The house finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) is one of the most widespread birds throughout the United States, southern Canada, and Mexico. But, this was not always the case for our small songbird. House finches were originally desert dwellers, native to the southwest and Mexico. The birds have expanded their range naturally throughout the west, but their existence in the eastern United States is due to the pet store trade. When this trade became illegal in the 1930s, all captive house finches were released.
The birds adapted and today are present throughout most of the US, their songs enjoyed by a host of backyard birders. House finches are year-round residents in the regions they call home. They are also frequent visitors to bird feeders.
If you have ever seen a flock or a mated pair of house finches, you likely noticed the most prominent difference between the males and females - their coloration.
The plumage is by far the easiest way to differentiate the sexes, but they also exhibit other differences. We will discuss those differences and more in the complete guide to the female house finch!
Close up of a female house finch
The easiest way to tell if a house finch is male or female is to look at its plumage, and specifically the coloration. Males have more rosy red patches across their bodies, whereas females lack the rosy red colorings and are simply gray-brown all over.
Males are streaked with shades of gray and brown on their back, underside, and tail. They have a rosy red (or sometimes pale yellow) pigmentation on their crown, cheek, chest, shoulder patch, and back.
Females, on the other hand, are generally gray-brown all over. Some may have slight rosy pigmentation on their crown, breast, and rump, but it is always less bright than males. Juvenile house finches look similar to females. They are also gray-brown overall, but their markings appear blurry and their plumage fluffier.
Male house finch
Female house finch
Generally, a female house finch is streaked gray and brown on her back, head, and underside. Some females have light red pigmentation on their crown, breast, and rump. A female’s legs, feet, and beak are also gray-brown.
Female house finches are not bigger than males. Generally, males are larger. They also have longer wings and tails and shorter bills compared to females.
Male house finch (left) and female house finch (right)
Plumage coloration is not the only way to differentiate between female and male house finches. The two sexes also exhibit a few behavioral differences, including when and how they sing, feeding and nesting behavior, and courtship.
House finch songs are split into two categories - those with a buzz syllable and those without one. Songs that do not contain a buzz are sung throughout the year, while buzz songs are mainly heard during the breeding season. Female and male house finches give both types of calls, but male calls are often more varied.
Male house finches commonly sing their full song throughout the year. On the other hand, females typically sing early in the breeding season, often giving a shortened version of the song. They sometimes sing alone but generally sing with a mate and when soliciting courtship feeding.
Female house finch calling
Both the male and female house finch participate in the nest-site selection. They often search together but will also conduct searches separately without getting too far apart. Once a site is selected, only the female builds the nest.
Males will remain close by, occasionally picking up and carrying nesting material, but these pieces are never used in the nest and are not meant to be. This behavior is part of pair interactions during the nest-building process.
After laying the eggs, the female does all of the incubating. She will only leave the nest in the early mornings to forage. Otherwise, the female remains with the eggs, depending on the male to bring her food. If the male takes too long, she will solicit his attention with loud begging calls.
The female broods the young for three to five days after the eggs hatch. During this period, the male continues to bring food for his mate and the chicks. After the brooding period ends, both parents take part in feeding the young, but the female’s role slowly subsides. In the final days before fledging, the male continues to provide food for the chicks, while the female begins building a new nest.
Male and female house finches both feeding the chicks in the nest
Males perform courtship displays to attract a female's attention. They execute what is referred to as a butterfly display, where the male flies high into the air and glides back down to a perch while singing a loud buzz-syllable song. The female house finch watches the display, sometimes performed by several males at once, before choosing her mate.
A few weeks after courtship displays and pair formation, a behavior known as Billing begins. Billing, where one bird pecks at its partner's beak, leads into courtship feeding. This behavior generally begins several weeks before nesting.
The male regurgitates food then feeds the female as she begs by giving loud calls, fluttering her wings, lifting her head - similar to the behavior of nestlings. Courtship feeding continues until nestlings have hatched. It resumes at the beginning of the next nesting cycle.
A pair of house finches foraging together
Female house finches are unlikely to raise a successful clutch alone. During incubation and brooding, the female depends greatly on the male to provide food. If the male dies, the female would have to forage frequently for herself. Leaving the nest for long periods, particularly during the sensitive stages of incubation or brooding, would likely result in loss of the clutch.
In the event a clutch is unsuccessful due to the loss of a mate, the female would find a new mate and raise another clutch. In most breeding seasons, females will nest up to six times. Although, on average, only three nests are successful.
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