Finches year-round residents in Piney Woods
By Jay V.Huner
Brown and white streaked sparrow-sized birds have shown up in piney woods backyards over the past decade. Some have bright red faces and breasts. These are male House Finches. The plain streaked birds are females or young birds less than 6 months of age.
Unlike their more robust cousins, the Purple Finches, House Finches are year round residents of our region, not just winter visitors from the Far North. Though similar in appearance, close views of the two species with binoculars will show clear differences besides size. Purple Finch males are much darker and their dark rosy-raspberry red coloration extends over the body. Females have more distinct white streaking and a very clear white eyebrow.
House Finches are found across North America but were native to the southwest until around 1940. House Finches have a melodic, twittering song and adapt well to cages. They were sold in the New York City area but without proper permits. The pet shop owners were facing serious federal prosecution for selling the finches so released them. The finches thrived and since that time have moved all over the eastern half of the USA.
Current estimates of House Finch numbers in the USA range from 0.25 to 1.4 billion! Remember, never ask a scientist for an exact number. You'll always get a range!
House Finches seemed to have arrived in the piney woods area in the 1990s. I first found a House Finch when I lived in south Lafayette, Louisiana around 1998. They were somewhat hard to find around our piney woods home on Cotile Lake in central Louisiana when we moved here in 2002. Now, one or two shows up daily at our feeders and good-sized post breeding flocks spend the fall and winter in our ligustrums and red tips.
House Finches feed almost exclusively on seeds and like sunflower and safflower seeds. They eat very little animal matter and feed their nestlings almost exclusively with regurgitated seeds. Males need dietary pigments to have the darkest red coloration, an important consideration when attracting mates. When pigments are lacking in their diets, the otherwise red feathers may be yellow or orange in color.
Male House Finches are said to "sky lark" when seeking mates in the spring. This behavior involves flapping up above the ground and singing away as they flutter back to the ground. This is a behavior I have yet to notice, perhaps, because there are so many trees and bushes in the eastern USA that the behavior just isn't as obvious as it would be in arid Southwest.
If you are able to watch House Finches for a time, you will certainly see individuals with swollen eyes. This malady is called mycoplasmal conjunctivitis and was first recorded in 1994 in the Washington, D. C. area. I've seen it several times in central Louisiana. However, the disease doesn't seem to be any threat to the overall success of the species.
Had House Finches never gotten into the pet trade, they would probably still be restricted to the southwestern USA where they are found in natural habitats. The introduced finches associate themselves with humans. So, if you haven't seen any House Finches around your feeders, they'll surely arrive sooner than later.
Jay V. Huner