Tag Archives: Purple Finch

Purple finches always welcome winter visitors when snow and cold drives them to feeders


Photo by Bryan Stevens • Purple finches are mainly winter visitors in the region, although they may make appearances during their fall and spring migrations. Although similar to house finches, purple finches have their own unique appearance once observers become familiar with them. The notched tail, evident in this bird, is a good way to distinguish purple finches from very similar house finches.

The region experienced its first brush with wintry weather with the snowstorm that arrived Dec. 8. With a few inches of snow on the ground, some birds that had been ignoring my feeders decided to give them a second look. American goldfinches, dark-eyed juncos and a red-bellied woodpecker made frequent visits to the feeders over the weekend as more snow and cold temperatures put a temporary stop to the mild start of the 2017-2018 winter season.

So far, the feathered clientele at my feeders are the expected visitors, including Carolina chickadees, downy woodpeckers, song sparrows and white-breasted nuthatches. Some birds, such as pine siskin and purple finch, which can make feeder watching an exciting winter pastime, have not yet made an appearance. Both these species belong to a group of birds known in birding circles as “Northern finches” that also includes species like red crossbill, evening grosbeak and common redpoll.


Photo by George Gentry/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service • A male evening grosbeak perches on the side of a sunflower-stocked feeder.

The purple finch, which is a winter visitor to northeast Tennessee, southwest Virginia and western North Carolina is apparently not as common as in past years. Some experts have speculated that the decline in the numbers of purple finches each winter can be attributed, at least in part, to the closely related house finch. Today, the house finch is quite widespread, found across the United States. Originally, however, the house finch was a bird of the western part of the country, living in Mexico and the southwestern United States.

About 1940, the house finch became established in the eastern United States. In violation of federal law, these small finches were being sold in New York City as pet birds described as “Hollywood Finches.” To avoid trouble with authorities, vendors and even some owners released their “Hollywood Finches” into the wild. Finding the area around New York City to their liking, house finches spread. Within a few decades, they were common birds throughout the eastern United States, including Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina. The house finch had also been introduced into Hawaii about 1870, and is still present today, along with many other species of birds not native to the island.


Photo by Bryan Stevens • A male house finch perched on a cable. These finches are native to the western United States but became established in the eastern states thanks to the illicit pet trade.

As the house finch claimed a new range, they inevitably encountered the related purple finch. During the winter, both finches are often present at feeders in the region. When both are available for observation, bird enthusiasts should take advantage of the opportunity to compare and contrast these birds. Personally, I have never had any difficulty distinguishing a purple finch from a house finch. The two species, at least in my eyes, are easily recognized. I can understand why some people might have trouble separating the two birds. The late Roger Tory Peterson once described the purple finch as a bird “dipped in raspberry juice.” Think about that imagery for a moment and you’ve got a good start to distinguishing a male purple finch from a male house finch. Unfortunately, the description does nothing to distinguish females of the two species.

Let’s deal first with the males. Male purple finches are delicate pink-red (that raspberry coloration) on the head and breast, mixing with brown on the back and cloudy white on the belly. The red of a male purple finch is definitely a color I have not observed with many other birds. Even “red” birds such as male Northern cardinals and male scarlet tanagers do not show the same red color. Once you learn the way the red appears in the plumage of a male purple finch, you are on your way to telling this bird apart from its relative.


Early naturalist and artist John James Audubon painted this depiction of purple finches.

The red in the plumage of male house finches is surprisingly variable. In most cases, the heads, necks and shoulders of male birds are reddish and the red at times extends to the stomach and between the wings on the bird’s back. The intensity of the red changes with the seasons and is also derived from the berries and fruits in the bird’s diet. Pale yellow and bright orange are alternatives to the typical red plumage.

