One of North America’s most widespread finch species, the house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) was once limited to open and desert habitats. However, in recent decades, the species has expanded its range, and is now found in a wide variety of habitats, including those with extensive urban development.
As they are resident over such a wide geographic range, do house finches migrate? Keep reading to learn more about the annual migration of house finches.
House finches are partial migrants – the vast majority remain in their breeding territories all year round. Some birds from the extreme northern and eastern edges of the species’ range may travel south in search of warmer weather in winter, but these are the exception rather than the rule.
House finches are social birds and tend to forage and live in flocks all year round, but these are particularly noticeable once the breeding season draws to a close and numbers are swelled by new juvenile birds. This increase in visible presence that coincides with the advent of colder weather, may lead observers to believe that population numbers are swelled due to arrival of overwintering birds.
But in reality, most house finch populations are not migratory, and barely move more than 5 km from their home territory, sometimes leaving breeding grounds on exposed mountain slopes for lower altitude nearby terrain but returning to higher land once the winter has passed.
If you’re interested in learning more about the migration journeys undertaken by some (but not all!) house finches, please read on.
Most House Finches maintain their breeding territories year-round.
House finches are a native species in the western U.S. and within this range, they are year round residents, remaining in or a short distance from their breeding grounds.
The species was introduced to the eastern part of the country in the 1940s, when a shipment of birds sent to Long Island, initially as captive birds, became free in New York and gradually established themselves as breeders in the eastern U.S. too, spreading to Pennsylvania in the 1960s, Illinois in the 1970s and Missouri in the 1980s. By 1990, they had spread further across Missouri into Iowa and eastern Kansas.
It is these relatively new Eastern populations that migrate each year – although not all of them will undertake lengthy journeys, if they travel at all.
Male House Finch in flight
House finches migrate during the day as part of small flocks, with movement beginning from September to October, and birds returning to their breeding habitats from February onwards. They are not long-distance migrants, with most birds resident in their breeding grounds all year round. When migration does occur, it is generally limited to distances of less than 200 km (125 mi).
Peak migration for house finches occurs between September and October each fall, with migrant birds having found their way to their wintering grounds by November.
The return trips to breeding territories begin in February to March, with birds having arrived and breeding population numbers reaching maximum levels by April.
Female House Finch perched on a branch, resting
The typical reason for any bird to migrate is to temporarily move to an area where food supplies are more readily available when colder weather begins. House finches are a fine example of this trend, with many birds observed to migrate short distances from upland terrain when temperatures start to drop, settling at the first spot they come to with snow-free bird feeders in backyards.
From studying the limited available data gained from observations of banded birds, only around 4 percent of birds were recorded to have moved more than 200 km (125 mi) from where they were originally tagged. Some of the furthest-traveled individual birds include a bird from Ontario that was captured and checked more than 560 km (350 mi) to the southwest in Indiana.
Roughly, only 4% of House Finches move more than 200km from where they were originally tagged
House finches that breed in the Western part of the U.S. usually fly only a short distance down to nearby lower ground regions in winter. Birds that are resident in the East and Great Lakes regions sometimes travel longer distances, ending up further south.
Western Montana and southwestern Arizona in particular notice some seasonal increases to their resident population, as numbers are swelled by overwintering birds. Parts of Florida, Texas and Louisiana also play host to temporary non-breeding populations each winter.
Although not all house finches migrate, those that do travel over land. Migration length is uncertain, and changes depending on the bird’s original starting territory.
Migratory birds that breed in the West in spring, temporarily locate only a short distance away from their breeding ground on mountain slopes, and their migrations are not especially time-consuming.
For house finches starting from locations further north and north-east, flights may take several days to weeks to complete, with birds finding suitable spots to rest overnight en-route.
Male House Finch eating sunflower seeds from a feeder
House finches migrate during the day, and as the light fades each evening, they temporarily break their journeys and feed and rest, before continuing onwards towards their destination.
House finches are social birds and outside of breeding season can frequently be seen foraging in large flocks that number anything from a few pairs to several hundred birds. House finches that do migrate tend to travel as part of a larger flock.
Female (left) and male (right) House Finches
Most house finches are sedentary, rather than migratory, and remain in their breeding territories all year round. A small minority of birds that breed in northern and eastern states relocate each winter to spend the coldest months further south.
Some populations of house finches leave their breeding grounds in the north and extreme north-eastern U.S. to fly to warmer regions to escape the months with the coldest, harshest weather. Parts of the United States as far south as Florida, Texas and Louisiana receive small numbers of incoming migrants each winter, but there is no data to confirm the starting origin of these birds.
The winter range of populations of house finches in the Western United States is largely the same as the breeding range. Small-scale migration does occur, with birds that breed in parts of north-west Montana observed to spend winters around 200 km (125 mi) away.
Migration from eastern and north-eastern regions, where house finch populations have only become established in more recent decades, than those native to the western U.S. are more likely to undertake more significant migrations, both to nearby towns at elevations lower than those of their breeding ranges, and further afield.
House Finch during the winter snow
In summer months, any house finches that temporarily left their breeding territories in search of milder weather return north at the start of the breeding season. House finches are believed to be typically faithful to their home territories. Those that do spend part of the year further afield will always return to the same area when it’s time to prepare to raise the next brood of chicks.
From checking banding records for birds in specific areas, data shows that house finches generally do not travel far from their home territories. As finches are not constantly monitored, and data only becomes available when ringed birds are caught and logged, there is limited information available on where they go once they have been released.
Close up portrait of a House Finch
Not much research exists into the migration habits of the small numbers of finches that leave their breeding grounds in winter. It is believed that they migrate during daylight hours, as observed in other members of the finch family, resting each evening to forage and conserve energy resources until they have recharged when they set off again.
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