For you non-birders who dabble in occasional bird watching, you may have noticed a flurry of red-headed birds at your feeders that, for the novice watcher, resemble sparrows. These are actually House Finches that have some interesting history to their appearance in the states. Females, however, do not have any red coloration and do resemble sparrows to a point. House Finches are also similar to Purple Finches that have more red coloration over their bodies.
According to the Birding Wire, House Finches are one of the most common birds at feeders and in the fields across the United States. But their distribution and ecology have been altered by people. Historically, they are a bird of dry habitats in Mexico and the American Southwest. These colorful finches were popular with pet dealers who marketed them as “Hollywood Finches” back in the early 1900s.
To avoid prosecution under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which protects wild birds, bird sellers on Long Island, New York, liberated their House Finches during the 1940’s. The rest, as they say, is history. From this humble beginning, House Finch populations exploded and the species progressively expanded their range across the country from east to west and north to south until they merged with the original western population.
Today, House Finches are conspicuous in most neighborhoods. They consume sunflower, safflower and Niger seeds at feeders and sometimes nest in hanging planters and other structures in yards. They are one of few birds that feed their offspring on plant foods only, primarily regurgitated seeds. Most seed-eating birds feed insects to their nestlings as a protein source.
House Finches are susceptible to an eye disease called avian conjunctivitis, which causes their eyes to become red, runny and swollen. First recorded in Maryland in 1994, the bacterium may cause the finch’s eyes to swell shut, resulting in blindness. Some birds recover, but most die from starvation or predation.
If you have House Finches at your feeder, sooner or later you’ll see a male that is colored more orange or yellow than red. This is a case of “you are what you eat.” Red, orange and yellow colors in birds come from ingested pigments, called carotenoids, in the bird’s diet. So that orange- or yellow-tinted male House Finch actually has been consuming something that changed the color of its feathers.
House Finches are residents across most of their range, but some northern and eastern birds migrate. They range from southern Canada to southern Mexico and across the United States.
In the West, House Finches inhabit open dry areas and woodland borders, but throughout their range they favor urban habitats. They are less likely to be found in expanses of forests or grasslands.
House Finches form pairs during winter and may stay together year-round. Males display to females using a flight-song display that includes song, slow fluttering wing beats and graceful aerial dives. Males also hop near females while drooping wings, raising tail, and singing. Males may offer food to females during courtship. Sound familiar?
House Finches construct their nests on ledges of man-made structures and in coniferous and deciduous trees. They may build their nest on rock ledges, even in and hanging flower pots. Their bowl-shaped nests are built with fine grasses and materials and lined with even finer, soft materials such as animal hair. Their clutches are usually two to six white to pale blue eggs, sometimes speckled. Some House Finches may nest more than once per season. Their incubation period is from 12 to 14 days and nestlings are altricial that hatch featherless except for fine down along feather tracts, eyes closed and helpless. But they grow quickly, fledging in 12-19 days.
While some avid birders stop feeding birds in the summer as native foods are often available, many maintain feeders just to see and enjoy the company of our fine-feathered friends.
Nick Hromiak has been an outdoors and automotive writer for over 30 years. He's been published in numerous national and state-wide outdoor magazines and newspapers.