|Winter Finches - Purple Finch with Pine Siskin|
A second subject in the “Winter Finch Forecast” is the Purple Finch: “This finch winters in the north when the majority of deciduous and coniferous seed crops are abundant, which is not the case this year. Most Purple Finches will migrate south of Ontario this fall. A few may frequent feeders in southern Ontario. Purple Finch numbers have declined significantly in recent decades due in part to a decrease of spruce budworm outbreaks since the 1980s.”
Southeastern Vermont is obviously south of Ontario, but our state is also well within the breeding range of this northern finch. The recently completed Vermont Breeding Bird Atlas documented the Purple Finch in 350 survey blocks. Within my own immediate neighborhood, Purple Finches breed, often raising multiple broods. At times during the summer, they are the most common species at my feeders as adults feed their young offspring.
The Purple Finch is one of two “red” finches in the East; the other is the House Finch. The House Finch is native to western North America. It was accidentally introduced in New York in 1940 and has become established and widespread in the East. It is slimmer than its cousin. The male House Finch is not as dark red as the Purple. It has a red eyebrow and forehead. The female is a dull, streaked brown bird.
The Purple Finch is chunkier of the red finches and has a shorter tail. In fresh breeding plumage, the male is a deep wine red; his head is more uniformly red. The female Purple Finch is a dull, streaked brown bird, but with a strong face pattern and white eyebrow.
The House Finch is more likely to be found in towns, cities, and open areas. The Purple Finch prefers forest.
It may be difficult for us in New England to think of the Purple Finch as a “winter finch,”
given that it breeds commonly in our forests, and most leave for the winter. While I have seen the Purple Finch every month of the year, through the winter months it is uncommon.
John James Audubon gathered much of his information for Birds of America while living in Louisiana. In the deep south, he knew the Purple Finch as a winter finch, wandering in small flocks of six to twenty birds from the beginning of November until April. This is the same period during the year when the Purple Finch is uncommon in my neighborhood.
In addition to the visual delight provided by the male Purple Finch, he also contributes to the audio quality of the neighborhood. If jealously were an avian characteristic, his song would make any warbler jealous, especially since most warblers don’t sing, they buzz. “This favorite bird is one of the most melodious of American finches. He pours out his gushing, ecstatic warble from the top of some tree ... a continuous melody ... this most remarkable vocal effort.” (Forbush) The song “is sweet and continued, and I have enjoyed it much during the spring and summer months, in the mountainous parts of Pennsylvania ...” (Audubon)
When these finches begin returning to my neighborhood in late winter and early spring from wherever they have spent the bleak months, they not only bring their delightful and promising song, they also bring entertainment. Though there is plenty of food in the feeders, each individual regards the sum total of the sunflower seeds as food which is exclusively his or hers. “Purple finches are more or less gregarious at times, especially in winter; they are sociable and friendly at such times, except when feeding causes rivalry. Then they become selfish and belligerent. When several of them are eating at a feeding station they often seem quite hostile toward any new arrival, raising the feathers of the crown and rushing at him with wide-open bill. Occasional pecking may result, which seems to produce no great damage. The attacked one usually retreats somewhat and proceeds to feed only a few inches from his pursuer.” (Bent, Life History)
And so ... Purple Finches, which are considered to be one of the winter finches, summer in my neighborhood, and leave for the winter. Except for a few ...