Foam Lake Birding No. 6

I decided that I am going to go back and write about finches again. Not that I have any special fondness for them, but rather, that I wanted to change colours as it were. To date, I have written about brown, yellow and black birds, so for this column and the next one, I thought red might be nice.
In recent years, the Purple Finch has become a welcome summer addition to our area. Why is anybody’s guess. Perhaps, the recent practice of putting out bird feeders has provided an ample food supply; perhaps, mature evergreens provide suitable nesting sites; perhaps, it is a combination of the two; perhaps, it is for reasons entirely different. Whatever the reasons, they are common now, when only a short time ago they were seen only in the spring and fall during migration to and from the Boreal forests.
Purple finches are sparrow-sized. The female is streaked brown and white; the male is mainly red. The male has been described as “a sparrow dipped in raspberry juice”. This is probably as good a description as can be stated in words. The name, purple, is somewhat baffling as the bird is essentially red. The reason is that the word, purple, has changed in meaning over the centuries. When the bird was first named, purple actually referred to a deep crimson (red) colour, not the familiar bluish colour of today. The definition of the word changed, but the name did not.
There are two other interesting features to note. First, when stressed or excited, the birds raise their head feathers into small crests. Second, the male’s courting display is quite remarkable. He drops his wings, raises his crest, fans his tail and struts about the female trying to impress her. He somewhat resembles a little red turkey gobbler! It is too late to witness this display this year, but be on the lookout next spring.
Purple Finches are one of the first birds to arrive in the spring. Because they are still in flocks, this is the best time to observe them. This spring was especially good. Our sunflower feeders had as many as twenty males alone-a spectacular sight! Other people around town reported much the same thing. Once nesting starts, they become territorial and start chasing each other away. Birders will then see only one or two (if it’s a mating pair) at any given feeder at any one time. Currently, there appear to be two nesting pairs somewhere in our block.
The Purple Finch’s song is quite pleasing. What is unusual is that the females sing as often and as well as the males. For those of us who like to hear birds sing, this is a real treat as we have twice as much birdsong.
As you are observing and studying the Purple Finch, you might notice that some of the birds seem to be off a bit. This means that your birding skills are improving. A very similar and closely related bird, the House Finch, also occurs in our area at our feeders. It will be the subject of the next column. Meanwhile, have fun telling them apart.