Tuesday, May 10, 2011

House Finches

Have you seen a bird slightly larger than a house sparrow fluttering under your eaves? Or maybe they are investigating under your patio roof. The male has purplish-red breeding coloration splashed brightly on his head and chest in the spring. The dowdy female is more mottled brown with white streaks on her chest.

I recently received a question about these delightful little birds and it was a good reminder that just because a species is common, it doesn’t mean that everyone knows about them. House finches (Carpodacus mexicanus) are frequent visitors and residents in Southern California backyards. 

Their nests are half-grapefruit-sized works of art woven of dried grasses and plant fiber. Protected locations under house eaves and on patios are a strong attraction for these builders of delicate nests. As seed-eating song birds, house finches have flourished in suburban landscapes and their numbers have increased as more and more of the American Southwest has been developed.
Today, house finches are found across the United States, but it wasn’t always that way. House finches are originally residents of the Southwest. The male’s coloration is striking and his song is beautiful. People arriving in the Los Angeles area in the 1920’s took to capturing these charismatic finches and sending them east to sell as “Hollywood finches.” Captive birds escaped and founded east coast populations. Today house finches are one of the most observed species at backyard feeders in 48 states. (See the trends for house finch populations for your area at Project Feederwatch)

House finches are not picky feeders. They will eat black sunflower, millet and especially the nyjer seed that also attracts goldfinches. They are also attracted to native plants that produce fruit, like hollyleaf cherry and Catalina cherry. (Creating a yard for wildlife)

Every birder starts with a species that catches their eye and makes them look at birds in a different way. For many people a singing male house finch may be that first bird. While they may be common, house finches are an important species in our local biodiversity.