Look closely at the photograph of the purple finches accompanying this column. There’s a distinctive facial pattern evident on the birds. The strong facial markings include a whitish eye stripe and a dark line down the side of the throat. This pattern simply doesn’t exist with the male house finch. When I make a snap identification of these two birds, I always look for the facial pattern even before I study any other aspects of the appearance of the bird. In addition, purple finches have powerful, conical beaks and a tail that appears short and is clearly notched at the tip. Rounding out the description of a male house finch is the fact that they have a long, square-tipped brown tail and are brown or dull-brown across the back with some shading into gray on the wing feathers. The breast and stomach feathers may be streaked.

Females of both house finches and purple finches are dull brown birds that could easily be mistaken for sparrows. Again, the facial pattern is much more apparent on a female purple finch than on the related female house finch. In addition, I have always noticed that female purple finches are usually a darker shade of brown than the dull brown female house finches. Both male and female house finches are more slender than their more chunky-bodied counterparts.


Photo by Bryan Stevens • A study of the facial pattern of a female purple finch helps contrast her from similar female house finches. Again, the notched tail is also a good indication of the bird’s identity.

In the United States, another close relative of the house finch and purple finch is the Cassin’s finch of the western United States. Together, the three species make up a classification known as the American rosefinches. Formerly placed in the genus Carpodacus, these three birds are now in the genus known as Haemorhous. The new classification separates them from the Eurasian rosefinches, which includes more than two dozen species including scarlet finch, great rosefinch and crimson-browed finch.

Purple finches occupy a variety of winter habitats, including fields and woodland edges, as well as yards and gardens. All it takes to lure these finches to your feeder is a plentiful offering of sunflower seeds. If you are lucky enough to have both of these finches visiting your feeders, take time to study the differences. It takes some practice, but they can be distinguished quite confidently.

Merry Christmas to all my fellow bird enthusiasts! 

More than halfway to my goal of 100 yard birds in 2015


I would love to add Yellow-crowned Night-Heron to my yard list. Great Blue Herons, Black-crowned Night-Herons, Green Herons and Great Egrets have visited the creek and fish pond at my home, but I’ve never had a visit from a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron. I photographed this pair on a nest along the Watauga River on Blevins Road.

On April 19, a singing male Black-throated Green Warbler became the 50th bird species to make an appearance in my yard this year.

Back at the start of this year, I considered trying for another “big year” in the five-county area of Northeast Tennessee that consists of the counties of Carter, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi and Washington.

However, such an undertaking requires a lot of travel and expense, as well as an immense dedication of time. After a 2014 marked by many personal upsets, I didn’t feel capable of making an attempt. Considering I last undertook a “big year” effort back in 2013, I felt it was too soon for me to try this again.


The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, an early bird among spring migrants, arrived on Easter Sunday, April 5, this year. It was Bird No. 42 on my yard list for 2015.

Instead, I’ve focused my attention on the birds that come calling to my yard, fish pond, the creek and the surrounding woodlands. Over the years, I’ve enjoyed some amazing visitors from a variety of feathered friends.

It was an amazing winter, with large flocks of Purple Finches and Pine Siskins at my feeders. In fact, these two species remain present even as the calendar moves closer to May. In fact, I saw a Pine Siskin at the feeders on Saturday, April 25.


My favorite warbler, the Hooded Warbler, returned this spring on April 13. The males are currently singing daily from rhododendron thickets in the woodlands around my home.

As is usually the case here at my Simerly Creek home in Hampton, spring migration is proceeding at a slow pace. For some reason, the fall migration is a more “birdy” time. So, any bird I miss seeing this spring, I will hope to pick up while I continue looking for yard birds this autumn.


A pair of Wood Ducks visited the pond on a recent rainy morning. Until a decade ago, Wood Ducks were regular spring visitors. For some reason, they have become much more sporadic in their visits over the past 10 years.

Of course, there have been a few spring surprises, including a pair of Wood Ducks that showed up at the fish pond on a rainy morning on Sunday, April 19. Several of the resident warblers have also arrived, including Hooded Warbler, Black-and-white Warbler, Northern Parula, Black-throated Green Warbler and Ovenbird.

As of the time of my sitting down to post this blog entry, I’ve found 52 species in my yard so far this year.

