sparrow in her markings, while the female house finch looks like a duller version of the male. If you look closely at the males with binoculars, you can spot the difference between these two birds.


Here are a few hints:

  1. The house finch has a mostly grayish brown back. A purple finch has rosy red coloration that spills down from the head to the back.
  2. The house finch has grayish brown streaks on its flanks (sides). The purple finch has streaks down the side that are more rosy red.
  3. A house finch's tail in longer and has a shallow notch, where the purple finch has a shorter tail with a deep notch.
  4. The house finch has a gray cheek, where the purple finch has a rosy red cheek and head.

Keep your eyes peeled for these birds along the Paw Paw Nature Trail or at your own feeders. If you get a chance to see them, keep these hints in mind so you can tell the difference and expand your knowledge of the amazing diversity of nature around you!

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  • From the Director