For the Birds Radio Program: Purple Finches (Original)

Original Air Date: Sept. 10, 1986

Laura makes a compelling case for why Purple Finches must be fans of the Minnesota Vikings. (3:08)

Audio missing


Purple Finches

One of the most abundant birds in Duluth right now is the purple finch. These little birds pig out on sunflower seeds at feeders–they also eat a variety of other things, like bugs, caterpillars, raspberries, dogwood berries, and other fruits, apple blossoms, and the buds of popple trees. Hay fever victims have a good reason to love purple finches–they also eat goldenrod seeds in abundance.

Purple Finches must have been named by someone who was colorblind. Adult males are rosy crimson, especially on their heads and rumps, without even a speck of purple. Females and young birds are gray striped, sort of sparrow-like. At this time of year, with so many young birds around, the duller birds vastly outnumber the bright adult males.

Young Purple Finches have the dubious distinction of being the birds most likely to smack into Duluth windows every fall–hanging fluttering strips of aluminum foil or hawk silhouettes on windows helps a little, but sometimes when a Sharp-shinned Hawk swoops down upon a feeding flock, nothing will stop the panicked finches in time.

Purple Finches are sometimes called linnets, possibly because the females and young resemble a species of brownish English songbirds. Linnet Ridgeway, the first murder victim in Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile, is named for this bird. These birds must inspire thoughts about victimization, because they are also mentioned by William Butler Yeats: “If there’s no hatred in a mind/ Assault and battery of the wind/ Can tear the linnet from the leaf.”

The song of Purple Finches is also inspiring. Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote, “I do but sing because I must,/ And pipe but as the linnets sing.” Their song, sung only by males, is a long jumble of sweet notes with a beautiful liquid quality.

(Recording of a Purple Finch song)

The call note, given by males and females both, is a distinctive “tick,” often heard over Hawk Ridge during fall–these birds apparently migrate both by day and night.

In spring, males become territorial. Each one chooses a prominent singing perch and does his best to attract a female with his voice. He is a devoted mate, feeding the female as she sits on the eggs and then caring for the young with her. But, oddly enough, as soon as football season starts, most of the adult males abandon the women and children and join all-male flocks, where they remain until sometime around Super Bowl time. Although there are no records of Purple Finches actually purchasing Viking season tickets, the timing of these macho gatherings can hardly be considered coincidental.

(Recording of a Purple Finch)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”