House Finches and Purple Finches

by Larry Jordan on March 19, 2011

House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) photos by Larry Jordan

There are several species of birds that are difficult to distinguish from one another.  For me, the House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus) and the Purple Finch (Carpodacus purpureus) fall into this category.

Above you see the male House Finch.  Note the long, square-tipped tail, the red breast, forehead and stripe over the eye.  Note also the dark streaks on his side and flanks.  Click on photos for full sized images.

The female House Finch below has more obvious streaking on her belly and flanks and you can see streaking on her undertail coverts as well, however her face pattern is fairly plain.

Here are  photos of two different male and female House Finches

Notice that there is some variance of color and pattern between the four individuals, but they still have the same field marks.

Now let’s take a look at the male Purple Finch.  He is kind of a raspberry red, the brightest red on the head and chest (and his rump if you could see it).  However, the easiest field marks you don’t see are the streaky flanks and undertail coverts.  Look ma, no streaks!

And notice that the streaking on the female Purple Finch, unlike on the female House Finch, pretty much disappears on the lower belly and undertail coverts.  She does, however, have some facial markings that make her stand out in a crowd.  The broad light stripe behind her eye and her dark ear patch distinguish her from the plain headed House Finch.

The Purple Finches also have a more deeply notched tails than the House Finches.  You can see the more distinct markings on the female and the more overall purple coloring on the male in the photo below.  Seeing the female’s light facial striping is always my first clue that I have Purple Finches visiting my yard, not the male’s coloring.

As Pete Dunn describes the difference between these two species in his book, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, “House Finch looks like it had wine thrown in its face; Purple Finch was dipped in it.”

In this two and a half minute video of the finches battling at the sunflower seed tube feeder, you will see a female Purple Finch come into the middle of the feeder at about the 50 second mark.  You will see why this is always my first alert to their presence.  She sticks out like a sore thumb.

There are no male Purple Finches in this video but you may notice the spunky little Pine Siskin that defends its lower perch throughout the entire video!  A female Lesser Goldfinch comes in near then end and makes a brief appearance also.

For more great bird photos check out Bird Photography Weekly.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Alexander Rozinov March 19, 2011 at 7:57 pm

Great post about lovely guys!

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Mick March 19, 2011 at 10:13 pm

I am always intrigued with the number and variety of birds that visit backyard bird feeders in your country. Those two finches are not easy to ID. Do they have different flight patterns or ways of moving?

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Neil March 19, 2011 at 10:20 pm

Great video Larry those feeders sure are popular

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Hilke Breder March 20, 2011 at 2:10 am

Enjoyed watching the video, particularly that feisty Pine Siskin! Thanks for laying out the difference between House Finch and Purple Finch. Another way for me to tell them apart is the forehead: flat in House Finches and steeper and more rounded in Purple Finches.

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NatureFootstep March 21, 2011 at 3:02 am

great post. Somehow I wish we had some swedish blog like yours. As these birs are not here I can´t use the knowledge. Except for what to look for.

So, you want to be sponsored too? Soo, how to do it? 🙂 🙂

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MaineBirder March 21, 2011 at 10:38 am

Great post on the comparison Larry! I like both birds, but my favorite is the raspberry colored Purple Finch. We get both species in Maine and have had both species nest on our property the last several years.

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YourBirdOasis.com March 21, 2011 at 5:27 pm

A perfect illustration of how to distinguish House from Purple…if I had a dime for every time someone asked me about this, forget that, I’ll send them here.

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Marvin March 25, 2011 at 9:20 am

Now you have me wondering if some of the purple finches I’ve seen at our feeders were actually house finches. Great photos and descriptions. Thank you.

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