Thursday, April 2, 2020

What do House Finches look like?

House Finches (Haemorhous mexicana) are small songbirds common in towns across the United States. They are common yard and feeder birds.

This page is a supplement to the main overview page on attracting House Finches. That page leads to other in-depth articles on where House Finches live, discusses courtship and nesting, and discusses their diet and what kinds of food attracts them to your feeder. I'll link to that overview page again at the end of this article.

This article will discuss what finches look like generally, then the exact plumage of House Finches to help you identify them certainly. We'll discuss the songs and calls. Finally we'll discuss other similar species and how to tell them apart.

Photo of a female House Finch perched on a bench
Female House Finch
Photo by Greg Gillson

Finch identification, in general


Finches can look similar to sparrows and buntings. Indeed, they have been classified together more closely in the past. All have thick conical bills for eating seeds. Finches keep this seed eating diet all year, while sparrows and buntings often eat insects when available, especially when feeding young.

Finches are small birds with more upright posture that usually spend more time in trees. Sparrows usually spend most of their time feeding on the ground with a more a horizontal posture.

Finches tend to have shorter tails than sparrows. Most finch tails are strongly forked; many sparrows have round tails, but can be short or long.

When flying, finches tend to fly to fly strong and high with undulating flight. When they fly away they often land up in tree tops. Most sparrows fly low, often weakly, sometimes with tail pumping. When they fly away, most sparrows tend to dive into nearby dense bushes for cover. These are just average tendencies of the groups as a whole. The House Finch tends more toward the sparrow shape and behavior, as we'll see below.

There are about 177 species in the Finch Family (Fringillidae) using the latest classification. This family used to include old word buntings and was much larger. Scientists used to use external characters to determine relationships. Now most use DNA. And they aren't done yet reclassifying certain groups of birds, including the finches.

House Finches have recently been placed with two other red North American finches into the genus Haemorhous. The other two are Purple Finches and Cassin's Finches. These other two appear to have bigger heads because of longer feathers on the crown. They have shorter, more notched tails. We'll talk more about them in the similar species identification paragraphs below.

Photo of a male House Finch perched in a tree
Male House Finch
Photo by Greg Gillson

House Finch identification


House Finches are about 5-3/4 inches long, bill tip to tail tip. Their wingspan is about 10 inches. They average about 21 grams in weight.

Among the red finches in North America, House Finches are a bit slimmer. The head is flatter on top and more rounded at the back than Purple or Cassin's Finch. The tail is longer than those other two and not as deeply notched.

Plumage


House Finches of both sexes are rather grayish above streaked with brown. The belly is dusky white with long wide brown streaks or lines on the flanks. The wings are brown but each feather is edged with a thin pale margin. These are wider on the greater and especially the median wing coverts, forming narrow pale wing bars. The tail is brownish.

The bill is dark gray, slightly paler toward the lower base. It is fairly short and stout. It is conical in shape but slightly curved on the upper ridge.

Male House Finches are reddish on the head, breast, and rump. The coloration is brightest on the forehead, throat and upper breast. The red forehead and throat borders a brown ear covert.

The head of the female House Finch is very weakly patterned. It is pretty much evenly marked with very short gray-brown streaks throughout. The eyebrow is only fairly paler, as is the lower border of the ear cover. All-in-all the head of the female House Finch looks unpatterned.

The exact color and intensity of the male's red plumage is strongly influenced by diet. The color is often red-orange. Rarely is the color a deeper pure red. Frequently the coloration is orange, sometimes yellow-orange, rarely yellow. The red color comes from carotenoids in the diet during feather growth.

Photo of a yellow House Finch in a bush
A yellow House Finch
Photo by Greg Gillson

Flight style


House Finches in flight look small, but fairly slim and long tailed. The wings are short and rounded.

House Finches have fluttery flight and kind of bounce and jerk along. The flight path is not strongly undulating as it is in goldfinches, for instance. Bursts of rapid flapping are interspersed with a close-winged pause every 5-8 flaps or so, typical of flap-bound flight so common in smaller songbirds.

Birds generally fly in loose unorganized flocks, not too close together. Flocks have frequent stragglers. They don't flap and turn together in unison as do some flocking birds.

This video contains 14 minutes of bird songs and calls of the House Finch. This should help you learn and identify their calls.


Voice


What do House Finches sound like? Well, their calls are a soft squeaky or whiny calls and chirping. Both genders seem to call back and forth with each other nearly continuously. In flight one hears slightly louder chirping as the flock takes off. One of their common calls is a slightly rising queet? note.

Both sexes sing, the male louder and from an exposed perch. The song is lively, quick, rising and falling with no discernable pattern. There is often a buzzy or burry note mid-song. The song nearly always ends with a burry weeer.

Similar species


There are a few birds very similar to the red male House Finches. At your feeder, though, House Finches are probably much more likely than the other similar birds that live in northern or western forests.

The striped brown females, though, may be mistaken for any number of other brown sparrows. I'll discuss all these below.

Other red finches


Purple Finch vs House Finch


Telling House Finches and Purple Finches apart is a challenge for most bird watchers. Once you learn their calls and habitat preferences, you will know which one to expect.

Purple Finches breed in conifer forests. I often find them in deciduous trees within the conifer forests, frequently along stream bottoms. In the summer they mostly live in Canada, the Northeast, and along the West Coast.

