Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Attracting House Finches to your backyard

House Finches are widespread across the United States and Mexico. They are resident in many residential and urban areas. Thus they are likely to be a common visitor to your feeder if you live in the U.S.

House Finches woke me up this morning as they do many mornings. Just after dawn a small group of House Finches comes to our bird feeder. The bird feeder is hanging from the awning over our bedroom window. Yes, about 3 feet from my head! The little wiry chueep calls and fluttering of their wings as they tussle about the feeder wake me instantly.

Though they are rather streaky gray-brown and non-descript, the red head and breast of the males grab attention. Thus, this is one of the first birds that people learn to identify at their backyard feeders.

This page is an overview of House Finches. It will lead to more in-depth pages covering specific topics like identification, courtship and nesting, range and habitat, and diet and foods you can feed them.

Photo of Male House Finch on marble headstone
Male House Finch
Photo by Greg Gillson

House Finch overview


House Finches are small songbirds. As their name implies they are found commonly in residential areas across the United States. They build little stick nests in nooks and crannies of porches and out-buildings.

They readily come to bird feeders where they eat a variety of seeds. They like black oil sunflower seeds best of all.

House Finches are very attracted to water features. They will come to drink and bathe at your bird bath.

Identification


House Finches measure about 7-3/4 inches long from bill tip to tail tip. Their wingspan is about 10 inches.

These birds are fairly slim with a small round head and long tail that is square-ended or slightly notched. The bill is short and conical. The upper ridge of the bill is curved, rather than straight. The wings are short. That means that the tips do not project far beyond the rest of the wing when folded. The wing tips also do not extend very far down the tail when the bird is perched. In flight the birds appear to have short round wings and a long tail.

Females are rather gray-brown throughout. The head is rather overall dark and plain. The back is gray-brown with darker brown lines. The breast is dusky whitish with blurry gray-brown streaks extending in long lines to the flanks. The wing and tail are dark brown. But each wing secondary feather is individually edged narrowly with white. Two thin wing bars are likewise formed by the narrow white edges on the wing coverts.

Males are actually fairly similar to females. However the males show red forehead and eyebrow, throat and upper breast, and rump to varying degrees. Some males are bright, some quite muted. The red coloration varies from bright red or red-orange toward yellow-orange or rarely quite yellow.

The red forehead contrasting with the brown top of crown is a good first mark for separating male House Finches from similar Purple and Cassin's Finches. The striped white and brown flanks of the males are also distinct from the other red finches that have unstreaked flanks.

House Finches are often seen in small flocks of 5 to 15 birds. They frequently feed on the ground like sparrows. But unlike sparrows that dive into low cover, House Finches when disturbed fly up into the highest tips of trees or tall shrubs.

Both sexes call almost constantly as the flock stays in communication. The calls are thin chirps that rise slightly, sounding like queet or chueep or wheep.

Males sing a cheerful wiry warble without any strong pattern, but often end on a harsh note, a burry weeer. Pairs form in the spring as the flocks break up.

House Finches fly with a flap-bound style. They flap rapidly but inefficiently many times causing them to rise slightly, then they briefly pause by folding the wings against the body, causing their flight path to fall suddenly. This up-and-down flight path is not as strongly undulating as goldfinches. It's just a bit bouncy.

For more in-depth material on the identification of House Finches and telling them apart from similar species, please visit What do House Finches look like?

Range and habitat


House Finches occur from extreme southern Canada, across the entire United States, south through Mexico. They are absent from southern Florida, southern Louisiana, northern Maine, and high mountains of the West.

They are a resident species throughout most of their range. However the northernmost birds in the eastern United States and Canada are somewhat migratory.

The historical habitat of House Finches was dry open country, canyonlands, and even deserts in the western United States and Mexico, especially near water. However they are now additionally associated strongly with residential and urban yards. They are generally absent from higher dense conifer forests, unless there is a town.

If you live in a house in a town in the 48 contiguous states of the United States, you most likely have House Finches in your yard! They'll perch on scraggly trees, a fence, on your gutters, or on the ground or sidewalk. You don't have to plant anything special to draw them to your home.

For a more in-depth look at the range and habitat of House Finches, please read Where do House Finches live?

Diet


House Finches eat predominantly weed seeds such as thistles and dandelions. They eat fruit and buds. They eat very few insects.

Most seed eating birds feed their young insects. Not so House Finches. They feed their nestlings seeds such as dandelions.

