Monday, March 30, 2020

Where do House Finches live?

House Finches live year round in most areas where they occur. Their range today includes most of the United States and Mexico, barely reaching the southern border of Canada. This was not always the case. 80 years ago they didn't used to occur in the Eastern United States. How they got there is pretty interesting, as we'll talk about below.

Are there House Finches where you live? If you live in a town in the United States, then you probably have House Finches at your feeder. If you live in the rural areas of the West, then you, too, likely have House Finches visiting. In rural areas of the East, though, House Finches may be less common. Read on to see why this is so.

This page is a supplement to my overview page on attracting House Finches. The overview page leads to other in-depth pages on House Finches, including their identification, courtship and nesting, and diet and foods you can offer to attract them. I'll link back to that page again at the end of this article.

Photo of male and female House Finches on shepherd's hook
Male and female House Finches
Photo by Greg Gillson

Range and seasonal movements


As mentioned, House Finches are found across the United States. They are widespread in the West, in towns and country. In the East they are more confined to towns. They are absent from northernmost parts of the Northeast, much of central and southern Florida, and southern Louisiana. They are sparse in the Great Plains. More exact locations are listed below.

House Finches are resident for the most part, staying year round in the same areas. However, some of the birds in the northern part of their range in the Eastern U.S. and southeastern Canada partially migrate. This is interesting as these birds descended from non-migratory House Finches brought from southern California only 80 years ago! More on that below, too.

Where do House Finches live in summer?


I will now use eBird data to specifically look at where House Finches are found in June and July in the past 5 years (2015-2019). Then, farther down below I'll look at any differences in range for winter.

House Finches in the Northeast United States


House Finches are scarce in summer in northern parts of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, except in larger towns. They are regular in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

House Finches in the Southeast United States


House Finches are regular in the Southeast, except they are scarce in summer along the border of West Virginia and Kentucky. There are also few reported from the North Carolina border with South Carolina. House Finches are scarce in inland southern Georgia. In southern Florida House Finches are found primarily only along the beach towns south to Miami and Fort Myers.

House Finches are fairly common in summer in Tennessee, but restricted to larger towns in southwest Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

House Finches in the Midwest United States


Summer House Finches are common in the eastern half of the Midwest, but nearly absent in northern Michigan and Minnesota. They are regular in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri.

House Finches are more scattered in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas, where they are restricted to larger towns.

House Finches of the Rocky Mountains of the United States


House Finches are regular in summer in the Rocky Mountain states. They are common in Idaho, and Utah. They are more scattered and uncommon in the eastern portions of Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado. House Finches are quite scattered in Nevada, but occur in most towns.

House Finches of the Southwest United States


House Finches are common in Arizona, northern New Mexico, and the larger cities in central Texas. They are rather uncommon elsewhere in the region. They are quite sparse in Oklahoma.

House Finches of the Pacific region of the United States


House Finches are common summer birds in towns and countryside in Washington, Oregon, and California.

Alaska


There have been a couple of summer reports of House Finches in Anchorage the past 5 years, but nothing elsewhere. It should be considered a very rare visitor.

Canada


In summer, a few House Finches live in scattered towns in the southern parts of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. Many live along the St. Lawrence River dividing Canada and the United States, including birds in Montreal and Quebec City in Quebec and then Toronto and Ottawa in Ontario. House Finches are found in the towns of Winnipeg in Manitoba, Saskatoon in Saskatchewan, and Edmonton and Calgary in Alberta. House Finches live across southern British Columbia north to Prince George.

Mexico

Frankly, there are fewer bird watchers in Mexico. So House Finches are unreported form many small towns in the interior and northern parts of Mexico. It appears from eBird data that House Finches are regular south to Oaxaca. There is also an isolated population in Chiapas in southern Mexico. They do not appear on the Yucatan and seem sparse or absent on the southwest coastal areas of Mexico.

Here's a very short video of a male House Finch in a tree, showing typical movements.


Where do House Finches live in winter?


I've looked for evidence of a southward movement of House Finches in winter in the eastern United States. I really don't see strong evidence of it in the eBird data. I don't see birds moving away from the northern edge of their range in winter. There does seem to be slightly more bird frequency density in the central parts of the Southeast (Tennessee and the Carolinas) in winter. But this could simply be more people feeding birds and recording them in winter than summer.

In the Rocky Mountain region birds in winter seem to be concentrated in towns and not so widespread. But that could be where people are concentrated in winter there, too.

Migration timing


I don't see evidence of migration in eBird data. But Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion (2006) says there is a movement of "somewhat migratory" birds in the East. Spring migration between February and April. Fall migration from October to early December.

The introduction of "Hollywood Finches" into the Eastern United States


This almost seems like an urban legend...

In 1940 an enterprising pet store began importing House Finches from California and selling them in New York as "Hollywood Finches." Of course, this was, as now, quite illegal.

Eventually, the illegal importation was discovered and brought to notice of the authorities. In order to avoid being "caught with the goods" the birds were released out the back door. There were evidently many 10's of thousands of birds imported, perhaps 100,000. Many of these were probably released into the wild.

Most imported birds were males, but a few females began breeding locally on Long Island, then Boston and other nearby areas. Eventually, they filled the entire country from southern Canada to the Mexican border, and from the Atlantic to the western lands where they ran into birds in their original range.

I have so many questions! Why did California finches released in New York spread across the country? The California birds seem content not to migrate or wander much. Or maybe they did as towns spread across the landscape during the century, following the roads. I don't know!

The Audubon Society has an entertaining account of this here.

Subspecies


There is (or was) a rare Mexican subspecies called McGregor's House Finch. It lived on Cedros Island and San Benito off Baja California. A painting of this form from 1930 by Rex Brasher is here. It was never common (up to 25 pairs). It evidently disappeared sometime between 1938 and 1960.

There are a couple other subspecies named from Mexico. They are probably not recognizable as different in the field from the widespread form in the United States.

A subspecies on Santa Barbara Island, California, has a bill that averages slightly larger than mainland forms. But a paper by Unitt in 2012 (source) seems to show this may not be a valid subspecies. Bill size seems to overlap with the mainland form.

The ecology of House Finches


House Finches are now strongly associated with human habitation, whether farms and ranches, towns and residential areas, and even strongly urban habitats. This has not always been the case.

House Finches, away from people and formerly historically, occur in dry habitats of the western United States, especially near water. They occur in low elevation forest edges and fields and in river bottoms.

House Finches in the desert biome


House Finches occur in a variety of dry habitats.

In the high desert of the Great Basin the plants include sagebrush and similar plants and juniper trees. They occur in canyonlands near streams. In 1940 the bird was found in the broad cattle ranches east of the Cascades in the Great Basin of Washington and Oregon. Nowadays, it is common in these areas and all the towns and residential areas on both sides of the Cascades below the mountain forests all the way to the ocean.

In drier southwest deserts House Finches are regular, especially around water. House Finches are a typical species of the Sonoran Desert. It is found in washes with paloverde and mesquite trees and cacti. In the Chihuahuan Desert the House Finches occur in mesquite and washes as well.

House Finches in the California chaparral (woodland/shrubland biome)


House Finches are common in the lower elevation chaparral hillsides of California. They also occur commonly in the oak-savannah grasslands. House Finches were perhaps most abundant historically in this native habitat.

House Finches in the urban biome


Today, House Finches are abundant residents in urban and suburban habitats--anywhere people live. They nest about homes and ranches everywhere, using artificial nest sites. This is true in the East and in the West.

Rather than any particular habitat, House Finches are most associated with human towns and residences, though less so at higher elevations.

Backyard trees and plants to attract House Finches?


It seems that the only thing needed to attract House Finches are buildings, bird feeders, and some open fields.

Some small fruit trees may provide a place of safety and something to eat. Other small trees in the yard can provide staging perches for birds to land in to approach feeders. Males like to sing from such trees. They can be deciduous or conifer.

What niche does the House Finch fill?


House Finches fill a similar niche as House Sparrows. They live near human residences and nest on ledges on buildings.

They feed quite a bit on the ground. They eat weed and other seeds, vegetable matter, and some human foods they find spilled.

They often alight in trees and are in flocks throughout the year.

The entire United States now have beautiful and happily singing "Hollywood Finches" right outside our doors. In fact, I can hear one singing right now....

Return to the Overview page on attracting House Finches.

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