We had a reddish sparrow sized bird at the feeder the other day. Once again I had to look closely to determine if it was a purple finch or a house finch. It had a reddish breast and forehead with brown wings, and a light underside with noticeable brown stripes. Those are the markings of a house finch.
Male house finches and purple finches are difficult to tell apart. Both have a reddish tinge that has been compared to a sparrow dipped in raspberry sauce. But while the house finch has a striped breast the purple finch does not. The females are even more difficult to differentiate for the casual observer. From what I have read, a white stripe above the eye (eyebrow) is helpful for identifying the female purple finch. If you are interested in picking up some more characteristics check a bird guide or perhaps Cornel University’s All About Birds website.
The purple finch is a North America native. Their breeding range is much of the forested areas across southern Canada. We are in their winter range which covers much of the U.S. east of the Rockies and some areas along the west coast and Arizona.
The house finch, on the other hand, was a bird of the western U.S. and Mexico until some were released in New York in the 1940’s. Since then they have expanded their range. They showed up in Illinois and Wisconsin in the 1970’s, and now can be found over much of the U.S. and southern Canada.
House finches are a more gregarious species than the purple finch. So if you see what you think is one of these species in groups at your bird feeders, be thinking house finches when you look for markings. Some biologists are of the opinion that bird feeders (particularly during the winter months) have helped the house finch expand its range. If the birds can get through the winter with some help from feeders, then there is a greater likelihood they will begin to successfully breed in the area.
Both house finches and purple finches can be observed in North Dakota. But when it comes to competition between the two species, the purple finch comes out on the losing end most of the time. So, it will be interesting to see how their populations fare in the future.