Purple finches (Haemorhous purpureus) and House finches (Haemorhous mexicanus) are two of the most easily confused birds in North America.
The House finch doesn't just live in houses and shares large portions of its range with the Purple finch, which is not really purple at all! Both are of similar color, and both belong to the same genus Haemorhous. But, there are some telltale differences between these two birds if you know what to look for. This is a guide to identifying House finches and Purple finches.
First and foremost, the male Purple finch's red/scarlet plumage is more strongly pigmented and wraps all the way around the breast, head and back. The color itself is raspberry red or dark pink. Contrastingly, House finches are a slightly less intense red and their coloration is confined mainly to the head, brow and upper breast.
House finches are sedentary and don't tend to migrate, whereas Purple finches migrate and live as far north as the Yukon and Northwest Territories in Canada. House finches are found throughout much of the mainland US. Purple finches migrate to the eastern United States and down the Pacific coast, which is when they're most likely to be seen together with House finches.
Finches are easy to confuse, and comparing House finches to Purple finches is a Common issue for US backyard birders. Read on to learn more about the differences between these doppelgangers!
House finches and Purple finches are of similar size and weight. The Purple finch is slightly larger and heavier and generally has a somewhat heavier build.
Purple finch measurements
Purple finches measure around 12 to 16cm (4.7 to 6.3in) in length with a wingspan of around 22 to 26cm (8.7 to 10.2in). They weigh around 18 to 32g (0.6 to 1.1oz).
House finch measurements
House finches measure around 12.5 to 15cm (5 to 6in) in length, with a wingspan of around 20 to 25cm (8 to 10in). They weigh between 16 to 27g (0.56 to 1oz).
Purple Finch perched on a branch
House finches have a much more extensive resident range than the Purple finch, and their population is also much larger.
Current estimates suggest that there are some 267 million to 1.7 billion House finch individuals. Partners in Flight have a more conservative estimate of around 40 million birds.
Purple finches are still Common, but not as Common as House finches. Partners in Flight estimate that there are around 6.4 million individuals.
The House finch is definitely more Common than the Purple finch, and you’re more likely to see it, especially if you live in towns or cities.
House Finches are generally the more common bird
House finches occupy most of the US, some of Mexico and small areas of southern Canada. They were much more common in the western US until the 50s, 60s and 70s, when they began to spread rapidly in the eastern US too.
They now occupy both the east and the west US, but are somewhat less common in eastern Texas, Oklakaha, Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota and North Dakota. House finches occupy a huge range of habitats ranging from forested lowlands to deserts, cities and coastal regions.
The Purple finch extends further north to parts of Canada, particularly western Canada’s Northwest Territories and Yukon. However, they also extend through Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, and Saskatchewan.
In winter, they migrate throughout much of the eastern US and are Common in the Great Lakes region and the northeastern US, which is where they mix with House finches. On the west coast, they also migrate down the Pacific Northwest, which is also where they’re likely to be seen alongside House finches. It’d be rare to see Purple finches throughout much of the interior western US states.
Close up of a Purple finch
Both of these finches feature a similar red/pink/scarlet color across their chest and head. However, the Purple finch’s red plumage extends across much of its body and back.
Overall, the Purple finch is the more pigmented and colorful of the two birds (in terms of the male). Additionally, House finches have white wing bars which are absent for the Purple finch.
House finches have streaky brown undersides, but these are not pigmented. The Purple finch’s underside is somewhat streaky, but with brown rather than red.
The House finch has the longer tail of the two birds, but they are otherwise similar.
There are cases when House finches moult and turn more yellow or orange, losing most of their red hue. Conversely, Purple finches don’t change color as dramatically as House finches and don’t turn yellow or orange.
House Finch perched on a branch
Purple finches are slightly bigger, and they’re often said to be slightly stockier and heavier.
This depends on where you are and what time of year it is, as both birds can puff up their feathers in colder weather. Overall, the Purple finch does look slightly larger (and it is, though only marginally). Also, the House finch has a slightly more rounded head and looks rounder overall.
Both birds have distinctive conical finch-like bills. However, the House finches bill is slightly more compact and curved.
Female (left) and male (right) purple finches
In general, Purple finches have long warbling calls, whereas House finches are chirpier.
The Purple finch’s warble is gentler and calmer, whereas the House finch alternates between high and low notes. House finch songs are typically short; around 1 to 4 s long with 4 to 30 syllables.
Purple finch songs last for a lot longer. The female Purple finch has an unusual song that lasts 1 to 2 minutes, whereas female House finches don’t tend to sing for very long.
It would be tough to tell these birds apart on call alone as there is a good deal of crossover, and birds from different regions have slightly different songs.
Purple finches are calmer when feeding and are less likely to be spoked than House finches.
While both birds are largely sociable, Purple finches can get quite solitary throughout the breeding season and summer, whereas House finches are more tolerant of each other and other birds.
Both birds are capable of territorial aggression, but House finches are much less territorial than Purple finches on the whole. House sparrows are timid and sociable among finches, whereas Purple finches are more headstrong and aggressive.
Female (left) and male (right) house finches
Both birds nest in coniferous and deciduous forests, but House finches are excellent at building nests amongst cacti in the desert and are also more likely to nest in buildings (as per the name House finch!).
Purple finches do also nest in buildings, but they prefer denser lowland forests. House finches are definitely more suited to urban environments and are more adaptable with regard to their habitat. Purple finches are more ‘wild’ and prefer unspoiled woodlands.
You’re quite unlikely to see Purple finches if you live in the city, whereas House finches are common in urban environments. The House finch is a flexible type, hence why it’s common and expanding throughout the US.
House finch feeding
Both finches mainly eat seeds, berries and other plant matter, mixed with some insects and invertebrates in the breeding season. House finches only typically eat very small insects, such as aphids, whereas Purple finches eat larger insects, such as spiders and beetles.
Purple finches are often migratory, and populations in the northeastern USA and Canada will move south during winter, usually settling in the eastern US and across the northwestern Pacific coastline.
House finches rarely migrate, though some northern colonies will head south in winter. House finch migration depends on the weather, whereas Purple finches tend to migrate every year. There are some year-round resident populations of Purple finches on the Pacific coast, Great Lakes region and southeastern Canada.
The females of both of these finches are not colorful like the males. Instead, both are predominantly light brown with streaky plumage.
While male Purple finches have red/scarlet breasts, the females have streaky brown plumage. Male House finches are streaky on their chest and breast, but the females are much less streaky.
So, female Purple finches can often be identified by their defined brown streaky plumage. They also have white marks above each eye, and their faces contrast with their chests. Female House finches don’t have particularly well-defined patterns and are similarly patterned all over.
Female House Finch
Female Purple Finch
House finch females are known to be dominant over the males, but the females incubate and brood the young while the male feeds. The female also chooses the nest site. House finch males also engage in courtship feeding, meaning they bring the females food during pair formation and the breeding season.
Both the House finch and Purple finch are at least seasonally monogamous. Some may stay with their mate in successive seasons, especially if they raise a successful brood.
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