The most recent sightings have been a Wood Thrush (No. 52) and a Northern Parula (No. 53) on my list. These two species showed up on April 20 and April 21, respectively.


I have been birding for more than 20 years, but in that time I have only had one Eastern Kingbird visit my yard. Will the second kingbird pay a visit at some point in 2015?

So, wish me luck as I continue this more modest undertaking. Let’s call it a “Big Yard Year.” I am hopeful that I can find 100 species in my yard before Dec. 31. I’ll continue you update occasionally here on my weekly blog.





Enjoy these recent birding photos


Eastern Bluebirds perch on a fence.


Male Eastern Bluebird surveys his surroundings from a fence post perch.


Eastern Bluebirds enjoy sunshine on a recent January afternoon.


A flock of Buffleheads on the Watauga River.


American Goldfinches visit a feeder.


Female Purple Finches visit a feeder.


A flock of Purple Finches share space at a feeder.


Downy Woodpecker and Tufted Titmouse arrive at a suet feeder.



A female Downy Woodpecker climbs on a tree trunk.


Wintering hummingbirds are not exclusive to United States


Photo Courtesy of Faye Guinn                  The Rufous Hummingbird is shown visiting a feeder at the Guinn home.

The hummingbird that had been at the home of Howard and Faye Guinn since October departed on Dec. 23. Faye informed me of the bird’s departure in an email.

“I got to have a winter hummingbird for two days of winter,” she wrote. “He surely decided to spend the holidays in Mexico. I hope he finds flowers in bloom there. Hummingbirds and flowers just go together.”


I had written about wintering hummingbirds in previous blog posts, including the one visiting the Guinn home near Jonesborough, Tennessee. After reading one of my recent blog posts on wintering hummingbirds, I received an email from Oscar, a resident of Vancouver, Canada, and a self-proclaimed “bird-lover.”

He also informed me that wintering hummingbirds are not a phenomenon exclusive to the United States. Some of these tiny birds also spend time north of the border during the winter months.

“We are delighted  to have these beautiful little birds visiting our feeder at our window every day,” Oscar wrote. “Every 10 minutes he drinks and goes back to the same tree branch.”

While Vancouver is a rather temperate city, Oscar said the temperature can get cool on some days.

“He doesn’t  go away for long periods,” Oscar reported. “It seems to look like he is afraid to lose his food to another bird, when his partner tries to feed he chases him away like he is very upset and not sharing his food, no matter what. Is this  behavior common among these birds?”

In my reply, I did note that hummingbirds are usually quite territorial. Any readers who hosts more than one hummingbird at a time is probably familiar with the chasing antics Oscar described in his email.


Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service                        An Anna’s Hummingbird perches on a branch.

“Watching this is so entertaining , like a gift from God,” Oscar shared. “We can’t have enough of it.”

I did some research, which informed me that Oscar’s visiting hummingbirds are likely Anna’s hummingbirds.

A species native to western North America, the Anna’s

hummingbird is a year-round resident of the Pacific Coast. It ranges from northern Baja to points as far north as Vancouver and southern British Columbia.

Annas_Hummingbird (1)

Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service              A male Anna’s Hummingbird spreads it wings while settling onto a perch.

René Primevère Lesson, a French ornithologist and author of a manual for ornithology, gave the Anna’s Hummingbird its name.

This bird was named after Anna Masséna, Duchess of Rivoli. She served as an attendant for  Empress Eugenie, the wife of Napoleon III and the last Empress consort of the French.

Another hummingbird — the Magnificent Hummingbird — was also named by Lesson to honor François Victor Masséna, the Duke of Rivoli and husband of the Duchess Anna. Until the 1980s this large hummingbird was known as Rivoli’s Hummingbird.

In the early 20th century, Anna’s hummingbird bred only in northern Baja California and southern California. Modern landscaping techniques, including the planting of exotic shrubs and flowers, has helped this hummingbird expand its range north, especially in urban and suburban areas.


Early naturalist John James Audubon created this painting of Anna’s Hummingbirds.

