A Tale of Two Finches

House Finch male and female

Since we moved to this house in 1989 one of the common feeder birds here has been the house finch, shown above in photos I found online, male on the left, female on the right. Some years we fed dozens of them through the winter. In the late 1990s, though, the house finch population on the east coast was hit by an eye disease, a form of conjunctivitis, actually a respiratory condition that showed on the birds mainly as swollen, puffy areas around the eyes. Cornell University has been tracking and documenting this problem HERE, if you’d like to know more. One thing I found interesting on that site was the information that house finches aren’t native to the east coast, but are from the west coast of North America, and got a foothold here the same way as English sparrows and European Starlings: people and pet shops used to have them as pets before the 1940s, when trade in wild birds was stopped.

Female purple finch

The result of the disease was an abrupt decline in house finches in our area, and we’ve seen much less of them over the last few years. About two or three years ago another, similar bird started showing up at our feeders in the winter: purple finch. Above is a female on my window feeder in the studio taken today. Compare it to the house finch picture above, and note the white eyestripe and high-contrast spotting on the chest, two field marks that are easy to see even from some distance. They also have a more notched tail than the house finch.

Purple finches, female

This year, all the finches at our feeders are purple finches. I’ve counted eight females all feeding at the same time, and I’ve seen at least one male. My guess is there’s between 10 and 20 that we’re supporting. And this is the native finch for our area, though until recent years I’d hardly ever seen one. Apparently they’re now expanding in population, taking advantage of the niche the house finches have left open.

Male Purple Finch

Here’s a male. More pink than purple, by the way, don’t know where the name came from, but he’s an attractive fellow. This picture I found online shows more color than the one I saw here yesterday. I imagine in a few months ours will have more color too.

Cornell reports a few cases of conjunctivitis in purple finches and other birds, but so far it’s mainly hitting the house finches. Is it because they’re not from here, and more susceptible? Hard to say, and I’ll leave anaysis to the scientists, but it is an interesting example of the constant changes going on around us in the natural world. Most of them we aren’t aware of. This one just happens to be going on where we’re looking.

2 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Finches

  1. Kristine

    I love your blog! I found a baby sparrow in my backyard. The mother never came back to feed it. I fed it and it now lives loose inside with me. He sleeps in my silk trees at night. It doesnt even try to go outside. He did spook and flew out one time when young but came right back to me the next morning when I yelled “YUM YUM” and he saw me eating. New things and places are evil to him. He is determined to stay on my shoulder when I blow dry my hair but a new toy for his always open cage spooks him. He thinks I am a playtoy. He plays tug o war with my hair and tries to put his beak up my nose when I nap. a very curious bird! He likes to finger box me, what an aggressive bird! He has no fear of my 6 dogs either. He likes to dive in front of them and beat them to the waterbowl and make them wait while he hangs upside down and takes a bath. What an attitude he has! He is the best!

  2. Todd Post author

    That’s a great story, Kristine. It’s actually not legal to keep wild birds as pets, but your sparrow sounds well adjusted and happy, so I don’t see any problem with that. Not something I’d encourage anyone to do, because usually wild birds are happier outside.

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