A colorful songbird and an increasingly rare garden visitor, the purple finch (Haemorhous purpureus) is more of a subtle shade of rose than the vibrant purple that its name might suggest. With populations across the Western and Eastern United States, it lives and breeds in a range of geographically diverse environments. Location and natural habitat are important factors in a purple finch’s chosen nesting spot, and we’ll be looking at these below, as well as the fascinating division of roles in the whole nesting process from initial courtship to fledglings leaving the nest.
Purple finches typically build their nests in coniferous forests, on horizontal branches, or in forks in trees such as Douglas fir, spruce, or Austrian pine. Nests may also be found in deciduous forests, carefully crafted from twigs and sticks and lined with moss.
During courtship, male purple finches attract mates by holding twigs or other nesting material in their beaks. However, when the situation becomes reality, and a nest is needed, it’s over to the female to mastermind the entire process. The female purple finch has the ultimate say in where she is going to raise her brood, and takes the dominant role in gathering materials and the actual nest-building phase.
The largest share of incubation duties are also undertaken by the female, with the male supporting her by bringing seeds for her to eat. Once the eggs have hatched, the male and female work together to feed the chicks and tend them until they are ready to leave the nest two weeks later.
Read on to find out more about the different roles taken by male and female purple finches in their nesting process.
A breeding pair of purple finches perched on a branch
Tall trees in coniferous forests serve as popular nesting sites for purple finches, with fir, pine, and spruce being common choices, especially in the Eastern United States. Mixed woodland locations, particularly in Western states, are also used, with oak, maple, and fruit trees being the preferred choices. Nests are frequently built on horizontal branches or occasionally in forks in trees.
Nest sites are typically 4.5-6 m (15-20 ft) above ground level, but can be located as high as 18 m (60 ft) above ground level. It is also not unheard of for a much lower site to be chosen, in low shrubbery or under cover of tangled vines.
The nest site is selected by the female, who then collects materials, carries them to her chosen spot, and proceeds to construct the nest alone. Males have been observed to accompany females while gathering twigs, and may contribute a few items, but it’s largely the female who is responsible for construction duties.
Purple Finches at a bird feeder
The female finch roughly weaves a rounded nest from twigs, small sticks, roots, and plant fibers that she has collected and carried to the nest site. The interior cup is lined with moss, animal fur, and fine vegetation. Nests are relatively small in size, measuring only around 17 cm (6 in) in diameter.
The nest of a purple finch, with a newly hatched chick inside
The first brood of the year of a purple finch can be laid from April onwards and lasts until August. Once the first brood of the year has fledged, some purple finches, particularly in the Pacific Coast region, may have a second brood later in the summer.
Eggs are laid between one and five days after the nest construction is complete. Once the eggs have been laid, the incubation period lasts for typically 12 to 13 days. During this period, the female incubates the eggs and rarely leaves the nest, being brought regurgitated seeds to eat by the male.
After the chicks hatch, both parents take an active role in finding food and feeding their young. Purple finch hatchlings remain in the nest for around 14 days before fledging.
Female Purple Finch taking a drink
Purple finches typically set out to gather nest-building materials in pairs, although by far the largest share of the task is undertaken by the female, with the male contributing only a couple of twigs, if any at all. It takes between three and eight days for the nest to be finished, with the female working alone to complete the task.
The nest materials are then woven together to form a rounded nest with a cup-shaped interior, which is then lined with soft moss, animal hair, and fine plant fibers.
After around 14 days, purple finch hatchlings are ready to fledge. Although by this stage they are fully feathered and capable of some flight, they remain close to the nest site for the first week.
Perched male purple finch
Purple finches have between one and two broods each year. Each clutch contains an average of 3 to 6 eggs. Pairs may return to the nest in which their first brood of the year was raised to lay for a second time.
Typically a new site is chosen and a fresh nest is constructed each year. However, finches may revisit a nest they used earlier in the same year to raise their second brood.
Purple Finch in a tree in winter, Algonquin Park, Ontario, Canada
Purple finch eggs are light blue-green in color, and have some dark mottled markings. They measure an average 20 mm (0.8 in) in length.
Four purple finch eggs in the nest
The breeding season for purple finches lasts from April to August, with up to two broods each year.
Whilst it is definitely most common for purple finches to choose their own nesting sites and construct their own natural nests, pairs of birds have on occasion been observed to lay their eggs in manmade nest boxes. Other unusual objects that have been used by nesting purple finches include an airplane and rock-crushing machinery.
Close up of a purple finch
During the breeding season, when incubating eggs or keeping their young warm, female purple finches remain on their nests overnight. At all other times of the year, purple finches, like other songbirds, will seek a sheltered branch or tree cavity as a night-time roosting spot.
It is not uncommon for purple finches to choose a nest site close to human habitation, and smaller backyard shrubs and sheltered, tangled vines may provide an ideal spot for nest construction.
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