Year of the Bird Series: November – Purple Finch

Article by Mike Furbur

To see a Purple Finch is always a thrill, particularly close-up at a banding station like Ruthven Park (where several were banded this fall).  And, to watch an active nest of these remarkable birds for a week is also an unforgettable experience. Indeed, this is one of my fondest memories from several years ago involving Purple Finches. The nest was in a mature white spruce adjacent to an old ranger cabin on Tattler Lake in the interior of Algonquin Park. This is typical breeding habitat: open coniferous forests of spruce, balsam and pine. Furthermore, Purple Finches are regular breeders on the Canadian Shield, but their occurrence depends on conifer seed crops and Spruce Budworm outbreaks.

In Ontario, Purple Finches inhabit the Boreal Forest and the Conifer-Hardwood Transition Forest region. And, although places like Algonquin can be excellent for observing winter finches like the Purple Finch, it’s not necessary, to go “Up North” to see this somewhat elusive, but intriguing species. In fact, Purple Finches have been observed nesting further south in pockets of open coniferous and mixed woodland as noted during the two Ontario breeding bird atlasses in 1987 and in 2007. Winter, however, is probably the best time to see them.

Winter finches are not part of the Cardinal family (Cardinalidae), but are members of the true finch family (Fringillidae). There are several species of winter finches in Ontario. Most people are familiar with the male yellow American Goldfinch which changes to an duller olive-brown winter plumage; and, it’s probably the most frequently banded bird at most bird banding stations in north-eastern North America. Not as well know, the drab-coloured, yet elegant Pine Siskins look like heavily streaked winter goldfinches, often with yellow wing-bar markings; both sexes are identical and they also visit bird feeders usually in late fall and throughout the winter along with Purple Finches and House Finches.  Then there are six finches that are much less frequently encountered: Common and Hoary Redpoll, Red and White-winged Crossbills, Pine and Evening Grosbeak – all of which generally stay further north if the annual coniferous tree seed crops provide enough food. But when they do come south, they frequently visit bird feeders.

Along with the irregularly abundant American Goldfinch, Pine Siskins and Purple Finches are the most likely finches to be observed and banded at Ruthven Park.  Most winter finches are not seasonal migrants strictly speaking since they will stay wherever they can find food which usually consists of conifer seeds. The Purple Finch, however, comes close to being an exception; it is a short distance migrant for the most part. Some of the population starts moving in late September, then increasingly through October and November. Birds seen later than this, are possibly birds that “had a go of it” further north, but couldn’t obtain enough food. Consequently, Purple Finches can be seen at any time in the winter – especially at bird feeders.

An interesting phenomenon of the Purple Finch is that the young males look like females throughout their first year, with a drab brownish streaked plumage. They – male Purple Finches – then acquire their raspberry red plumage during the following summer months. This apparent plumage “cross-dressing” of young males masquerading as females has been a mystery to ornithologists for some time. It seems that we have “cross-dressing” (not to mention “cross-bills”) in winter finch society!

There are two main theories to explain this phenomenon. The most familiar one states that young males are given a better chance while competing with older males, in the “disguise” of a female-like plumage; this allows males to dwell in suitable breeding habitat in spring without being driven out by mature males. What’s more, young males can sing to attract any unmated females and they may even breed in their first spring as young adults.  The other less known theory states that young, inexperienced males need to put all their energy into all that entails with just surviving, without using the significant energy needed to develop a bright mature male plumage. These theories are both quite plausible, and one should probably not replace one with the other. Even though one theory may seem to be more significant, both reasons are likely just two among many others that complement each other. And, of course, the important thing is that most female Purple Finches “get the raspberry.”

Well, be that as it may, the mature males are a sight to see, “appearing as if they had been dipped in raspberry juice”, as the late Roger Tory Peterson was fond of saying; and this “dipping” includes the back and wings where male House Finches are always brown. Indeed, the colour alone should distinguish them from the male House Finches, which vary from a lighter rosy pink to a salmon orange-pink. Recently some of the male House Finches have sported golden or even greenish plumages. Adding to the confusion young male and older female Purple Finches may have greenish gold in their plumage as well – particularly on the rump, back and wings. Furthermore, Purple Finches are generally stockier with a larger head and a suggestive small crest when the feathers are raised. With experience, it’s quite easy to distinguish between the two finches.

Along with his strikingly deep merlot or burgundy plumage, the male has a spectacular bright, cheerful, clear warbling song with long colourful accented phrases. A signature repeating buzzy note helps to identify the song. Males will often sing during spring migration, but the real spectacular performances occur on the breeding grounds. Small flocks of birds can be detected by their typical finch-like undulating flight pattern. Moreover, there are two features that might help identify Purple Finches in flight: the tails are rather sharply notched although this can be difficult to see; and, they often utter a soft, dry “pik” call note that is diagnostic, yet may be difficult to hear.

Nevertheless, this should be a good winter for winter finches because of a poor seed crop further north this past year. To this end, you will probably spot several Purple Finches this winter, particularly at a birdfeeder; and if you see a male, be sure to rejoice in the reception of a visual “raspberry.” Cheers!