House finches

House finch (Carpodacus mexicanus).

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Male house finches have red eyebrows and forehead with a brown cap, according to Kaufman’s Field Guide to Birds of North America. You can see the brown cap on the two fellows above. They also have a red chest with brown stripes on the sides.

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Female house finch are not red at all, as can be seen in the photos above and below. They have brown stripes on the chest and underparts with a plain head. Juveniles look like the females but have sharper stripes, again according to Kaufman, so perhaps the finch in the photo below is a juvenile.

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Female finches were once part of my LBJ (little brown job) category, which I’m trying to sort out. Female house sparrows were also in my LBJ category. But they don’t have stripes. And they have distinctive eyebrows and lighter rings around the neck, so they aren’t similar to female house finches at all, once I start paying attention. My LBJ category gets smaller.

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The field guides I’ve consulted don’t mention the intricate symmetrical patterns on the backs of finches, which I find quite pleasing to the eye.

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House finches travel in flocks and visit my feeders often. They often shelter in the nearby rhododendrons when they aren’t at the feeders.

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House finches are easy to photograph because they tend to settle in to enjoy some sunflower seeds and socialize. I’m reminded of morning coffee at the local bagel shop when I watch house finches enjoying their morning munch.

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Received knowledge is that finches like nyjer, or thistle, seed. I’ve tried nyjer seed in a tube feeder, but these finches seem to prefer sunflower seeds. According to the Audubon Society, sunflower seeds are the gold standard of bird seed, and I agree. After many experiments with feeders and seed, I now stick with sunflower seed in feeders that close shut when large birds perch on them.  I also use suet feeders.

Tube feeders, it seems to me, are the first to get moldy at the bottom and are undesirable for that reason. Platform seeders signal brunch time for squirrels. I don’t need that. Even with ideal feeders, millet and split corn get thrown on the ground by birds looking for the sunflower seed in a seed mix, so I’ve given up on seed mixes. I joked at times that the ground-feeding birds and squirrels were paying off the little birds to spill millet and corn on the ground for them. When I stick with sunflower seed, the mourning doves and other ground feeders still seem to have plenty to eat. And European starlings, grackles, pigeons, and other larger birds are kept to a minimum—most of the time. Below you see finches sharing space with a European starling sitting on a squirrel baffle (left) and a male house sparrow (right).

Finches are an introduced species. I won’t call them invasive. That’s because I like them better than European starlings, not because I’m using scientific terminology. They are not aggressive and do no harm to other birds. House finches were imported from the west coast in the 1940’s by pet stores calling them Hollywood finches. After this practice became illegal, some of the imported finches were let loose. All this is according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Today’s population of eastern house finches comes from a relatively few released finches, making them highly inbred and more susceptible to disease.

Which brings us to House Finch Eye Disease, or Mycoplasma gallisepticum. When I report house finches at my feeders to Project Feederwatch, a question box pops up online, asking if I noticed any eye disease. I have not. The house finch eye disease was first observed in 1993–1994 in Virginia and Maryland and spread throughout the eastern population. Finches with the disease have red, swollen, watery, crusted eyes, to the point where they become blind. They don’t so much die from the disease as from starving or from predation because of the blindness.

The eye disease has limited itself to the family Fringillidae, again according to Cornell Lab, and has not affected songbirds. The Lab estimates that 5% to 10% of the house finch population is affected at this time, and that the epidemic of a few years ago has tapered down.

It’s important to keep feeders clean to prevent disease, which I try to do.

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The male and female house finch above seem particularly congenial. Are they looking at something or just taking time to munch? House finches have relatively shallow notches in their tails, as compared to other finches. The tail of this female house finch shows the shallow notch clearly.

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A male house finch perchs on a serviceberry bush near the feeders. On a cold January day, I take it as a harbinger of spring, when the finches will mate and the serviceberry buds will burst into bloom. Can’t wait.

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