House Finch

Leonard and I have a small “lawn” near our house (Lookout CA). Truth be told this lawn would never pass muster in most suburban areas as it is filled with dandelions. Thankfully in our very rural area we have no neighbors to complain. The bright yellow flowers look pretty and attract moths and butterflies, while the seeds provide food for many small bird species. So the dandelions stay.

Recently a beautiful male house finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) was gorging on dandelion seeds outside my kitchen window. This small passerine (perching bird) is native to Western United States. In the 1940s house finches were imported to Long Island NY where they were illegally sold as caged birds. The sellers, to avoid prosecution under the Migratory Bird Act when they were discovered selling wild birds, disposed of their stock by releasing the birds. Over time these released house finches spread throughout the East and began to move westward. Today the eastern and western populations are beginning to meet in the Great Plains. Almost every state now has house finches. In addition, house finches were introduced to Oahu in the 1870s and now occupy all the major Hawaiian Islands.

House finches are have a thick, greyish bill and a tail with a shallow notch. Male house finches have a brownish back and tail and a belly with thick, blurry streaks on white. The forehead, throat, breast and rump of the male house finch are typically red but can vary to orange or yellow. The pattern and extent of red coloration on the male also varies. House finches cannot make the red pigments directly. The diet, as well as genetic, metabolic and physiological factors, determine the color and extent of red plumage. Females prefer redder males.

House finch females are greyish brown with thick streaks over the entire body and they lack the red coloration of the male. At most the female house finch may have a little yellowish color.

House finches are gregarious and can often form large flocks outside of the breeding season. They adapt well to people and are found in grasslands, farms, forest edges and urban areas throughout most of the United States. In their native West house finches also inhabit deserts and chaparral. Only northern populations of house finches are migratory and move south during the winter.

House finches eat plant material exclusively. Most vegetarian birds add some animal material to the diet of their nestlings to provide protein. The house finch is unusual in that it only feeds its young plant products – dandelion seeds being a favored “baby” food. In urban areas house finches frequent feeders.

Although the American Ornithologists’ Union lists the house finch as H. mexicanus, it is also often seen in the literature as part of the genus Carpodacus.

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