Think you’d more likely have a purple cow in the yard than a Purple Finch? Depending on how far south you live and how this year’s northerly seed crops fared, you could be right. But Purple Finches—which, by the way, are not purple—can make backyard appearances throughout the Midwest, South, and East. They’re unpredictable, always a pleasant surprise, sometimes popping in for a day or a week, and then they’re gone. This October, I had a female Purple Finch that hung around for several weeks, but it was the first I’d seen at my feeders in seven years. That’s a long time. I’ve missed them.
Easily confused with our year-round, wide-spread House Finches, Purple Finches come south only in winter and only when food shortages send them south.
One bird with which the House finch competes is the introduced House Sparrow, a bird originally from England and at one time called English Sparrow, a bird not really a sparrow at all. (See more in the House Sparrow Species Profile in September.) Because the House Sparrow came to us from England, and because it enjoys unprecedented success when competing with native species nationwide, most backyard birders shudder at their abundance. The majority of us would likely rather not see House Sparrows gobbling up our proffered seed, shouldering out other would-be feeder birds, and rousting our precious Eastern Bluebirds from their cavity nests.
In spite of their name, House Finches do not prefer cavities for nesting as do House Sparrows. So, where is the competition? Food. Food for themselves and for their babies. Both birds prefer a diet of seed. But whether one species can out-eat the other or whether one species ultimately prefers quieter quarters and seeks alternative habitat to the other—these issues remain for some PhD candidate to research and report. Meanwhile, keep an eye open for competitive signs in your yard.
Separating the little brown jobs (LBJs) snatching seeds from your feeders can offer a challenge. In summer, only LBJs like female House Finches, House Sparrows, and perhaps a Song Sparrow or two forage feeder offerings. Depending on your habitat, an occasional nesting Chipping Sparrow may join the throng. (Male House Finches wear enough red to never be mistaken as an LBJ.) In winter, however, beginning in October, multitudes of LBJs abound around the buffet. They all look fairly similar: brown backs, maybe with some white spots, beige breasts, maybe with some streaks. Sorting them out sometimes seems a fruitless effort.
Any of these wintering LBJs may show up at feeders, expanding the summer mobs to demanding winter throngs.
Just as many sparrows are winter-only visitors, Purple Finches also visit my yard only in winter, sometimes as early as late October. But unlike winter-only sparrows that sail in, clockwork-like, every winter, Purple Finches arrive only in winters when dwindling northern conifer cone supplies leave them hungry enough to venture our way, typically every other year, corresponding to cone production cycles. The phenomenon is called an irruption.
Male Purple Finches, that look like sparrows dipped in raspberry juice, can be confused with our common year-round slimmer and more streaked male House Finches. On the other hand, female Purple Finches show a snazzy facial pattern that attracts attention and should prevent confusing them with female House Finches—or even with other LBJs.
Many other LBJs wear rather indistinct faces, vaguely striped or generally overall brown. But a female Purple Finch wears a Hollywood face, beauty marks including a bold dark-brown ear patch, deep-brown jaw stripe, contrastingly crisp white streak behind the eye, and a bright white stripe from bill’s base to her neck.
To my eye, female Purple Finches stand out in other ways among the crowd of LBJs. They’re perky, maybe even a bit feisty, often raising their head feathers almost as if they have crests. It’s as if they’re strutting their stuff, maybe showing an attitude. Whichever the case, few feeder fellows can boss these girls around, not even larger cardinals. You gotta love ‘em for that.
Most years at my feeders—years when irruptions do occur—I see far more female than male Purple Finches. And there are several good reasons. First, female and immature males look identical.
That’s all the more reason to study the throngs of LBJs at your wintertime feeders. They’ve come from central Canada to enjoy your buffet. You wouldn’t want to miss them.