Speaking of Nature: Purple Finches appear this year?

A male Purple Finch seems to have been dipped in cranberry juice.  Note the fact that almost every feather has at least a hint of rose-purple on it.

A male Purple Finch seems to have been dipped in cranberry juice.  Note the fact that almost every feather has at least a hint of rose-purple on it. PHOTO BY BILL DANIELSON

Published: 12-10-2023 7:00 PM

We are midway through the month of December and I have started a new list. The current record for the number of birds observed in my yard in the month of Dec. is 31 species and that record was set just last year. On my first day of observations I managed to pick up 18 species, so everything is normal so far. Almost all of the regulars have shown themselves, which means it comes down to the not-so-regular species to fill in the rest of the list.

Scanning through past December lists I see that there is one species that I have seen at my feeders in the last 15 years. The bird that I’m speaking of is the Purple Finch (Haemorhous purpureus) and it is a species that anyone will want to take the time to look for, even if it is an unpredictable and unreliable bird at this time of year. Well, I think I need to expand that last description to any time of any year. Let me fill in some details for you.

The Purple Finch is quite particular about its choice of habitat in the summer months. Cool and moist forests of evergreen trees are the favorite places for Purple Finches to set up shop and reproduce and these forests are usually found at higher latitudes and higher elevations. As a result, readers in the Berkshires might see these birds more often that those who live in the Connecticut River Valley. Forest type is the key. I would consider myself to be an active birder and I haven’t seen one of these birds in the month of December since 2017. I just don’t have the right kind of trees at my house.

The connection between Purple Finches and coniferous trees is so strong that they decide whether to migrate or not depending on the quality of the cone crop in any given year. Happy trees covered with cones will provide the finches with plenty of food to munch on through the winter. However, in those years that the trees have been stressed and the resulting number of cones is low, the birds will move out in search of food. This sort of movement, based on food availability rather than temperature, is described as being “irruptive.’

Fortunately, there is a scientist who monitors the situation up in Canada and provides and annual, “Finch Forecast” online. It is a wonderful resource provided by The Finch Research Network and every year they do their best to predict the movements of many different northern finch species based on the quality of food stocks in the forests across Canada and the northern states of the US. As you might imagine from all the rain that we had this year, the trees on the East Coast were very happy indeed and this might coax a few Purple Finches in our direction.

Recognizing a Purple Finch will be a bit of a challenge right up until the very moment that you actually see one. This is because there is another species (the House Finch) that bears enough of a resemblance to the Purple Finch to cause some uncertainty at times. The House Finch is a regular at almost anyone’s feeder and is most often seen in the company of American Goldfinches. Both males and females are plump little birds that could best be describes as gray-and-white streaked. Males have additional color added to the top of the head and the upper breast.

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The thing that can make them confusing is the fact that there can be quite a lot of variability between male House Finches. Some have a lot of color on the head and upper breast, while others have quite a bit less. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the exact color varies as well. Some males are on the orange side of things, while others are decidedly red. Still others can be somewhat pinkish, which is the most troublesome color of all. This can cause some birders (including myself) to take a second look at a male House Finch that has broad coverage of the pinkish feathers and wonder if it is a Purple Finch.

When a genuine male Purple Finch appears it seems to strike like a lightning bolt. These birds have rosy-purple feathers all over their bodies. Head, breast, back, wings and even the tail feathers have purple on them. The great birder Roger Tory Peterson suggested that the birds looked as if they had been dipped in raspberry juice. I always think of cranberry juice, but I suppose the effect is the same. Whatever pondering you may have experienced while looking at male House Finches will be obliterated once a genuine Purple Finch arrives.

Last year I set the December record without seeing any Purple Finches. It stands to reason that a species like this is going to be the bird that either makes or breaks the effort to set a new record. I’ve been keeping records for my current home since 2005 and I have only seen Purple Finches in December in 2008, 2016 and 2017. Could this be the year that a poor cone crop in parts of central Canada sends Purple Finches wandering across the northern US in search of food? It certainly sounds like it could happen, so I’ll keep my feeders stocked with black oil sunflower seeds and keep a sharp lookout for these gorgeous irruptive visitors.

Bill Danielson has been a professional writer and nature photographer for 26 years. He has worked for the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, the Nature Conservancy and the Massachusetts State Parks and he currently teaches high school biology and physics. For more in formation visit his website at www.speakingofnature.com, or go to Speaking of Nature on Facebook.