For many birders and feeder watchers, the identification of House Finches and Purple Finches can be a challenge. While these species do look very similar, when regarding the fine ID points of the two, they can be significantly easier to distinguish.
The first thing to consider when trying to make a positive ID between these two birds is the range. The House Finch has an interesting range with populations in the western United States separated from those in the eastern United States. This species is non migratory and will stick around bird feeders year round.
Unlike the House Finch, the Purple Finch is migratory and spends much of the year in southern Canada with some of them staying year round in California and parts of the midwest and north east. During winter, Purple Finches move into the lower 48 states from the plains states east to the Atlantic Ocean. Just how far this species moves down is dependent on the availability of cone crops in the north and will vary each year.
While there are a few places where it is possible to determine these species based on range, there are many more places where they overlap. This makes range a somewhat unreliable factor to consider.
When looking at the overall appearance of these two species, there are some size and shape differences that can be helpful to note. House Finches will look slimmer, have a more rounded head, and a more shallow notch in their tail. Also, the upper mandible on the bill of the House Finch is more curved than that of the Purple Finch.
The Purple Finch will look more bulky with a more crested head, and deeper notch on the tail. The bill of the Purple Finch will also look bulkier and the upper mandible will be straighter.
Coloration and Field Markings
While size and shape can be somewhat subjective, the field markings and overall coloration of these two species can be used to make a positive ID with more reliability.
The House Finch has a red, orange, or yellow color on their head and breast. This color does not typically extend to the back and wings. The wing bars of the House Finch are light colored and the underside is streaked with dark brown.
The male Purple Finch will have an rosy-pink or “wine stained” appearance that covers most of its body including the neck and back. They have rosy wing bars as opposed to the light colored wing bars of the House Finch. The Purple Finch will also have less or no dark streaking on their lower stomach.
The females of these two species can also be distinguished with field markings. The female House Finch has little to no marking by the eye as opposed to the female Purple Finch that has a bright eye stripe. The female House Finch will also have a more blurred looking chest and underside while the Purple Finch will have more defined streaking.
Most birders will encounter one or both of these species at some point, and knowing the fine ID points of each can be instrumental in discerning between them. House Finch males will be slimmer with a rounded head and smaller notch in their tail. Their upper bill will be more curved and they will be red, orange, or yellowish with the color only being on the head or chest. Last but not least, House Finches will have brown streaking on their lower underside. House Finch females will not have a light eye stripe and will have blurred streaking on their chest and underside.
Male Purple Finches will be bulkier with a more crested appearance and a deeper notch in their tail. They will have a thick and straighter looking bill and will be a wine stained color. Their colore will appear to wash over most of the body leading to their wing bars also being rosy looking. A Purple Finch will have little to n dark streaking on their lower underside. Female Purple finches will have a bright eye stripe and defined streaking on their Chet and underside.
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