Last winter, there were virtually no purple finches or pine siskins in North Carolina’s southern Piedmont. It was quite a change from the previous year, when these species were common in those months. It is not unusual for the numbers of purple finches and siskins to fluctuate from year to year, however. Their winter movements are based more on food supply way to our north than on regular migratory patterns.
The preliminary forecast for winter finches calls for these birds to move farther south than last year. Already I have heard of good numbers of pine siskins and purple finches being seen just a few counties north of Mecklenburg, so it’s time to keep an eye open for them. It’s wintertime by the birding calendar. In preparation, here are some pointers on how to distinguish both species from some of their similar cousins.
Purple finches are most similar to house finches in our area, but purple finches are with us only as a winter bird. House finches are here year-round. Purple finches are larger and bulkier than the house finches. In the female house finch, the gray or brown face is plain.
In the purple finch female, there is a strong facial pattern. The house finch female can appear streaky, but in comparison to the heavily streaked purple finch, it is relatively plain brownish gray.
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Male house finches have a characteristic reddish bib or upper breast. This red plumage is generally confined to these areas and may extend onto the head. In the purple finch, the color is more of a raspberry color. It is more extensive, usually covering the face, entire breast and even extending down to the belly and over the upper parts.
Pine siskins are the same size and behave the same as American goldfinches; in fact, the two often appear together at feeders. Pine siskins are heavily streaked with grayish brown, while goldfinches have no streaking. Some of the more brightly marked siskins may show yellow patches on the wings.
For a more in-depth discussion of the field marks used to distinguish these four species, go to my blog at piedmontbirding.blogspot.com.
Taylor Piephoff is a naturalist with an interest in the birds and wildlife of the southern Piedmont: PiephoffT@aol.com. Check out his blog at piedmontbirding.blogspot.com.