As the winter feeding season approaches, a perennial identification challenge looms: Purple Finch versus House Finch.
The two species are close relatives. Both are the size of a sparrow and have a large beak. Adult males exhibit lots of reddish color, while females and immatures are brown and streaked. Field guides tend to emphasize details of color for identification, but color is notoriously variable.
For example, most males can be distinguished by the overall shade of red – the House Finch tends to be more orange, while the Purple Finch appears more pink-purple (wine red) – but it is not uncommon to see a finch with an ambiguous reddish color. . Male House Finches can sometimes be wine red, and rarely, male Purple Finches can be orange-red.
Females can almost always be distinguished by the contrasting dark and light markings of the Purple Finch and the muted gray-brown coloring of the House Finch. However, even in females, the less marked purple finch can resemble the more contrasting house finch.
A more reliable way to distinguish species, regardless of color or sex, is to use their shape and proportions. The best details to focus on are on opposite ends of the bird: the shape of the head and the shape of the tail. Look for a slight triangular point or crest on the head of the Purple Finch and a slightly rounded head on the House Finch. The Purple Finch also has a shorter tail with a distinct notch at the end, while the House Finch has a longer tail whose feathers are all about the same length.
These and other details add up to an overall “broad shouldered” impression for Purple Finch. It has a short neck, large head, short tail and short legs, and appears stockier than the House Finch, which has a relatively small head and long tail and appears more slender. These prints can be helpful, but it’s always best to focus on the head and tail.
Color remains a valuable cue, easy to see and assess in an instant and quite reliable, but you should be careful when using color alone. If you make a habit of checking the shape of the head and tail every time you see a finch, you will soon develop an intuitive sense of each species’ unique shape.
This ID Toolkit article by David Sibley appeared in the November/December 2016 issue of BirdWatching.
Photos to help you identify Purple Finch and House Finch
See reader photos of House Finch
See photos of the purple finch
Are you new to bird watching?
Sign up for our free e-newsletter to receive news, bird photos, attraction and identification tips, descriptions of birding hot spots and more in your inbox every two weeks. Register now.
Check out the contents of our current issue.
How to subscribe to BirdWatching.