Since the eastward expansion of the house finch, many birdwatchers have found it increasingly difficult to tell the female purple finch from this species. A resident of the west coast and the northeastern USA, populations of the purple finch (Haemorhous purpureus) also migrate from their summer breeding grounds in Canada southwards into the central and southern parts of the USA.
Purple finches are primarily a bird of coniferous forests in the summer months. For many, winter marks the arrival of these birds as they travel to find better sources of seed. They will use a variety of habitats at this time, and often turn up at backyard bird feeders.
In typical finch fashion, female purple finches lack the bright colors of males. Bright colors are unnecessary since it is the male who does all the showing off, and drawing unnecessary attention to herself would only be a calling card for predators.
Purple finch females can be pretty tricky to identify out in the field. If you thought you'd be looking for a purple bird, think again. The males have all the color, and even they are more reddish than purple.
Read this guide to learn some practical tips on identifying female purple finches by looks and behavior. We’ll also cover plenty of other interesting facts along the way!
Close up of a perched female purple finch
It is easy to tell an adult male from a female purple finch. Males have a rosy-red (not purple) wash to the head, back, and underparts. Their colors are brightest in the Spring months. Females are a grey-brown to olive-brown color overall with plenty of streaking on the breast and underparts.
Separating females from immature males on the other hand is no easy task and virtually impossible in the field. Sorry folks, there are no easy solutions to this problem!
Male Purple Finch
Female Purple Finch
The female purple finch is a fairly drab little bird. Accurate identification can pose a bit of a challenge, but there are some diagnostic features to look out for.
Female purple finches have a typical finch profile, with a short and heavy conical bill ideal for a diet of seeds. Their overall body color is greyish with the back and wings streaked in brown. Their underparts are boldly streaked, becoming pure white under the tail. Females also have a distinctly dark ear covert patch with an obviously paler streak above and below.
Now that you know the basics of female purple finch identification, it’s time to dive a little deeper and learn some more expert tips.
Although they are superficially very similar, it is worth noting that there are two accepted purple finch subspecies and they do differ slightly in appearance. The female of the western subspecies (Haemorhous purpureus californicus) has a more olive coloration than its eastern counterpart. The markings on the underparts of the eastern subspecies (H. p. purpureus) are also slightly bolder and more clearly defined.
Female purple finch (left) and male purple finch (right), perched on a branch
While distinguishing purple finch females from purple finch males may be easy, some other identification challenges do exist. The females of other Haemorhous finch species in particular are easily confused.
The female house finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) is the most likely bird to confuse with the female purple finch. This species has become increasingly common and outcompeted the purple finch in most of the eastern parts of their shared range. The female house finch has lighter streaking on the underparts and the head appears more uniform in color.
In the western parts of the United States, the female Cassin’s finch (Haemorhous cassinii) is easily confused with the female purple finch. The most reliable visual difference between these birds lies in the color and markings of their undertail coverts. They are pure white in the purple finch female but streaked in Cassin's finch.
Female House Finch
Female Purple Finch perched
Male and female purple finches are practically identical in size. One study found that males are 3mm longer on average with a sample size of 220 individuals. The birds in this sample measured between 123.5mm and 154mm in total length from the fork of the tail to the tip of the beak.
Males are also slightly heavier than females on average but there is only a gram or so in it. Interestingly, female purple finches do have significantly shorter wings, although this is not exactly a diagnostic feature out in the field.
Purple finches of both sexes roost communally in the non-breeding season. Males occur in consistently higher densities than females, although the reason for the difference in abundance is unknown.
Both sexes of purple finches show aggressive behavior towards each other. Female purple finches are not known for backing down to males, however. They often have the final say (or peck) when things get heated around food sources for example.
There are also some fascinating differences between the two sexes when it comes to pair formation. Read on to learn how the process of courtship unfolds.
Females are believed to select males by their songs. Males then perform an intricate and vigorous dance consisting of various movements, postures, and a very short vertical flight. Soft vocalizations are produced during this display, and the female may respond with a more subdued display of her own.
A pair of female purple finches perched in a tree
Purple finches are vocal little birds. The males have three different songs which serve variously to attract females, establish dominance and defend their nesting territory. Female purple finches vocalize too, although their function is less obvious.
The female has been recorded singing from the nest. This song lasted between one and two minutes and was quite distinct from the song of male purple finches. She will also make a short three-noted call from the nest and a single noted call in flight.
Purple finches are monogamous. Nesting typically begins in April but has been recorded as late as July, with some pairs producing a second brood.
Both sexes participate in choosing a nest site. This is usually on the branch of a coniferous tree such as a spruce. Typical nesting sites have some form of cover immediately above them and are located anywhere from 30 inches to 60 feet above ground level.
Once a site has been chosen, the female does the lion's share (if not all) of the work, building a neat little cup shape nest lined with soft materials like fur and grass. She typically lays 4 greenish-blue eggs, although anything from 2 to 7 eggs has been recorded.
Close up of a perched female purple finch
When it comes to purple finch parenting, teamwork is the order of the day. Both sexes have their roles to play, and successful incubation and chick raising would be impossible for a lone female.
The female purple finch is responsible for egg incubation, which typically lasts about 13 days. She develops a single brood patch during this time, which helps with direct heat transfer to the developing eggs. Males have also been observed incubating eggs, however.
During the incubation period, the male provides the female with food. This is very important since females are very reluctant to leave their nests. Both the male and female feed the chicks which fledge at about two weeks old.
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