For the Birds Radio Program: Purple Finch (Adapted from 1986)

Original Air Date: May 9, 1988

Laura slightly updated her program from 1986 about this popular feeder bird.

Duration: 3′42″


(Recording of a Purple Finch)

One of the most abundant birds in the Northland right now is the purple finch. These little birds pig out on sunflower seeds at feeders–and also eat a variety of other things, like bugs, caterpillars, 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 may or may not have been named by someone who was colorblind. Adult males are rosy crimson, especially on their heads and rumps, without even a speck of what we call purple. But it’s possible that the bird was christened by someone with a classical education. Such a person would know that the Latin work “purpureus” derived from the Greek work “porphura” for a shellfish, from which Tyrean purple dye was obtained. This dye produced the imperial purple of the Romans, which was quite similar to the color of the male Purple Finch. Perhaps they should have been named the Imperial Purple Finch to avoid confusing people. Female Purple Finches and young birds, on the other hand, don’t have a speck of Imperial Purple–they are gray striped, and appear sparrow-like.

Purple Finches have the dubious distinction of being the birds most likely to smack into Northland windows–hanging fluttering strips of aluminum foil or hawk silhouettes on windows helps a little, and some people hang shiny objects inside their windows to make the glass more noticeable. If you’ve found a sure-fire way of preventing window casualties, I’d sure appreciate it if you’d let me know.

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, was named for such a bird. Linnets 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.”

Purple Finches warble a pretty song throughout the day in spring. 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.

(Recording of a Purple Finch call note)

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.”