Several weeks ago, we discussed irruptives and how the country was going to be invaded. It certainly is proving to be just the case. It all culminates with the lack of adequate cone crops for several reasons. It could be a bad year for cone crops, or it could be an excellent year for breeding. This year it was a combination of both.
Here’s where finches come in and how they confuse many birders, especially with all that red on them and where it is on their bodies. Since they are inconsistent birds, these nomadic pilots can arrive at any time and stay for a day or weeks. It’s entirely up to them, especially when easy pickings are at the feeders.
We all know the House Finch, right? What about Purple Finches and Cassin’s Finches, which could show up in irregular places? Who has what markings? Let’s clear this up so we can become better birders this year.
These small red finches can be confusing, especially when the females are added to the mix. Don’t forget the Pine Siskin female, because she’ll throw you for a loop, too.
House Finches are all over the country now, but 20 years ago was another matter. That was back when they commonly had white wing patches, and those patches are still encountered occasionally. Recently, the same thing has rarely occurred in the Pacific Northwest.
The key is to know your male House Finches well, which is easier in the east, as their coloring is fire engine red. The female House Finch is a plain light to medium brown with blurry brown streaking, likely to be confused with a sparrow.
The only other species you’ll find in the east is the Purple Finch, which has a slightly larger bill and purple-red or wine coloring nearly everywhere on the male. The female has blurry, thicker brown streaking with a weak pale crescent below the eye, bold brown and white head, and a slight crest. The head pattern is very dissimilar to a House Finch. House Finches will dominate the species away if they are at the same feeder.
In the west, the male Cassin’s Finch has a rosy pink breast with a bright red contrasting crown with the rest of the head. It is slightly longer tailed with a more pointed bill than the House Finch. The male also has a gray-brown back, distinctly streaked. The female’s main difference is the heavily streaked brown undertail coverts, where the Purple Finches have white undertail coverts.
The male Pine Siskin is easily distinctive with his yellow wingbars. The female is smaller than any other female finch. She has wingbars which COULD have a tinge of yellow, a yellow patch on the wing, and the base of the tail. The female also has a habit of darting about quickly. Most sparrows also have a larger bill than a siskin.
Keep your eyes on the ground and your head in the clouds. Happy birding!
Deb Hirt is a wild bird rehabilitator and professional photographer living in Stillwater.