I’ve seen several of the western species of hummingbirds, but I haven’t had the opportunity to observe an Anna’s Hummingbird. I suppose that species remains near the top of my “bird bucket list.”


Until the recent cold snap, it has been a relatively mild winter. Even the Arctic blast produced mostly cold and very little in the way of snow.

The frigid conditions did, not surprisingly, result in increased traffic at my feeders.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                     A Tufted Titmouse and Downy Woodpecker visit a suet feeder.

I haven’t hosted any birds as exotic as an Anna’s Hummingbird this winter, but the flocks of Pine Siskins and Purple Finches continue to grow. The arrival of January has seen as many as 25 Pine Siskins and about a dozen Purple Finches at my feeders.

I always offer suet cakes as well as seeds, an offering that seems much appreciated by birds as diverse as Carolina Chickadees and Downy Woodpeckers to Carolina Wrens and Blue Jays. I usually buy commercially prepared suet/peanut butter cakes, which disappear quickly once the birds find them. The occasional squirrel also helps with making short work of them.


Photo by Bryan Stevens                                                                                                                              A mixed flock of American Goldfinches and Pine Siskins scour the ground beneath a feeder.

Small goose’s March visit stirs birding excitement


If you’re wondering where March went, you’re not alone. As it turned out, weather-wise, this March has veered from one extreme to another. I have enjoyed the days of sunshine and short sleeves more than the days with snow or rain. Of course, even the rain has been welcome since it helped many of our early spring flowers unfurl their petals once the sun returned.

Birding has been productive this past month, and I have been pleased to see some of our usual summer birds returning for the year. My most exciting observation this past month, however, would have to be the Ross’s Goose found at the Great Lakes pond on the campus of Northeast State Community College in Elizabethton.

Photo by Bryan Stevens  A Ross's Goose, foreground, is shown with two Canada Geese. The photo makes plain the small size of the Ross's Goose.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
A Ross’s Goose, foreground, is shown with two Canada Geese. The photo makes plain the small size of the Ross’s Goose.

I saw the goose at the pond on March 11, but some fellow birders alerted me to the bird’s presence. The goose also lingered at the pond and around the nearby Watauga River for several days after I saw it.

The common name of this goose honors Bernard R. Ross, who was associated with the Hudson’s Bay Company in Canada’s Northwest Territories.

Here’s a quick history lesson. Hudson’s Bay Company is the oldest commercial corporation in North America. The company has been in continuous operation for more than 340 years, which ranks it as one of the oldest in the world. The company began as a fur-trading enterprise thanks to an English royal charter in back in 1670 during the reign of King Charles II. These days, Hudson’s Bay Company owns and operates retail stores throughout Canada and the United States.

In addition to his trade in furs, Ross collected specimens for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. Ross is responsible for giving the goose that now bears his name one of its early common names – the Horned Wavy Goose of Hearne. I wonder why that never caught on?

He repeatedly insisted that this small goose was a species distinct from the related and larger Lesser Snow Goose and Greater Snow Goose. His vouching for this small white goose eventually convinced other experts that this bird was indeed its own species.

Ross was born in Ireland in 1827. He died in Toronto, Ontario, in 1874. He was described by other prominent early naturalists as “enthusiastic” and “a careful observer” in the employ of Hudson’s Bay Company. When John Cassin gave the Ross’s Goose its first scientific name of Anser rossii in 1861, he paid tribute to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Ross.

Ornithologist John Cassin named the Ross's Goose in 1861 in honor of Bernard Ross, who helped convince scientists that this small goose of the Arctic tundra was a true species.

Ornithologist John Cassin named the Ross’s Goose in 1861 in honor of Bernard Ross, who helped convince scientists that this small goose of the Arctic tundra was a true species.

Cassin was a famous American ornithologist and curator at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences. I suppose the fact he died of poisoning due to his handling of bird skins preserved with arsenic must be considered rather gruesomely ironic. Despite a death that resulted indirectly from his enthusiasm for birds, Cassin has also been immortalized by having several species named in his honor. Cassin’s Finch, Cassin’s Kingbird, Cassin’s Auklet, Cassin’s Vireo and Cassin’s Sparrow all bear his name.

