A couple of days ago, the first winter finches showed up to our feeders. I classify any finch species that is normally encountered in greatest abundance in our area during the winter as a winter finch. This usually applies to irruptive species such as redpolls and siskins, but also includes a few others such as Evening and Pine Grosbeaks, crossbills, and these guys: Purple Finches.
A bird of coniferous woodlands, its greatest breeding abundance occurs in the boreal forests of the Shield. We’re right on the edge of the Shield here, and we have a fair amount of conifers in our forests. Although I don’t recall seeing any in the fall, except perhaps through hearing the odd bird fly overhead, I’m sure they breed in our woods in the summer. As with most species, they’ll be most readily detected in the spring, by the male’s song. My parents’ previous house, where I grew up, was set in a mixed woodland and the birds were a staple in the winter. We didn’t see many at the lake house, largely due to the lack of conifers in our immediate vicinity.
I’ve been waiting to get some to our feeders here. The birds have slowly been trickling in as the easily-accessible food sources in the natural habitats is depleted and the rest is now buried under snow. Dan spotted the first one, a male, foraging on the ground under the lilac bush. He called me to look, and I spotted a female with the male. I hurried off to grab my camera, but by the time I returned, the pair had departed. I left my camera on the kitchen table hoping that they might return. I didn’t see them again until today, but when they finally came back they brought friends. A double-date! I just happened to notice them as I was preparing to head out to pick up some baking supplies for Christmas goodies. I ran off a number of shots before I went out and disturbed them.
I’m actually a co-author on the species account for Purple Finch in the Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario, 2001-2005, so you’d think I’d know a lot about them without having to look it up. I’m familiar with the basics of their ecology, but it seems in the nearly three years since I wrote the account I’ve forgotten a lot of the details. So I’ve got the book out in front of me. (Incidentally, if you’re interested in your own copy, it’s on sale right now for a holiday price of $60 – a savings of 35%.)
Some neat things can be learned from the second edition of the atlas. I mentioned the huge increase in cardinals in Ontario as shown by the second atlas. The book provides some interesting data on Purple Finches, as well. The species saw statistically significant changes in population in all but the most southwestern part of the province (which is strongly agricultural and doesn’t contain much coniferous forest). Unfortunately, the only region where that change was an increase was the area just south of the Shield. This increase was attributed to a succession and maturation of abandoned or retired farmland and conifer plantations throughout this region, particularly since a similar increase is seen in the region for other conifer-loving species such as Yellow-rumped Warblers.
In the rest of Ontario, from the start of the Shield in our area northward, the species has shown a decline in numbers. The trend is also observed in the Breeding Bird Survey. One theory suggested that the declines were due to the invasion of the House Finch, but in actuality the areas where the Purple is declining, the House hasn’t reached yet (nor is it likely to – its close association with human habitation, much like the House Sparrow, means it’s not typically found widely in sparsely populated areas). The real reason for the Purple’s decline isn’t really clear. It’s possible it’s tied in with Spruce Budworm numbers, which were high during the first atlas but have since been reduced to much lower, albeit constant, levels through forest management practices (this has also affected the Evening Grosbeak, which has declined from the peak numbers it had reached in the 80s, when I was a kid, and can remember counting on it being a regular visitor at the feeders every winter – I haven’t seen one in years now). However, the Purple Finch isn’t a budworm specialist in the way that some warblers are, it just happens to take advantage of the extra food when budworm numbers are high, so it may not be the entire story.
The Purple Finch looks very similar to the House Finch, and new birders can often have some difficulty in telling the two apart. One of the easiest ways for me is the shade of red of each species. The Purple Finches, to quote Roger Tory Peterson, appears to have been “dipped in raspberry juice”. If the Purple is raspberry, then the House could be considered strawberry, being a more orangey red than the Purple’s wine-red. The House’s red is also less extensive on its body. There are other differences in shape and size, but they’re more subtle to novice birders. Female Purples have the wide white eyebrow stripe that tells them apart from Houses, which are more uniform across the head. The Cassin’s Finch, a species that occurs through the western mountains, is roughly intermediate between the two species in both sexes. Love that little crest, which kept getting ruffled by the wind.
Occasionally you’ll spot what looks like a female finch singing from the top of a tree; this is a young male, full of hormones, doing his best to draw in the ladies despite his lanky proportions and pimpled face. Males in their first breeding season will look like females; they don’t obtain that lovely raspberry plumage until their first fall as an adult. Sometimes (but not always) young males will show hints of colour in their plumage that might help to identify them as male. I noticed a slight bit of colour on the throat of this one, which makes me wonder if it’s perhaps a young male rather than a female. No way to know, really, at this time of year.