Thom Smith: What's the difference between house finch, purple finch?

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.  

This morning, with nearly an inch of snow as far as I could see from my home office, I sat nursing a cup of coffee and watched the birds at our window feeders. The sunflower heart feeder had a pair of house finches and, if it were May, I would have thought I was watching an adult male feeding one of its youngsters. With it being middle of March, I knew it was a mated pair with the male feeding its mate. It was the first time I had seen this interaction among house finches. I am familiar with a male cardinal feeding its mate, but never before have I seen a male house finch feed his mate or maybe soon-to-be.

I remember the first house finch I saw, and unless I was with Bartlett Hendricks, a far more experienced birder, I would have assumed that it was a purple finch. It was Jan. 12, 1968, at a bird feeder on Thomas Island in Pittsfield and, for a number of years, I would confuse the two. The very first record of the species in The Berkshires was in 1955 by another mentor of mine, Waldo Bailey, and three years later, Bailey discovered a pair nesting, both times in Ashley Falls, a village in Sheffield. From then on, and slowly at first, they increased to the point where they became a nuisance. And apparently, as they increased, the house sparrow decreased. As 2000 began, house finch numbers began decreasing because of a strain of conjunctivitis caused because of their gathering closely at feeders. "Ask Mr. Smith" the early name for this column would receive mail (mostly by USPS, as fewer had email) from readers regarding finches with crusty eye, some appearing blind or nearly so. As time passed, they slowly began increasing, but not to the numbers they occurred before, at least in our neighborhood. (Thank goodness.) And today, I welcome the couple pairs that frequent our feeder and, through years, have grown fond of them.

I always believed the influx of the species in New England was an influx from the West, but have since learned that their rapid increase came from caged birds that were released in New York in 1940.

The "field marks" that distinguish house from purple finches is easier if you have the opportunity to see both at the same time, which is a rarity. Male house finches are a rosy red around the face and on the breast. Male purple finches are not purple, but a difference shade of red, like they were dipped in raspberry jam, as Bartlett Hendricks would explain. They are redder on the head, neck and back. Both females are striped with the female purple finch more intensely so.

And finally, house finches nest here and are here throughout the year, while in the East, purple finches nest mostly in Canada, with sometimes scattered numbers may be seen during migration as they head back about now to Canada.


There is no dearth of black squirrels in Pittsfield. There are two to three of them at my feeders daily, in the vicinity of Zucchini's Restaurant. Feisty little rodents and absolute bullies to the grays.

—Nancy, Pittsfield

Article Continues After These Ads

A: That is odd, as black squirrels are gray squirrels!

Q: Last year and again I have a pair of bluebirds that come to my feeder, but don't stay in my bluebird house. I put out meal worms for them and to my surprise they eat a lot more suet then meal worms. I thought meal worms were a big favorite of theirs.

— Nancy (a different Nancy)

A: Just as I put out safflower seed for cardinals that are supposed to favor this seed, and then the ignore it and go for the shelled black-oil sunflower seed. Different individuals have difference preferences.


Take a sneak peak at some birds in their bedroom or nursery: Go to Bird Cams

Thom Smith welcomes readers' comments and questions. Email him at

A REMINDER: When writing Naturewatch, provide your town or city. (Your first name is optional although more personal.)


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions