Bird Lore: Purple Finch

Male Purple Finch (Photos by Carol Riddell)

The Purple Finch is a regular but uncommon bird in Edmonds and other areas of the Puget Trough. The male is not really purple. He sports more of a raspberry red on his head and a raspberry wash along the rest of his feathers. His chest lacks the streaks so visible on the male House Finch. The female has a distinctive whitish eyebrow that quickly distinguishes her from the more common female House Finch. Although the Purple Finch is the same size as the House Finch, it appears more robust because it is indeed a plumper bird.

Its heavy, conical bill allows the Purple Finch to extract nuts by crushing seeds. Its bill also efficiently locates seeds inside fleshy fruit. It mainly eats seeds of coniferous trees, elms, poplars, maples, and others. This finch also eats soft buds and nectar, which it extracts by biting off flowers at their base. When fruits are available, it forages on blackberries, crabapples, cherries, juniper berries, and poison ivy. In winter it often eats the seeds of low plants such as dandelion, ragweed, and cocklebur. It also eats some insects. The Purple Finch readily comes to bird feeders.

Female Purple Finch

The courtship display of the male involves hopping near the female. He droops his wings, raises his tail, puffs out his chest, and then vibrates his wings until he rises a short distance into the air. Sometimes he holds bits of nest material in his bill and sings softly during this display. The nest, probably built mostly by the female, is at the fork of a tree or on a horizontal branch well away from the trunk. In the West, the Purple Finch favors deciduous trees for its nest. It breeds mostly in forests of conifers or mixed woods. Breeding pairs have been found in more wooded Edmonds neighborhoods, where the included photos were taken.

The nest typically is 15-20 feet above ground, sometimes higher. It is a compact open cup, built of twigs, rootlets, weeds, and strips of bark. It is lined with soft materials such as animal hair, moss, or fine grass. The female incubates her three to five eggs for about two weeks. Both sexes feed the nestlings and the young leave the nest about two weeks after hatching. This finch has one brood per year, sometimes two.

The Purple Finch has a conservation rating of least concern even though its population underwent a cumulative decline of 52 percent between 1966 and 2014. Its global population is estimated at 6.4 million birds. Ninety-two percent of the population spends part of the year in the U.S., 66 percent in Canada, and only 1 percent in Mexico. Although the population decline appears to be poorly understood, it may be due to habitat loss as well as competition with the more successful House Finch. That may be more problematic with eastern populations since the introduction in the 1950s of the House Finch, which was originally a bird of the American West. When the two populations encounter each other, the Purple Finch usually loses out.

The oldest known Purple Finch, a male, was at least 14 when he was found. When it migrates, it does so during the day and in flocks. Collective nouns for any group of finches include a charm, a company, and a trembling of finches.

You can hear the Purple Finch’s song here: The Purple Finch will sometimes incorporate sounds of other species into its warbling song, such as Barn Swallow, American Goldfinch, Eastern Towhee, and Brown-headed Cowbird.

— By Carol Riddell

Carol Riddell manages the bird education displays, on behalf of Pilchuck Audubon Society and Edmonds Parks & Recreation, at the Olympic Beach Visitor Station.

4 Replies to “Bird Lore: Purple Finch”

  1. Carol,
    Your Bird Lore columns are always full of interesting details, and it’s great that you include links to the bird calls. Thanks for sharing the collective nouns for groups of finches: “a charm, a company, and a trembling” of finches. It will be a challenge to incorporate these as my Words of the Day, but I’ll do my best!


  2. Carol:

    I, too, very much enjoy your columns. I learn something new from each one. I have a number of collective nouns for birds and animals, but this is one I missed! I especially like a “charm” as the picture certainly makes them look charming. I guess a Raspberry Finch is too “wordy”, but it is much more accurate than Purple Finch.


  3. One author described the color as that of wine. It made me think that Raspberry Wine Finch would be a great common name for this species. Glad you both are enjoying the columns.


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