White Breasted Nuthatch Cardinal

The Pretty (But Poorly Named) Purple Finch

Sometimes you’re just in the right place at the right time – but without the video camera. I was standing at the kitchen window watching all the bird action out on the deck.  We had been putting sunflower bird seeds on the flat board of the deck railing and it was very popular with the Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, American Goldfinch, and the Purple Finches.

Directly in front of me a drab brown streaked female Purple Finch casually pecked away at the seeds when suddenly a male of her species in full courtship ardor appeared.  I was about to witness the most hilarious bird ballet I had ever seen.

A brightly colored male Purple Finch perches next to a female of the same species.

A brightly colored male Purple Finch perches next to a female of the same species.

The Purple Finch is another badly named bird species.  Maybe the person who named it was color blind, but purple is not how I would describe its merlot colored feathers. Roger Tory Peterson aptly described it as a bird dipped in raspberry juice.  The male is resplendent in the springtime and fairly glows in the sunshine.  One such male saw the lone female on the railing and decided the time was right to strut his stuff.  He landed nearby and lifted the brighter feathers on his head into a peaked Mohawk, puffed out his chest, lifted his wings out to the side and proceeded to “dance”. This involved a rapid fluttering of the wings and a drunken shuffle from one side of the railing to the other.  He would actually lean slightly over the edge of each side, before shuffling back to the other side to repeat his tipsy angle. Some accounts say the male will lift off the ground 6-12” in his excited fluttering, but not this one.

Back and forth he went, with me laughing out loud on the other side of the window.  I called to my husband in his office to come and see this comical routine and he made it just in time to see the last pirouette.  Oh what a YouTube video it would have made.  I’m sure it would have gone viral and reached millions.  Never, have either one of us seen such a fabulous display by a Midwestern songbird.

When he stopped, the female who had been staring emotionlessly at his performance, waited a moment and then charged him, sending him flying away:  All that effort for naught, except to entertain two humans.  In most courtship displays of the smaller songbirds, the male will bow or raise its feathers or do a flutter flight or possibly offer its lady love a bit of food.  But elaborate displays such as this are rare.

The House Finch on the right looks like the Purple Finch but its feathers are more of a true red color.

The House Finch on the right looks like the Purple Finch but its feathers are more of a true red color.

Purple Finches are sometimes here in the winter months too, though they often move a bit further south.  They have a heavy, stout bill used for cracking the shells of various bird seeds and their melodious warble lasts long enough to help you identify the species.  They add a nice dollop of color to our rainbow of summer birds, but otherwise do not enchant us as much as say, the Hummingbirds.  But now we know they (the males at least) are true performers.

Once a male has found a mate, he sticks with her throughout the breeding season and helps to raise and feed the young, mostly a diet of seeds.  The nest is a shallow cup in a conifer.  One source said that the female hardly ever leaves the nest, so obviously they need a mate with the energy to sustain her during the 13 days of incubation.  The young leave the nest on day 14.

Adults will also eat buds, berries and insects, but sunflower feeders seem to be favorite hangouts.  Banding programs have found they live on the average of two years, so a male has to live fast and furious if it wants to pass along its genes.  Being a great dancer may just be the key to success.

By Kate Crowley