House finch

 The male House finch looks as though its head has been dipped in jam. Here it’s eating buds on a crabapple tree.

Photo: Jeanette Rive




By Jeanette Rive


If you see a sparrow-sized bird in your backyard which looks as though its head has been dipped in raspberry jam, it’s most likely a male House finch. It’s one of the few “red” coloured birds seen in our urban areas, along with the cardinal and the less common Purple finch, with which it is often confused.

The female House finch is about the same size but light brown with white streaks on the chest. During the breeding season, they are mostly seen in pairs. They are sociable birds, collecting at feeders or perching high up in trees, often with flocks of sparrows. As the name suggests, they live in urban areas, around houses, parks, gardens and forest edges. They feed on the ground, like juncos, as well as at feeders, jostling for space with other finches or sparrows. Strictly vegetarian, they eat seeds from weed stalks, flower buds on trees in the spring and fruit and berries.

House finches were native to western North America until the early 1940s. They were originally captured in Santa Barbara, California, taken east and sold in pet shops as “Hollywood finches” in New York. However, to avoid prosecution under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, pet shop owners released them in 1939. They thrived and expanded their range, finally joining up with their western relatives, and they are now among the most widespread birds across North America. Some consider them invasive as they compete for food with Purple finches, less commonly seen in urban areas. Although they both have distinctive red colouring, the Purple finch’s colour is a deeper red which extends down the back and covers more of the face and neck.

Distinctive to finches, they have a notched tail which is visible when flying. They have a 20-25 cm wingspan and weigh anywhere from 16 to 27 grams – about the weight of a tablespoon of maple syrup! Finches in our area are mostly migratory but if the winter isn’t too harsh and there is food to be found, many winter here.

House finches are monogamous, pairing up in spring and returning to the same area to breed, occasionally using the same nest location. You may have seen courtship displays occurring in the trees in your garden – the female fluttering her wings gently pecking at the male’s bill to encourage food regurgitation until he finally feeds her. The female will seek out the more colourful males with larger red patches – a sign of a healthier and well-fed male. They nest in trees, on rock ledges, in hanging flower planters and streetlamps and around buildings. The female is the primary nest builder, spending about two days creating a small cup nest from fine stems, leaves, twigs, bits of wood and string.

Between two and six pale blue, slightly speckled, eggs are laid, one a day in the morning. The female sits on the eggs for about two weeks while her mate brings food to her and the hatchlings which fledge after about three more weeks. Shortly after the eggs are hatched, the female cleans the nest, removes the empty eggshells as well as the fecal sacs – a mucous membrane which surrounds the feces making it easier for disposal!

The baby birds are altricial when born – that is to say, their eyes are closed, they have no feathers, they stay in the nest for a few weeks and are totally dependent on their parents for food, heat and protection. Most passerine (perching bird) chicks as well as hummingbirds, swallows and woodpeckers are altricial. Exceptions are birds of prey, owls and some seabirds which, although altricial, hatch with well-developed down cover. Precocial bird hatchlings such as ducklings, chickens and goslings are born with eyes open and dense down cover, and they are able to walk, run, swim and find food shortly after hatching.

In spite of the non-typical winter we’ve had, peak migration will start in April when millions of birds will head to their summer breeding sites. Many pass through the Ottawa area, and we may find unusual birds spending a few days in our gardens. Make sure your feeders are full, and a bird bath is always appreciated especially in summer. And a special plea to keep cats indoors; many bird biologists estimate that cats kill about 2.5 billion birds a year. Enjoy the spring and return of the birds. If you want to listen to bird songs or identify a bird you’ve heard, the Merlin bird ID app is a great resource.


Jeanette Rive is a Glebe bird enthusiast and frequent Glebe Report contributor.

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