Foam Lake Birding No. 7

Whereas the Purple Finch is native to our area, the House Finch is not. The first time that I saw one, much to my surprise, was in October of 1994. Distribution maps in bird books showed it to be a bird of the American southwest! It certainly is common in California, Arizona and adjacent areas, but what was it doing here?
In my research, I discovered that the House Finch was sold as the “Hollywood Finch” in the illegal cage-bird trade. Apparently, the law was closing in on the individuals who were involved, so in order to avoid prosecution, the culprits released the birds to dispose of the evidence. Since this event in New York, in 1940, the bird has spread explosively across the rest of the continent. There are other introduced birds in our area, but they are all foreign. What is unusual about the introduction of the House Finch is that it is a native of North America.
The male Purple and House Finches are very similar in size, colour, diet and song. It takes a bit of practice to tell them apart. First, the Purple Finch has more red on his body. Second, the Purple Finch is more of a wine colour, whereas, the House Finch has more of an orange tinge. Third, the Purple Finch has a bright red cap; the House Finch has a grey one. Fourth, the Purple Finch often raises its head feathers into a crest, the House Finch does not. Fifth, the female House Finch has a plain grayish brown face; the female Purple Finch has a pronounced brown bar through its eye. In fact, it is easier to tell the females apart than the males.
There are several other characteristics to note about the House Finch, none of which are very helpful in distinguishing it from the Purple Finch. First, House Finches are non-migratory. They do seem to go somewhere, perhaps to the cities, but several will show up at feeders all winter long. Second, the females do not sing. Third, House Finches come in three colour phases; red - the most common, orange – less common, yellow – quite rare. It is quite easy to conclude that these three colour phases represent three different species of birds. In fact, over the years, this sort of thing has happened several times with other birds! One could compare them to people; some are brunette, some are blond, some are red haired and so on. This is another reason why identifying birds by colour alone can be misleading.
This week’s picture shows the House Finch sitting lengthwise on a branch as it if were playing hide and seek. What happened was that the bird had just finished eating sunflower seeds at the feeder and was rubbing seed residue off its beak on the branch (wiping the crumbs off its” lips”, as it were). Actually, many birds exhibit this behavior. It just so happened that I had a camera handy at the time, and was lucky enough to get this shot.
The beginning birder should not be discouraged by the difficulty in distinguishing between the two species. Treat it as a challenge. It does get easier with practice. Keep in mind that even experienced birders have to take a second look at times.