Town Finch and Country Finch*

Today I’ll show you two rather similar red and brown birds that you might call “Town Finch and Country Finch”, after Aesop. The town finch, which I see in Boston, is the House Finch , Haemorhous mexicanus. Here is a male:

The country finch, which I see in Maine, is the Purple Finch, Haemorhous purpureus, which is red, not purple. Again, a male:

and in exquisite closeup:

The two females are (of course) much drabber. The town (House) female first:

then a somewhat bedraggled country (Purple) female :

The Purple Finch is native to New England, and likes cooler, higher elevation wooded habitats, with evergreen cones being a major part of its diet.

The House Finch is native to the Western US. In 1939 a few birds were released from a New York City pet store, where it was being marketed as the Hollywood Finch. And then it spread out from there, yet another example of Hollywood’s influence!

In the summer I see lots of Purple Finches around my feeder, but they are rare in the winter, so this February sighting is a bonus:

I was fascinated to learn that they migrate south only every two years, when the northern conifer cone crops are low. They are quite aggressive when food is scarce, as it is in February:

and they raise that little crest:

The House Finches have a quite different habitat. They are almost exclusively found in settled areas, and often nest in high-rise buildings. Mine hang out on the eighth floor of my downtown Boston high-rise condo building; I am watching for a nest in the coming months.

That’s about 90 feet up, and there are sometimes 3 or 4 at once.

97% of their diet is seeds, buds, flowers, leaves, and fruits.

So watch out for nature even where you wouldn’t expect it. Birds are surprisingly versatile.

PS Sadly, there was a decline of 50% in the breeding population of Purple Finches in the northeastern U.S. between 1961 and 1994 . The explanation is somewhat unclear, but is usually blamed on the Hollywood immigrants. But the House Finch likes quite different habitat, and a study (Yunick 2018) in an upstate New York area where there are no House Finches still found a 50% Purple Finch decline from 1971-2015. This was a period when the temperature during breeding season rose by 2F. The Purple Finch likes cool climates, so Yunick suggests that the decline could be attributed to climate change, not to the intruders. In my part of Maine, though, we do have a few House Finches, so they may indeed pose a threat to the poor Purples.

PPS There are occasional suggestions that the two species may sometimes hybridize, which I assume gives rise to a Purple House Finch?

4 thoughts on “Town Finch and Country Finch*”

  1. Love the photo of the finch on the rope with it’s crest up. If you miss your otters, you are fortunate to be able to go see the harbor seals in their outdoor habitat at the Aquarium. When finches come to our feeder to eat, they are always together.


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