Have you ever had a small bird visit your feeder wearing a purple wash on its head and breast? There are two types of finches with red or purple color commonly found in our area. One is the House Finch. The second is the Purple Finch. Now, here’s the challenge. How do you tell one from the other?  It can be difficult. But, this is a good time of year to study them. They often come to feeders where they squat and eat black sunflower seeds for minutes at a time.  In fact, they often come in small groups.  Here some tips to look for to identify whether your visitor is house or purple.

House Finches: These finches were originally only found in the western United States. In 1939, a pet store in New York released a small group of these birds. Little did anyone know what would happen next. These birds reproduced and went on to expand their numbers throughout most of the eastern United States. Generally, these birds thrive around people. In our part of Maine, they are not as prevalent, especially as you move further away from town.  The House Finch is a small, sparrow-sized bird with heavy brown streaking. The males have a red to purple color on their face, head and breast. They do not have this color on their sides, which are heavily streaked with brown. They have a heavy bill compared to sparrows, which they use to crack seeds, their primary food.

Purple Finches. This bird can look almost identical to the house finch. It is said to be stockier and slightly larger than the House Finch, but for me this is not a reliable way of telling them apart. The easiest clue is that the male Purple Finch has a raspberry color on its head, face, breast, sides and back. The House Finch will have distinct brown streaks on his side, whereas the male Purple Finch has this raspberry color.

There are other clues but, if you are far from town and see a sparrow-sized bird with red or purple, look at the bird’s sides. Streaky brown sides suggest you are seeing a House Finch. Extensive purple on the back and sides may mean your visitor is a Purple Finch. Even if you can’t tell the difference, enjoy these colorful visitors to your feeder.

James Reddoch, of Albany Township and Boston, leads birding events for the Mahoosuc Land Trust which celebrates 30 years conserving the natural areas of the Mahoosuc Region. Visit Mahoosuc Land Trust at 162 North Road, Bethel, ME or at www.mahoosuc.org. To learn about upcoming events or to contact James, send your emails to [email protected]

House finch. Matthew Hunt

Purple finch. D. Faulder

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