The Ross’s Goose has a “cuteness” factor working in its favor. For a goose, it is rather small. It could best be described as a Snow Goose in miniature. In fact, it isn’t much larger than such ducks as Mallards and is considered the smallest of North America’s geese.

The Ross’s Goose has also acquired some other common names, including “Galoot” and “Scabby-nosed Wavey.” This latter name was inspired by the bird’s bill, which is covered with rough bumps around the base. I have to admit that “Scabby-nosed Wavey” is a name likely to stick in the memory. Today, the Ross’s Goose’s scientific name is Chen rossii.

This bird’s other claim to fame is that it’s nesting territory wasn’t discovered by scientists until 1938, more than 70 years after this goose was first described by men such as Ross and Cassin. It turns out that the Ross’s Goose nests in the Arctic on tundra, marshes and ponds. Today, this breeding range is protected as  the Queen Maud Gulf Migratory Bird Sanctuary and is the summer home to most of the world population of this small goose. During the winter months, these geese favor shallow lakes, fresh-water marshes, flooded fields and other agricultural lands.

According to the Ducks Unlimited website, the California Central Valley is currently the main wintering area for the Ross’s Goose. Increasing numbers of these geese, however, now winter in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Texas and the north-central highlands of Mexico.

Photo by Bryan Stevens The visiting Ross's Goose takes a swim on the large pond at Northeast State Community College in Elizabethton.

Photo by Bryan Stevens
The visiting Ross’s Goose takes a swim on the large pond at Northeast State Community College in Elizabethton.

Winter and migratory visits by these geese to Northeast Tennessee are still rather rare. According to the book “Birds of Northeast Tennessee” by Rick Knight, the Ross’s Goose made its first recorded appearance in the region in 1998. Over the next decade, only 11 observations were documented for this goose. Since 2008, a few more sightings have been added to this records, including the recent one at the Great Lakes pond. This body of water has become a magnet for other unusual waterfowl, including Greater White-fronted Goose, Snow Goose, Red-necked Grebe and Canvasback.


I finally saw some Purple Finches at my feeders at home on Simerly Creek Road in Hampton on March 29.


Photo by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/Thomas G. Barnes A male Purple Finch, if observed carefully, can be reliably distinguished from the familiar House Finch.

Steve Ward from Atlanta, Ga., posted a question to my Facebook page after I posted some photographs of male Purple Finches. Steve wanted to know how to best distinguish Purple Finches from House Finches.

The Birds Unlimited Blog has a great entry, complete with illustrations, dealing with the confusion that can arise when trying to distinguish House Finch, Purple Finch and their western relative, Cassin’s Finch. Learn more by visiting http://blog.wbu.com/category/birds/house-finch/ 

I did offer Steve a few tips in a reply I posted on Facebook. I’ve never really had trouble identifying Purple Finches from House Finches. This is one of those easily confused bird combinations that I don’t get confused about.

There are some clues to look for if you get a visit by either of these species at your feeders. Purple Finches, in my opinion, have more distinctive facial patterns. The males also seem more infused with the wine-red or raspberry-purple coloration that give the species its common name. I think the Purple Finch also has a slightly heavier bill. It’s probably easier to tell them apart if you happen to have them visiting your feeders at the same time.

I think female Purple Finches are even easier to contrast from female House Finches. Most female Houses are extremely drab and lack the distinct facial pattern that is so evident in a female Purple.


By the way, I love that writing this blog allows me to interact with people here in Northeast Tennessee, as well as in such locations as in Georgia, South Carolina and even in other countries. I love hearing from readers. Just post comments on my blog at ourfinefeatheredfriends.wordpress.com. You can also reach me on Facebook or send email to ahoodedwarbler@aol.com. Please share the link to my blog with others who might be interested in the topic of birds, birding or nature in Northeast Tennessee.