I have finches that come regularly to my feeders in central MN. They have a lot of reddish markings on them, but I can not tell if they are "bright red" as the field-guides describe the house finch, or "raspberry" as they describe the purple finch. Add to this the fact that some field guides do not list house finch for this area, and others do.
What is the best way to tell which of these species I have at the feeders? Is it possible that I have both? Sometimes I see one that I think looks exactly like the photo of a house finch in the guides, and another that I think looks exactly like the photo of the purple finch, but both in the same flock.
Back in the day, For The Birds was a monthly column on a local message board. From For The Birds (vol 7) Nov 2002
House Finch There are two “sparrows dipped in raspberry sauce, the House Finch and the Purple Finch. To tell the difference – the House Finch is slimmer with a short stubby bill that looks to be curved downward in a frown. The Purple Finch is plumper with a cone shaped bill. Lots of books will go on about how the red color is much more extensive on the Purple Finch and the House Finch has more brown on the top of the head but I find the bill to be the key I can use in the field. House Finches are common as dirt while Purple Finches are few and far between. While both can be seen in Gloucester in the fall the House Finch is here in good numbers year round.
House Finches were imported to New York from the western United States. It is believed the entire east coast population of House Finches descended from 80 individuals released on Long Island in 1941. Strangely, the east coast population developed the habit of migrating north-south with the season while the west coast population never does.
House Finches eat Niger (thistle) seed and absolutely love sunflower seeds. Feeding House Finches should be watched for mycoplasmal conjunctivitis, a bacterial disease that causes the swelling of the eyes and eventual death. This disease is prevalent enough to cut the population by 80%. There were so many of these birds before the onslaught of mycoplasmal conjunctivitis that they are still not in trouble but the disease may be spread to other species. If you see any bird at your feeders with swollen eyes, stop feeding immediately. Wash your feeder with a 10% bleach solution an either take it in or throw a plastic bag over it for a couple of weeks. While your feeder might not “carry” the bacteria, it provides a central meeting place for infected birds to spread the disease.
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I know it is probably not the best advice anyone can come up with but the way I separate House and Purple Finch is by the bill. If it looks like it just bit into something sour, then it is a House Finch. I might see three or four Purple Finches in a year. Hope this helps....
Last edited by Jim B on Mon Sep 03, 2007 10:42 am, edited 1 time in total.
Thanks, Jim! Yes, I think that is an easier way to tell them apart, rather than having to check out the amount and particular shade of the red markings! I'll try this and see if I can id any of them tomorrow.