Unnoticed Visitors

Novice birders, focusing on common, local, avian residents, often overlook migrants and seasonal visitors that resemble those birds. One such visitor is the purple finch, a fairly common winter resident in California and across the eastern half of the U.S. Since they are similar in appearance to the abundant house finches, their presence may not be appreciated.

A bit larger, stockier and possessing a heavier bill, purple finches are also recognized by distinct plumage characteristics and a notched tail. The males have a rasberry wash over their head, breast and rump, which mixes with brown on their back and is diffused with white on their chest and abdomen; in contrast, the male house finch has an uneven, orange-red coloration, primarily on the head and upper chest. Female purple finches, like female house finches, are streaked with white and brown but have a prominant white facial stripe, just above each eye.

The summer breeding range of purple finches extends across the coniferous forest belt of Canada, down through the northern Midwest, New England, the Pacific Northwest, and southward along the Appalachian and Sierra Nevada mountains. In winter, they abandon the northernmost section of that breeding range and appear in sizable flocks throughout California and the eastern half of the U.S. Maintaining a fondness for coniferous woodlands, they also forage for seeds, buds and berries in mixed woods and weedy fields during the colder months, often turning up at backyard feeders. Like some other winter visitors, such as evening grosbeaks, red-breasted nuthatches and Bohemian waxings, purple finches are erratic wanderers and their numbers vary widely from year to year.