David Sibley: How to tell Purple Finch from House Finch

A slight crest and a notched tail distinguish Purple Finch (left) from House Finch.
MORE RELIABLE THAN COLOR: A slight crest and a notched tail distinguish Purple Finch (left) from House Finch, which has a rounded head and a longer tail. Art by David Allen Sibley.

As the winter feeding season approaches, a perennial identification challenge looms: Purple Finch versus House Finch.

The two species are close relatives. Both are sparrow-sized and have stout bills. Adult males show lots of reddish color, while females and immatures are brown and streaky. Field guides tend to stress details of color for identification, but color is notoriously variable.

For example, most males can be distinguished by the overall shade of red — House Finch tends to be more orange, while Purple Finch appears more pink-purple (wine-red) — but it’s not unusual to see a finch with an ambiguous reddish color. Male House Finches can occasionally 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 on Purple Finch and the muted gray brown coloration on House Finch. Even in females, though, the least boldly marked Purple Finch can look similar to the most contrasting House Finch.

A more reliable way to distinguish the species, regardless of color or sex, is by shape and proportion. The best details to focus on are at opposite ends of the bird: head shape and tail shape. Look for a slight peak or triangular crest on the head of Purple Finch and a smoothly rounded head on House Finch. Purple Finch also has a shorter tail with a distinct notch at the tip, while House Finch has a longer tail whose feathers are all about the same length.

These details and others add up to an overall “broad-shouldered” impression for Purple Finch. It has a short neck, a large head, a short tail, and short legs, and appears stockier than House Finch, which has a relatively small head and long tail and looks more slender. These impressions can be helpful, but it’s always best to focus on the head and tail.

Color remains a valuable clue, easy to see and assess in an instant, and fairly reliable, but you should be cautious of using color alone. If you make a habit of checking the shape of the head and tail each time you see a finch, you will soon develop an intuitive sense of the unique shape of each species.

 

This article from David Sibley’s “ID Toolkit” column appeared in the November/December 2016 issue of BirdWatching.

Photos to help you ID Purple Finch and House Finch

See reader photos of House Finch

See photos of Purple Finch

 

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David Sibley

David Sibley

David Sibley writes the column “ID Toolkit” in every issue of BirdWatching. He published the Sibley Guide to Birds in 2000, the Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior in 2001, and Sibley’s Birding Basics in 2002. He is also the author of the Sibley Guide to Trees (2009), the Sibley Guide to Birds-Second Edition (2014), and guides to birds of eastern and western North America (2016). He is the recipient of the American Birding Association’s Roger Tory Peterson Award for lifetime achievement in promoting the cause of birding and a recognition award from the National Wildlife Refuge System for his support of bird conservation.

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