How to Attract and Identify Purple Finches

Attracting a purple finch is easy with the right food, but identifying them can be tricky! Here's the best way to draw these colorful birds into your yard.

Purple finches are an absolute backyard treat but, despite their vivid-sounding name, their subdued pattern can make them difficult to spot. Roger Tory Peterson, the ornithologist and editor of the Peterson Field Guide series, once described these birds as a “sparrow dipped in raspberry juice.”

What Do Purple Finches Look Like?

They’re often confused with the house finch—however, purples are slightly heavier birds with shorter tails and longer wingtips. Male purple finches have an almost completely red face and neck with pinkish red also covering most of the body. Purple finches and house finches don’t flock together, but they might both show up at your feeder at the same time. Here’s how to tell the difference between these finches.

Look for a bird that’s slightly larger than a chickadee or nuthatch, has a short notched tail and a prominent, strong beak, which they mainly use to crack into tough seeds. Learn more about bird beaks.

In the West, Cassin’s finches also present an identification hurdle. They have a bright red cap, like the purple, but a lighter pink face, neck and upper chest.

purple finch at a tray feederCourtesy Rosemarie Pace
Purple finch on a tray feeder

What Do Purple Finches Eat?

Black oil sunflower seeds seem to be the food of choice for purple finches, but they also eat white millet and thistle seeds. Check out the 3 types of seeds and feeders birds love best.

Purple Finch Range

These forest-dwelling songbirds are found mainly in the Midwest, East and along the Pacific Coast. Don’t worry if these colorful finches came to your backyard last winter but don’t show up this year. They migrate erratically. Those that breed in Canada head to the central and southern United States for the winter, while the ones that spend their summer on the Pacific Coast, around the Great Lakes and in the Northeast often don’t migrate at all, except perhaps to lower elevations. They’ll probably be back again, especially if your feeders are filled with black oil sunflower seeds. For even more advice, see our simple tips to attract winter birds.

Bnbbyc17 Linda CarissimiCourtesy Linda Carissimi

Purple Finch Song

A musical bird, the purple finch sometimes copies other birds, such as American goldfinches or eastern towhees, as they sing loudly from the treetops (find out the difference between calls and songs). But when it’s time to woo a mate, the male purple finch mellows his tune, hopping in front of the female and puffing his feathers. Here’s what the song sounds like. If she’s interested, the avian Romeo pops a foot in the air, vibrates his wings and then lands, presenting a twig or piece of grass.

Purple Finch Nest

Purples like to nest on the limbs of conifers, though in the southern part of their breeding range they might nest in an oak, maple or cherry tree. The female carefully builds a twig cup, about 7 inches across and 4 inches deep, lining it with grass, moss and animal fur in preparation for the young. Here’s how to prep your yard for nesting season.

Purple Finch Eggs

Clutches range from two to seven pale green eggs with brown and black marks, each just under an inch long. It takes less than two weeks for the eggs to hatch. Afterward, both parents feed the naked, helpless chicks. The young grow quickly and fledge in another two weeks. Learn how to identify bird eggs by color and size.