For the Birds Radio Program: Purple Finch
Every year just as baseball season really gets underway, Purple Finches become abundant at some feeders in the north woods. This year they’ve been few and far between in my own backyard, but the large number visiting my mother-in-law’s feeders in Port Wing, Wisconsin, are more than making up for it. Purple Finches breed in northern forests. They can be found just about anywhere in the Midwest in winter, but their normal breeding range includes northern Minnesota, the northern half of Wisconsin, and the U.P. and northern half of Michigan’s lower peninsula. I saw my first in Michigan’s U.P. in May, 1976, and while we lived in Madison, Wisconsin, I managed to see them at the arboretum and my favorite park, but that was about it until we moved to Duluth, when they became an important part of my world.
We often associate Purple Finches with conifers, but they feeds mainly on seeds, buds, blossoms, nectar, and fruit from a wide variety of trees and shrubs, including elms, tuliptree, maples, sweet gum, sycamores, redcedar, juniper, and mountain ash. They also occasionally feed on insects. Birds in the finch family with irruptive movements, like the Purple Finch, have higher populations during periods when conifer cones are abundant, but despite the apparent link, there is very little evidence that Purple Finches feed on spruce cones in early spring. They use their big beak and tongue to crush seeds and extract the nut. They also use their beak and tongue to get at nectar without eating the entire flower. Interestingly, in choice experiments, researchers have found that Purple Finches prefer thin sunflower seeds to fat ones. Overall, for being as common up here as they are, there have been very few studies of the species.
Purple Finches are pleasing in every way. They’re pretty even if rather unassuming in plumage. Roger Tory Peterson described males as sparrows dipped in raspberry juice. Females are simple dark gray and off-white, but are easy to distinguish from sparrows when you remember to look for the bulky beak and the thick gray eye stripe bordered above and below by pretty conspicuous soft white. This thick eye stripe makes them especially easy to distinguish from female House Finches, which have softly and uniformly streaked cheeks. And their song is a rich and lovely warble, loud enough that most people can hear it while soft enough that it wouldn’t wake us up even with the windows open. Interestingly, sometimes Purple Finches incorporate phrases from other species’ songs into their own, including Barn Swallows, American Goldfinches, Eastern Towhees, and Brown-headed Cowbirds, but the rich warble is all their own.
In May, a twitterpated male Purple Finch does a lovely yet comical dance around his perceived mate, fluttering his wings vigorously while hopping, thrusting out his breast, cocking up his tail, raising his head feathers to get a shaggy-crested appearance, and singing, often while holding a piece of nesting material in his beak. All the while he does this, he sings a soft warbling or “chippering” song, and then flies vertically just about a foot, and then returns to the ground. Now he droops his wings and uses his spread tail as a support, while he points his beak skyward and tilts his body back as far as possible. The female may respond with a “ho-hum, not-tonight-darling” attitude, may accept the nesting materials, or may get hot to trot herself, leading to mating. Purple Finch numbers have been dropping in recent decades. Watching their exuberant breeding displays in the lusty month of May fills us with hope as well as joy.