House Finch vs Purple Finch: How to Tell the Difference
It can be tricky to ID a house finch vs purple finch — here are the field marks and differences to look for when you see a small red finch.
How to Identify a House Finch vs a Purple Finch
It’s a rush when you can confidently recognize an elusive or hard-to-identify bird. That burst of adrenaline and pride is just one of the many rewards of being a birder. But spotting the differences between a house finch vs a purple finch is particularly tricky. After all, the two species look incredibly alike! Here are some important things to look out for when you see a small red finch in your backyard.
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The house finch is commonly found throughout much of the Lower 48. The range of the purple finch is restricted to the dense forests of the West Coast, southern Canada and the northeastern U.S. during breeding season. And purple finches may be seen anywhere in the southeastern states during fall, winter and spring.
Before its expansion throughout the U.S., the house finch was native to the Southwest and was acclimated to an open, arid habitat. “You see them so often in our human-dominated landscapes because we’ve created open areas similar to their native habitat,” says Trina Bayard, bird conservation director at Audubon Washington.
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The difference between these birds becomes clear when you compare the adult males. Purple finches are a deep cranberry or raspberry color on most of their body. Male house finches are more orange and red with the color concentrated on their heads and chests.
Females are more difficult to tell apart, so look closely at their faces: Purple finches have a bolder face pattern, with two white stripes stretching from their beaks to the nape of their necks.
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The nesting habits of these two birds are completely different. House finches nest on the edges of open areas, sometimes on street lamps or in ivy on the sides of buildings. Purple finches nest primarily in forest conifers or dense shrubs, and at times in landscaped areas with trees. Neither species uses birdhouses.
“Seemingly similar birds can be really different from each other,” Trina says. “The house finch is a very social bird,” which nests in colonies or groups. Purple finches, however, often nest on their own. In the winter, they join flocks with pine siskins and goldfinches.
Both species enjoy sunflower seeds in the winter. During summer, they eat fruits and seeds from native plants, along with bugs. Both birds are drawn to feeders, and Trina suggests filling them with unhulled black oil sunflower seeds.
Psst—here’s how to choose the best finch feeders.
ID Challenge: House Finch or Purple Finch?
“Is this new bird in my backyard a house finch or a purple finch,” asks Jim Gordon of Dassel, Minnesota.
Birding experts Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman write, “Telling a house finch vs a purple finch apart is a common backyard challenge over much of North America. On the males, one of the first things to look for is the pattern on the sides of the body, below the wings. House finch males have dark stripes there (as seen in your photo), while purple finches don’t.
A female house finch has a fairly plain brown face, while a female purple finch has a contrasting white eyebrow and whisker mark. House finches also have a smaller beak, a slimmer body, shorter wingtips and a longer tail than the purple finch.”
“Is this a house finch or a purple ﬁnch?” asks Lynette Lozinski of St. Cloud, Minnesota.
Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman write, “Little red finches can be tricky. Purple finches and house finches are similar in appearance, as males of both have a lot of red on the head. This is a house finch. In your photo (above), the bird is perched at an angle, making it hard to discern the slimmer body, longer tail and slightly smaller bill of the house finch. But a good field mark here is the brown streaking along the sides and under the wings, which would be faint or lacking on a purple finch.”
Next, learn how to attract goldfinches to your backyard.