Purple Finch

Carpodacus purpureus

Purple Finch on a branch

Sandy Stewart/Flickr/Used With Permission

A colorful bird no matter how its plumage is described, the purple finch is often said to have raspberry, red, pink, purple, wine, or rose tints to its feathers. While the male does have this coloration, female purple finches are less colorful but no less striking members of the Fringillidae bird family. Learning more purple finch facts can help birders better distinguish this bird and learn how to identify it properly.

Fast Facts

  • Common Name: Purple finch
  • Scientific Name: Carpodacus purpureus
  • Lifespan: 3-4 years
  • Size: 6 inches
  • Weight: .6-1 ounces
  • Wingspan: 10 inches
  • Conservation Status: Least concern

Purple Finch Identification

While easily recognized as a finch thanks to its stocky build, general size, bright coloration, and conical bill shape, the purple finch can be easily confused with other finches unless birders look carefully. These birds often have a slight crest, particularly if agitated, but the raised feathers aren't always visible. Males have a bright red head, chest, and rump with a strong rosy wash on the brown back and wings. The mantle is heavily streaked. The underparts are white with a rosy wash on the flanks and may show blurry brown streaks, though the degree of streaking varies and does not extend to the undertail coverts. A thick brown mask covers the eyes and cheeks.

Females lack any bold red but have a strongly marked head with fine brown stripes on the crown and a thick whitish eye line. Their overall plumage is mottled or streaky brown, and females have sharp brown streaking on the white or buff underparts. Some females show a faint rosy wash on their upperparts. Both genders have two faint wing bars, black eyes, and dark legs and feet. Juveniles look similar to adult females, but with paler legs and a paler bill.

The purple finch has a rich, warbling song that lasts 2-3 seconds and varies in pitch and tempo. Males will sing from exposed perches during the breeding season as they advertise their territories and availability to mates. The typical call note is a short "tek" or "tik" call that may be repeated frequently, and other sounds include "burrrr" notes and whistles.

Purple Finch vs. House Finch

The purple finch and house finch are often confused, and the two species can look very similar. Purple finches are slightly larger, however, and have a straighter bill than their house finch cousins. House finches have more streaking on the underparts and have more of a strawberry coloration rather than the raspberry hue of the purple finch.

Purple Finch vs. Cassin's Finch

Another bird that looks very similar to the purple finch is the Cassin's finch. The best way to tell these two species apart is that the Cassin's finch has a very distinct, boldly colored crown, whereas the purple finch's crown is blurrier and less well-defined. The Cassin's finch is paler underneath with less overall red coloration than the purple finch.

Purple Finch Habitat and Distribution

Purple finches prefer open coniferous or mixed coniferous and deciduous forests, though they can also be found in forest edges, parks, and suburban areas. Their summer range extends from the boreal region of Canada to northern Minnesota and Michigan's upper peninsula. Year-round populations are seen from the Great Lakes to New England and Newfoundland, and a year-round population is also present along the Pacific Coast from Washington to southern California.

Migration Pattern

In winter, these birds migrate to the central and southeastern United States, but are not found in southern Florida. Purple finches can be irruptive and may be seen well out of their expected range in unexpected years, though these surprise migrations are very unpredictable.

Behavior

These birds prefer to be solitary or stay in pairs during the nesting season, but they can be gregarious in the winter and will gather in larger flocks, often mixing with other finches or pine siskins.

Diet and Feeding

Purple finches are generally granivorous and eat seeds, fruit, and insects. While foraging, they often stay in trees or will hop on the ground searching for seeds and insects.

Nesting

These are monogamous birds that mate after the male successfully courts a female with a flapping dance. The female will build a shallow cup-shaped nest using twigs, roots, bark strips, weeds, and other material, lining it with softer materials such as moss, hair, and grass. The nest is typically positioned in a tree 5-40 feet above the ground.

Eggs and Young

The female bird will incubate the brood for 13-14 days, and the helpless young are fed by both parents for an additional 13-14 days. There are 3-5 oval-shaped, pale green or bluish eggs with dark markings per brood, and purple finches may raise 1-2 broods per year.

Purple Finch Conservation

These finches are not considered threatened or endangered, but they can be victims of habitat loss. This particularly prominent in their boreal breeding range, where logging operations can dramatically reduce available nesting habitat. They may also lose nesting sites to more aggressive house sparrows, and eastern populations are showing mild declines.

Tips for Backyard Birders

Purple finches readily visit yards offering black oil sunflower seeds or millet in hopper or open tray feeders, and they can be quite bold and tame once they become accustomed to the food source. Planting ash and elm trees can also provide a natural seed source to attract purple finches. They will also appreciate a heated bird bath for fresh, liquid winter water in the northern parts of their range.

How to Find This Bird

Because these birds readily come to appropriate feeders, birders who want to see purple finches should visit nature centers that provide feeding stations for great views. Birding walks through suitable forest habitats can also lead to purple finch sightings.

Explore More Species in This Family

The Fringillidae bird family is a diverse one, with many other finches, grosbeaks, and siskins that are close relatives of the purple finch, including:

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