The Purple Finch

December 12, 2011

Yes, this accompanying photograph is really a Purple Finch. Females and immature males are brown with a bold whitish eyebrow stripe which distinguishes them from the plain faced House Finch which is much more common here in Massachusetts. The name Purple is also misleading for the color of the adult male; it’s more the color of raspberry.

Roger Tory Peterson described the Purple Finch as a “sparrow dipped in raspberry juice.” Here in Massachusetts we tend to see more first year birds, like the photograph, than the adult males. The Purple Finch is an uncommon breeder in Massachusetts and as far as I know it has not been noted to nest in Mount Auburn since the days of William Brewster, who wrote in his Birds of the Cambridge Region (1906).” The juniper woods which once covered so much of the country lying between Mount Auburn and the Watertown Arsenal, used to attract Purple Finches at all seasons, and the birds bred there so commonly at times that on June 6, 1869, I found no less than six nests containing eggs or young within a space of half an acre.” 

Purple Finches prefer to nest in moist, coniferous forests, especially near a bog but also occur in mixed deciduous forests; here in Massachusetts they are found in the Berkshires and there is a small population that nests on Plum Island.

Purple Finches are among the winter finches that are referred to as irruptive, that is, especially with finches, if the food supply, i.e. the cone crop is poor the birds tend to move south looking for food. Every Year, ornithologists in Canada prepare a winter finch forecast, this year they predict that the Purple Finch will be uncommon in Ontario but will be in higher numbers in Atlantic Canada and New England where the cone crop is excellent. The Purple Finch population has declined significantly in recent decades; ornithologists believe the decrease is the absence of large spruce budworm outbreaks that probably sustained higher populations in the past.


Photo by Jeremiah Trimble.  

About the Author: Bob Stymeist

Bob Stymeist is Bird Observer’s Bird Sightings Compiler and a regular bird walk leader for the Friends of Mount Auburn.

View all posts by Bob Stymeist →

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