Iowa Winter Birds: Purple finch

Although purple finches have a non-breeding range throughout the eastern half of the U.S., they may be more of an irregular visitor to your feeder.

Part of that could be due to competition with its look-alike, the house finch. (Learn how to tell them apart here) The house finch is native to the western U.S. and Mexico, but it was introduced in New York in the 1940s when they were put up for sale as “Hollywood finches” and then released into the wild. House finches spread from there and compete with purple finches, and some say that competition has pushed purple finches from feeders back into their natural woodland habitat. One study of finch behavior found that purple finches lost to house finches more than 95 percent of the time.

Purple finch populations have decreased by about 1.5 percent per year since 1966.

Photo of a purple finch

You might see them, you might not.

If you do want to draw in purple finches, they love black oil and hulled sunflower seeds, nyjer and millet. These birds don’t seem to stick to the same places each winter, so you might see them one year and not the next.

Just call me Big Beak.

Purple finches have a relatively large beak for their small size — they only grow to 4.7-6.3 inches in length and weigh about an ounce. However, they use their big beak and tongue to crush seeds to find the nut inside. They can also get nectar from a flower without eating the whole thing and get seeds in fruit without eating the entire fruit.

Girl power

Purple finches show aggression through their body language, leaning toward an opponent with its neck outstretched and its bill pointing at the other bird. If the other bird doesn’t back down, purple finches will go into a peck attack. Studies have found that disputes in flocks usually lead to females winning over males.

Purple finches sing low songs.

Some birds have short, quick calls and songs, but purple finches tend to have longer, drawn out cadences. Their typical call is a short “tek” sound, but males and females each have longer songs. A male’s warbling songs can be six-23 notes, and a female’s song from the nest can be as long as 1-2 minutes.

Read more about Iowa winter birds:
Dark-eyed junco
American tree sparrow

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