In winter, though, they move south, especially into the Southeast United States. At this time they may be found frequently in the tops of tall deciduous trees in town and along rivers. But they may also visit feeders.

The rollicking song of the Purple Finch has no harsh notes as does House Finch. In the West the Purple Finch song is much faster than Eastern birds and patterned in repeating phrases. I think it sounds like: hurry-little, hurry-little, hurry-little, hup, hup!

The unique call of Purple Finch is a single plik!, often given as a flight call. In the forest is also gives a vireo-like whining chuwee.

The Purple Finch seems to have every feather with a tinge of rose-pink. On this photo immediately below note two things.

The red is not just on the forehead, but goes over the crown. The whole top of the head is red in Purple Finch. The House Finch has a bright red forehead but brown crown.

There are no strong lines of dark brown striping on the under part sides of the Purple Finch, as with House Finches.

Photo of a male Purple Finch on a twig
Male Purple Finch
Photo by Greg Gillson

This view of Purple Finch shows the rather greenish-brown back and wing feathers, tinged throughout with pink. House finch wing feather appear flat gray-brown, not olive-greenish. (You can click on the photo to make it larger.)

Photo of a male Purple Finch on a twig
Male Purple Finch
Photo by Greg Gillson

With female finches you need to look at the head stripe pattern. See the pale eyebrow and pale stripe under the solid brown ear covert on this female Purple Finch below? The head of female House Finch has not pattern like this. Female House Finches are evenly marked in short dark streaks on the entire head.

Photo of a female Purple Finch on a twig
Female Purple Finch
Photo by Greg Gillson

Here is a decent video discussing the separation of male House Finches and Purple Finches. For the females he says: "good luck." No! I find the females actually easier to immediately identify because of the head pattern on Purple Finch and lack of pattern on House Finch.



Cassin's Finch


If you are in the ponderosa forests in mountains of the West, you will find Cassin's Finches. Purple Finches are higher up in the wetter firs. House Finches are lower down in town. But you may find all three at the very few feeders at the ski resorts or high towns (I'm thinking Lake Tahoe, for instance).

Cassin's Finches seem paler than House and Purple Finches. The males are delicately tinged with pink. Both genders show a thin white eye ring. They have thin dark streaks on the white under tail coverts.

Notice on this male Cassin's Finch below that the red crown really stands out with red. But the breast is very delicate pink.

The voice is delicate, too. The song is broken and warbled. I think it sounds about half way between House Finch and Purple Finch. I use the ponderosa pine habitat to help identify the song that I can't quite tell apart from the other two. I don't get enough practice at it. And practice and familiarity is the key to learning bird songs.

Photo of a male Cassin's Finch on a stick
Cassin's Finch
Photo by Greg Gillson

This female Cassin's Finch has a broad clean white line under the dark ear covert. She is similar to the female Purple Finch, but the pale head pattern is even cleaner. There is no green cast to the brown upper part feathers as there is on Purple Finches. Note the forked tail. [Click on the photos to make them a bit larger.]

The streaks on the underparts of the female Cassin's Finches are thin, short, and darker than under part streaking on House or Purple Finches.

Photo of female Cassin's Finch on pine branch
Female Cassin's Finch
Photo by Greg Gillson

Red Crossbill


Red Crossbills are finches with big round heads and short forked tails. Males can be red or orange. Females are yellowish. The bird below is the form found in ponderosa pine forests. It has the largest bills. Other forms, such as those found in spruce forests, have thinner small bills.

They have a warbling song, but it is the harsh kip-kip calls that give them away. They are almost always in flocks of a dozen or more birds.

Photo of a male Red Crossbill on a branch
Red Crossbill
Photo by Greg Gillson

Common Redpoll


These are rare visitors in winter to weedy fields and alder catkins the northern United States. They look more like little goldfinches with red caps and a black chin.

Photo of a Common Redpoll in an alder tree
Common Redpoll
Photo by Greg Gillson

Other species


Here are some common brown feeder birds that you need to learn to separate from female House Finches.

House Sparrow


Female House Sparrows are very likely at feeders with female House Finches. House Sparrows are a bit more squat. They have a larger flatter head and shorter tail. They have a more horizontal posture. They have no striping underneath, though.

Male House Sparrows have a black throat and gray crown. They make chirping sounds similar to House Finches.

Photo of a female House Sparrow in some branches
Female House Sparrow
Photo by Greg Gillson

Song Sparrow


Song Sparrows do not flock. They are more common in brushy areas and marshes. But they are widespread through backyards with larger hedges and bushes. They like to stay on the ground for the most part.

The striping on Song Sparrows is heavy on the upper breast where the streaks converge into a central breast spot. The head is strongly striped on crown, eyes stripe, and side of throat. This is unlike the rather plain head of the female House Finch.

Photo of a Song Sparrow on a log
Song Sparrow
Photo by Greg Gillson

Pine Siskin


These tiny little birds are like striped goldfinches. They have a thin pointed bill, thick at the base. They frequent feeders in winter in large flocks in the North and West. They have a yellow stripe in the wing and base of the tail. Some birds are quite plain, others more yellow.

Photo of a Pine Siskin at a sunflower seed feeder
Pine Siskin
Phot by Greg Gillson

Back to the overview page on attracting House Finches.

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