It’s easy to confuse purple finches and house finches.
Purple Finches aren’t really purple. And House Finches don’t live in houses
But that’s only the beginning of the confusion between these doppelgangers of the bird world.
Any brown and red bird at your bird feeder anywhere in the United States might be either of these two birds.
So, how do you tell them apart?
Purple Finch vs House Finch – Some quick hints
The easiest place to start finding out whether you have been watching purple finches or house finches is to consult a map.
Purple finches nest in the summer along the Pacific Coast of the United States, in the Northeastern United States, and in Canada.
House Finches are common across all 50 states of the United States, including Hawaii.
If you live in the northern United States or Canada, or along the Pacific Coast of either country, it’s still easy to be flummoxed by finches.
But with a little practice, you can learn the distinctive markings of both species so well you won’t need to consult an encyclopedia every time you see a Finch.
That is, if you see both species together.
6 ways to recognize a Male Purple Finch
Purple finches tend to be calm birds. They are less inclined to fly away when they see you than House Finches.
If there is anyone way you can tell Purple Finches from House Finches, it’s that Purple Finches will be the ones that aren’t afraid of you.
Purple Finches have other distinguishing characteristics. They aren’t really purple.
They are more of port wine or raspberry red. Their redness extends over most of their bodies, including their backs and wings.
Purple finches have larger bodies and stronger, whiter beaks. They have blurred colors under their wings, with no particular markings.
5 ways to recognize a Male House Finch
House Finches tend jut out their chests, but they are slimmer than Purple Finches.
In addition to a slimmer body and a rounder head. They have reddish feathers, but almost exclusively on their heads and breasts.
Their crests will be orange-red or bright crimson. House Finches have heavy brown markings under their wings.
Color doesn’t really help in distinguishing female and young male Finches
Color is an easy way to distinguish male Purple Finches from male House Finches, but there two limitations:
- Even males of both species can show individual variations in color, and
- Females and young males of both species are brown and white.
Female Purple Finches have bold, well-defined white marks above each eye. It looks something like a white eyebrow, except for the fact that birds don’t have eyebrows.
The browns on the backs of female Purple Finches are more crisply patterned than the browns on the backs of female House Finches.
It’s easier to distinguish the females and the young males of these species on the basis of body shape and behavior.
You need to look at multiple characteristics to identify these birds.
In parts of the US, the finch you see is more likely to be Cassin’s Finch
There is a complication for birdwatchers in high-elevation pine and spruce forests from western Montana to the Four Corners and Nevada.
There is a third finch, the Cassin’s Finch, thrown into the mix.
Cassin’s Finches usually don’t range in the same places as Purple Finches. This is a good thing, because Cassin’s Finches and Purple Finches look a lot alike.
A Cassin’s Finch has a prominent eye-ring and a longer, straighter beak. There are places in the American West where you can see all three species of finches at the same time.
Purple Finches, House Finches, and Cassin’s Finches all love sunflower seeds. It’s not hard to attract them to your yard.
But if you want to tell them apart on a reliable basis, you may need to learn the fine details of their ID.
Purple Finches vs House Finches – Detailed Differences
If you get to take a close look at your finches, you can be more confident about which species they are.
We will leave Cassin’s Finches out of this discussion because you are only likely to see them at the higher, wetter elevations of the Rockies.
The differences can be slight, but definitive.
Here’s an overview.
Purple finches have:
- Triangular crests on their heads
- Shorter tails with a visible notch at the tip
- No streaks on their flanks
- A straight culmen, a strong short bill
- Stockier bodies
House finches have:
- Smaller, thinner bodies
- Smoother, rounder heads
- Equally sized tail feathers on longer tails
- Streaks on their flanks, just below the wings
Now let’s look at some of the details.
Both species of finches are about the same size as a sparrow.
Purple Finches are usually about 6 inches (15 cm) long.
House Finches are usually about 5.5 inches (13.5 cm) long.
Purple Finches have long wing bars that are purple.
House Finches have short wing bars that are white.
Purple Finches have a short tail with a deep notch.
House Finches have a long tail with little or no notch.
Both Purple Finches and House Finches have conical, seed-eating beaks.
Purple Finches fly in smooth, undulating patterns.
House Finches take off quickly, bounding away from potential danger.
Purple Finches only gather into flocks in the winter. They are territorial and solitary, except in cold weather.
House Finches gather into flocks all year round.They are non-territorial and social in all kinds of weather.
Purple Finches use their big beaks to crush seeds and release the nut. They can also extract seeds from stone fruits, like peaches and apricots.
They have a similar trick to suck the nectar out of a flower without destroying it.
House Finches are vegetarian. They feed on seeds, fruits, and buds. In the wild, they prefer the seeds and flower buds of wild mustard, knotweed, poison oak, mulberry, and cactus.
