What Is a Purple Finch?

L. Whitaker

The purple finch, or Carpodacus purpureus, is a variety of small songbird in the Fringillidae family distinguished by its large, powerful seed-crushing beak; short, notched tail; and reddish-pink coloring. Eastern varieties of purple finch often look and sound somewhat different than Pacific Coast species. Although this songbird species carries some resemblance to house finches, a more consistent but subtler covering of red is the key to identifying the male of the species.

It is said that having coniferous trees in a yard will encourage purple finches to come.
It is said that having coniferous trees in a yard will encourage purple finches to come.

A male purple finch shows a mild reddish color on the chest and head, with a brown back featuring pink edging and a whitish underside. Female and immature purple finches do not display the reddish color but have white markings on the face. This songbird species tends to be approximately the size of a sparrow, in the range of 5.25-6.25 inches (13.335-15.875 cm).

As wild songbirds, purple finches prefer to breed in forests of northernmost North America as well as the West Coast of the United States. These birds take up to eight days to build their nests, which are frequently placed beneath a sheltering branch. Nests are sometimes located up to 60 feet (18.3 m) above ground level.

The song of the purple finch has a warbling quality. This species can also sometimes incorporate bits of other bird sounds in its vocalizations. Purple finches have been recorded borrowing the songs of birds ranging from goldfinches to barnswallows.

Purple finches will eat seeds from many fruits during the warmer months, in addition to varying kinds of seeds from weedy stalks or plants in winter fields. These small birds often forage for food high in the treetops, making them hard to identify visually. Their preferred backyard feeder treat in winter months appears to be black sunflower seeds, and some sources indicate that purple finches are more likely to eat the narrower variety of sunflower seeds than thicker types. It is said that the presence of coniferous trees in a backyard can encourage visitations from purple finches. Due to the purple finch's inconsistent range in wintertime, it could appear in a specific backyard one winter but not visit again for two years or more.

The purple finch has been the state bird of New Hampshire since 1957. It was chosen over another candidate, the New Hampshire hen. Purple finches were illustrated and described at length by John James Audubon in the third volume of his encyclopedic work titled Birds of America. Records indicate that some individual specimens of purple finch have lived for more than 11 years.

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