The Finch Family

The finches, family Fringillidae, are seed eaters which display an undulating flight pattern. Those seen locally are purple, house, pine siskin, American goldfinch, common and hoary redpolls, and evening grosbeaks. Lately, I’ve had purple and house finches, and goldfinches at my feeders.

Let’s start with the purple. First of all, the purples aren’t purple. They’re rosie red. The adult males are that color from head to rump. They breed on the edges of coniferous forests, woods with both coniferous and deciduous trees, and in more open woods.

Mostly they favor seeds from winter to early spring. Besides those, they eat tree buds, blossoms and insects. In summertime they sure do like the fruit better. (That’s why I’m planting American cranberry, button bush, spicebush and serviceberry this year. The young are mostly fed seeds.

Learning about behavioral habits is, in my opinion, the most interesting part of birding. Male purple finches, when courting, do a lot of hopping, drooping of their wings and puffing out their breasts. They also vibrate their wings very fast, stick their tails up and sing quietly. Finally, they also hold nesting materials, jump off the ground from 6 to 12 inches and sing. Wouldn’t you just love to be a witness to any of those activities?

Next behavioral step – building a nest. A location of choice is on a branch of a coniferous tree, at a good distance from the trunk. The shallow cup is composed of twigs, tiny roots and even tinier rootlets, grass, hair and moss. That’s going to be one comfy home for the newborn chicks.

These lucky birds aren’t often invaded by cowbirds which lay their big eggs in others’ nests for others to hatch and raise the chicks. However, house sparrows have probably affected them in that the purple finches’ breeding range has decreased in New England, especially in urban areas.

Now, for the house finches that aren’t red all over, like the purple finches. The males have brown backs and yellow on the backs of their heads. Their flanks have brownish streaks, instead of the reddish ones of the purple finches and their tails are longer.

These finches are similar to cowbirds, in that they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests. This may be a cause of the lowering numbers of purple finches.

Unlike the purple finches, the house finches mostly eat seeds – no insects. They enjoy seeds of dandelions and thistles, radishes and field mustard. As far as I’m concerned, I wish that they would eat more of that mustard. It is taking over farmers’ fields, and the cows can’t eat it.

Just like us, these birds like sweets. That means maple sap in the spring. They also poke holes in trumpet-shaped flowers to attain the nectar in the bottom. Guess what scientists think might cause the red color on their feathers? Red-colored fruit, that’s what.

Do you feed the birds in the winter? I sure do. This practice has drastically changed the behavior of some birds. The finches, especially the house finches, have increased their ranges from Long Island to the Mississippi River in the last 50 years. Just as an aside, other birds whose ranges have been affected by people feeding them in winter, are the northern cardinal, tufted titmouse, red-bellied woodpecker and mourning dove.

Feeding the birds late in the day will actually keep them alive through the cold nights of winter. Sunflower seeds are the best, because of their fat content. However, nothing’s ever perfect. The disadvantage of feeding birds in the winter is that it may attract sick birds which then spread diseases to other birds. (Be sure that your seeds do not become moldy. That’s definitely a bird killer.)

Now, when you see a flock of mixed species, check to see if purple finches are in with the pine siskins and goldfinches. Good birding to you.