When they find an orchard, they will gorge on peaches, pears, cherries, plums, and figs, and they will invade blackberry bushes and strawberry beds.
At the feeder, they prefer black oil sunflower over the larger, striped sunflower seeds.
Purple Finches like to forage high in evergreen trees in the summer. This makes them hard to see except when they fly down to feed on weed seeds.
You are more likely to see them in your yard in cold weather, when it is harder to find food.
House Finches are native to the American West.
They were brought to New York City less than 100 years ago and have spread over most of the US east of the Mississippi River, but they prefer their native deserts, grasslands, and low-altitude forests.
You will see more House Finches than Purple Finches in an open landscape.
Purple Finches usually live 3 or 4 years, occasionally as long as 6 or 7 years.
This means the same bird would frequent your feeder for probably 3 years at most.
House Finches usually live 4 or 5 years, sometimes as long as 11 years. You could see the same House Finch at your feeder for 10 years.
Where you will see them in the wild
Finches love feeders, but these two species have different wild habitats.
Purple Finches are found in evergreen forests, parks, and orchards.
House Finches are found in stands of small evergreen trees.
Purple Finches are migratory birds.
They fly from their summer homes in the Western United States to the Southeastern United States when cold weather comes to lower elevations.
House Finches do not always migrate.
In the Eastern United States, they stay put for the winter, but in the Rocky Mountains, they may head for lower elevations.
Male Purple Finches have noticeable facial markings.
These include a single dark line down the side of the throat and a white “eyebrow.”
And one more review of color differences
Adult male Purple Finches are rosy red or pink on most of their bodies.
Adult male House Finches have a splash of red or orange on their heads. Male House Finch have less red on their faces.
Adult female Purple Finches are mostly brownish, except for white streaks under their wigs.
Adult female House Finches are gray or brown all over.
Male House Finches can look very different from each other, due to differences in their diet, according to ornithologists at Cornell University.
How to Hear the Difference Between Purple Finches and House Finches
The sounds that Purple Finches and House Finches make are very similar. You can tell the difference between the two species by their call notes.
Calls notes are the short sounds birds make to communicate alarm or to let other birds in their flocks know where they are.
Birds have an instinctive ability to make a call on pitch for urgent communication.
A Purple Finch’s call note sounds like “tek” or “pik.” It is softer than the call note of a House Finch. A House Finch’s call note is louder and longer. It sounds more like a ”chirp.”
Purple Finches have an extensive musical repertoire. They can sing an up-and-down melody of two to five notes.
They can sing a warbling song that can have as many as 23 different pitches, and they have a territorial marker song, which they usually sing alone.
Female Purple Finches have a warbling song that can last for up to two minutes.
House Finch songs are shorter and not as melodic. Their call note can sound like a metallic “cheap.”
Male House Finches sing songs that only last three seconds and the songs of female House Finches can be shorter.
A male Purple Finch’s song sounds a lot like the song of a Red-Eyed Vireo’s hear-me?-see-me?-here-i-am.
Female Purple Finches sing their warbling songs from their nests. Purple Finches may mimic melodies sung by Barn Swallows, Goldfinches, Towhees, and Cowbirds.
House Finches have utilitarian songs. Their notes are sharper and less melodic if they have to suddenly take flight.
A Closer Look at Size and Shape of Purple Finches and House Finches
From a bird’s point of view, a Purple Finch is considerably larger than a House Finch.
The half-inch (12 mm) difference in length would correspond to the difference between a human who is 5’6” (167 cm) and a human who is 6’0” (180 cm).
But to birdwatchers the differences in the sizes of these two species are subtle.
House Finches are thinner and smaller than Purple Finches. However, the head of a House Finch is larger in proportion to the rest of its body.
Male House Finches are larger than Female House Finches.
Male Purple Finches are larger than either male or female House Finches, but male House Finches are larger than female Purple Finches.
Half-inch (12 mm) differences in size can be hard to judge at a distance, and if a bird crouches over seed or insects on the ground, its profile can be misleading.
Purple finches are stocky. House Finches are relatively slender. Purple Finches have noticeably notched tails. House Finches have only slight notches on their tails.
If you come across a nest, there are obvious differences in eggs. Purple Finches lay white eggs without any spots. House Finches lay speckled eggs that are pointed at one end.
Don’t worry about misidentifying finches the first few times you see them. You really need to see Purple Finches and House Finches together at the same time for the differences to stand out.
No matter what kind of finches fly into your yard, you can persuade them to stay by providing shelter and black sunflower seeds.
Both Purple Finches and House Finches can provide you with hours of birdwatching for a very small investment in feeders and seed.
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