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The Humble House Finch or The California Linnet

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The Humble House Finch or The California Linnet

By Lisa Hug

As the dark days of December descend on us, we tend to spend more time inside.   This is a good time to watch the birds at feeders.  The most common native bird at most feeders is the colorful House Finch.  You may know this bird as the California Linnet. When European settlers came across the House Finch, it reminded them of their beloved Linnet – also a small, bold reddish finch that eats seeds and has a beautiful song.

Many of us are familiar with the male House Finch.  It is a pretty little bird with varying amounts of red on its head, chest and rump.  The female however, is a less conspicuous, streaked brownish-gray bird.  

There are also Purple Finches in the area which look very similar.  But they are shyer and less likely to come in to our feeders.  The Purple Finches usually remain in the Douglas fir forest, or at times in the riparian forests along our streams.  The male Purple Finch is distinguished from the House Finch by having more extensive red coloring on the chest which blends into reddish splotches on the belly.  The male House Finch has distinct streaks on the belly below the red chest.

Not all male House Finches have red heads and chests however.  Some are yellow or orange or even a pale pink color.  The richness of the red color is determined by the amount of carotenoids (red pigment found in carrots and other orange or red fruits and vegetables) the finch gets in its diet.  It would seem like the redder finches would be more fit than the yellow finches and also attract more females than the yellow males.  

In fact, the young females are very attracted to the bright red males. However, the red males are not helpful at the nest.  This forces the young female to do all the work.  But, older females tend to pick the yellow males which help feed the young at the nest (Duckworth, Badyaev, & Parlow, 2003).  It’s a very complex system.  Unfortunately, the yellow males tend to wear themselves out, and on average do not live as long as the red males.

Aside from watching House Finches, be sure to listen to their elaborate songs.  They sing and call to each other all year long.  With their bright colors and elaborate songs, they are one of the most entertaining birds that grace our urban and suburban environment.  They will make nests on our porches and under our eaves.  They will even make nests in Christmas wreaths.

House Finches have adapted well to human habitation. Their native western range is expanding northward into northern Canada and eastward across the Great Plains.  In 1940, a few House Finches were trapped in Southern California and shipped to New York City to be sold in a pet store as “Hollywood Finches.”  This was illegal and when the shopkeeper heard that federal agents were on their way to his shop, he let the birds go.  These birds then bred in New York City and their offspring bred and spread out across the continent form east to west.  Now the western population and the eastern population of finches have met in the middle of the country – helped along by the planting of ornamental trees in towns in the Great Plains.

If you choose to have bird feeders, it is extremely important to keep the feeders clean.  House Finches are especially vulnerable to a conjunctivitis that expresses itself as large swellings around the eyes.   If you see sick birds at your feeders, take the feeders down immediately.  Wash the feeders with a dilute solution of 10 parts water to 1 part bleach.  Rinse thoroughly.  Let the feeders dry and keep them down for at least two weeks. Do not wash the feeders in a dishwasher.

Whether you are inside looking through a window, or on a ten-mile hike, be sure to take the time to observe what the birds are doing around you.  They are always there.  Always.