Look Alikes: Tips for identifying two of our backyard finches

DR. MADELINE A. KALBACH PHOTOFemale purple finch

It is a proud moment when you can identify a bird that is new to your backyard, and it is especially so when you correctly name one that is difficult to identify. Being a bird-watcher and identifying a bird correctly is one of the joys of being a birder.

Some backyard birds like the house finch and the purple finch tend to look alike. Thus, we need to know some of the finer points of identification for these two birds.

In general, the purple finch is larger and stockier than the house finch. It has a longer tail with a deeper notch, compared to the house finch, whose tail is relatively short and not deeply notched. Both have relatively large conical bills for cracking the shell of their favorite black oil (sunflower) seed.

Both species come to my feeders. They seem to sit forever enjoying the feast before them, but both species of finches are also ground feeders, and enjoy a drink from the bird bath, as well as a bath. They come daily to splash about, even in winter.

The male purple finch is mainly raspberry in color on its head, breast and back with some brownish on the flanks, while the male house finch’s color pattern is concentrated only on its breast and head. There is no red on its back, but it may have a red rump. While it is usually red, it can also be orangey-red. Their color is dependent on the amount of certain pigments in their food. The redder the house finch, the more pigment its food contains (Cornell Ornithological Lab) and the redder the male, the more attractive he is to a female. I often see house finch that are more orangey-red, and even orangey-yellow. In addition, the streaks on the male house finch tend to be brown and distinct.

Female finches are more difficult to tell apart. The female purple finch is characterized by indistinct streaks on its breast and belly, olive-coloring above and a yellow wash below (Sibley, 2016). The female house finch that come to my feeders seem plainer and sport short streaks that tend to be blurry. It is brownish in color. First-year birds are virtually identical to the female.

As I read the description above, I wonder why these two species are so difficult to tell apart. All I had to do was to take a hard look at the feeder and the birdbath and immediately the answer became clear. One of the key words is variation. Variation is size or perception of size, variation color etc. Good light, for example, makes identification easier when looking for field marks; poor light makes the task more difficult.

As a birder, I delight in identifying differences among and within species and pondering who is visiting my backyard! Species that are new to my yard or to the Refuge are particularly exciting to identify. Determining whether it is a house finch or a purple finch can be challenging at times, but once you get the hang of it you will very pleased with yourself! Guaranteed.

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