Even though they feed primarily on the ground, they like the tube style feeders. To attract them to your yard feed them black oil sunflower seeds in a tube or hopper feeder. They will also eat Niger seed from thistle feeders, though not as readily as goldfinches. These are often marketed as "finch feeders."

House Finches are very attracted to water, too. So be sure to provide them with a bird bath.

For more information on the diet of House Finches see my more in-depth page. It discusses both natural foods and what you can feed them in your backyard. It also discusses the advantage of using different kinds of bird feeders to attract them. Please read my article What do House Finches like to eat?

Nesting and reproduction


House Finches are monogamous. They form new pairs every spring after the winter flocks break up. Both males and females sing, the male more forceful and frequent.

The female build the nest of grass, leaves, hair, and twigs. The nest is often in a cranny or on a ledge, rarely in a bird box. Some birds build nests in hanging potted plants, on top of a porch light, or similar situation. Most nests are built 5-7 feet off the ground, but with many exceptions from ground level to quite high.

House Finches usually lay 4-5 eggs per clutch. Eggs are pale blue and speckled. The mother incubates the eggs for 12-16 days. After the nestlings hatch the father House Finch joins the mother in feeding the young. The birds leave the nest, fledging after 11-19 days.

Once out of the nest the father continues to feed them for a week or so. In the mean time, the mother goes on to start another nest. The pair of House Finches will raise 3 batches of young birds. They will attempt new batches up to 6 times if the eggs or nestlings are destroyed or eaten by a predator.

For more in-depth information on courtship and nesting, please see my article Where do House Finches like to nest?



Fun facts about House Finches


The new scientific name of the House Finch is Haemorhous mexicana. Formerly it was known as Carpodacus mexicana. Carpodacus is the genus name of the Rosefinches. Rosefinches are an Old World genus composed of about 27 species. DNA analysis published in 2012 revealed the 3 red finches in the New World (House, Purple, and Cassin's finches) are not closely related to the others. Thus, these 3 received a new genus name, Haemorhous.

The old genus of House Finches, Carpodacus, translates to "fruit biter." The diet of House Finches is nearly entirely vegetarian. In some areas House Finches do damage to peaches, apricots, plums, cherries by eating them, living up to their "fruit biter" name.

The House Finch's new genus Haemorhous seems to mean "blood sumac," perhaps referring to the red color of the autumn leaves of the sumac tree.

The species name, mexicana, of course, refers to Mexico, where the first scientific specimen was obtained.

House Finches in the East are found nearly exclusively near human habitation. In the original range in the West and Mexico they are also widespread in desert, ranchlands and other areas.

House Finches in the original range in the West are mostly non-migratory. Many of the California birds released in Long Island, New York, in 1940 have since become migratory as they have expanded their range in the East!

An old vernacular name was Linnet, as House Finches reminded some people of the Old World finch the Linnet (linaria cannabina). Linnets are fond of flax seeds. Linen is made from flax. Linen. Linnet. Interesting!

In the 1940's large numbers of House Finches from California were captured and advertised for sale in New York as "Hollywood Finches." Of course, this was illegal. The birds were released into the wild where they have now spread throughout most of the eastern United States. This is exactly why capturing and transporting wild birds is illegal--to keep them from spreading to areas where they aren't native and harming local bird populations.

House Finches have been recorded to live over 10 years.

House Finches may successfully raise 3 broods in a single nesting season. If their nest fails, they may attempt to breed up to 6 times!

A group of House Finches has been called a "development" by some clever people. The collective noun for finches in general can be "a charm," "trembling," or "company" of finches.

The red color of House Finches is enhanced by carotenoids in their diet during the feather formation period of molt. House Finches introduced to Hawaii love the papaya plantations. Papaya, though, lacks carotenoids. So male House Finches in Hawaii are bright yellow, rather than red. I've seen yellow House Finches occasionally in Oregon and California (more often yellow-orange).

One House Finch was once found ensnared in a spider web!

House Finches roost together in a group at night to keep warm.

House Finches get an ugly disease called avian conjunctivitis. The tissue surrounding the eye swells and becomes runny or crusty. Yuck! About 50% of Eastern birds die from this when the infection works its way through the population on a regular basis. It also affects Western birds, but perhaps not as much.

References


Dunne, Pete. 2006. Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.

Terres, John K. 1980. The Audubon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. Alfred A Knopf, New York.

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