Our bird feeders have been inundated for a couple weeks with young birds, mainly Purple Finches.  These small brownish birds are usually seen in the winter months at our feeders, but this year it appears that a number of adults chose to nest nearby. Typically, these birds nest in Canada from the west to east coast. In the winter their range is mainly the eastern half of the United States from Minnesota down to Louisiana and Texas, but there is a year round population along the Pacific Coast as well.

Whoever chose the name for this species must have had a touch of color blindness, because there is no purple to be

Why anyone would call this a Purple Finch is a mystery, but this is a male of that species

Why anyone would call this a Purple Finch is a mystery, but this is a male of that species

seen.  The male of this species has a pretty strawberry colored wash to its chest and part of its belly, but the head and on places on its back and rump the feathers are a deeper rosy color.  The birds coming to the feeders look like females and some may be, but it is impossible to tell at this stage. To most people they just look like a sparrow with brown streaks on their breast with more brown on the head and back.  Even though it looks like a sparrow it is in an entirely different Family.  It belongs to the Fringilidae, which includes the Redpolls, Crossbills, Siskins and Goldfinch.

They have fairly thick, stubby beaks which are well designed to crack the shells of sunflower bird seed. They are also fond of millet. We cannot recall ever having so many of these birds

Male and female Purple Finch at platform feeder

Male and female Purple Finch at platform feeder

coming to our feeders.  We have counted as many as 30 at one time between two of our feeders.  When there isn’t room on the platform, they forage on the ground beneath.  Their appetite has been so great that we end up putting out more seed mid-day.

For some reason we will never know, several pairs of Purple Finch must have chosen to nest in our woods this year.  They prefer coniferous trees for their nests and we have a large number of red and white pines for them to choose from.  One pair generally lays 3-5 eggs (usually 4) and can have two broods per season.  Twenty seven days is the time it takes from when incubation begins and when the young birds fledge. Both parents feed the young.  So I am guessing we had at least 2-3 pairs nesting nearby, and that they each produced two broods.

Their nests are hard to find because they are built on a horizontal branch anywhere between 5-60 feet above ground. It is a shallow cup made of twigs, grasses, bark strips or rootlets and lined with fine grasses or hair.  The nests are generally concealed by clusters of needles and difficult if not impossible to seen from the ground.

Commercial Christmas tree farms have had the impact of extending the range of this species, while competition with the House Finch and the House Sparrow has been blamed for their decline in New England.

One of the pleasures of bird feeding is that we never know exactly who will show up.  It is an ever changing show with a new cast of characters from year to year.

By Kate Crowley