Wild Profile: Meet the purple finch

Published: January 19, 2021

A male purple finch, perched on a cedar branch in winter By KellyNelson/Shutterstock

Have you seen a purple finch at your bird feeder lately? You can’t miss them, not the males, at least—they’re the colour of raspberry sorbet. (So…maybe not quite purple.) Put out black oil sunflower seeds this winter, and you’ll draw these small, chunky little birds to your property.

During breeding season, purple finches stick to coniferous or mixed forests. Come winter, they’ll expand into a variety of habitats: shrublands, fields, forest edges—and your yard. Along with sunflower seeds, good feeder fare for these guys includes peanuts, millet, cracked corn, nyjer, and seed mixes (but check the ingredients and avoid mixes that include oat, wheat, or flax; no bird wants to eat that stuff).

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Male purple finches got some game when it comes to attracting the ladies. Along with that pretty plumage—Henry David Thoreau described it as “the crimson hues of the October evenings”—they have the gift of rhythm. Males “dance” to draw in females. They fluff their feathers, spread their wings, and hop around their potential mates, sometimes singing softly, or sometimes holding a piece of nesting material—a twig, a grass stem—in their beaks. Are you picking up what I’m putting down? Seems kind of forward, but apparently it works.

These teeny, fancy-looking birds can get aggressive when need be. If a male purple finch is agitated, for example, he’ll lean towards his opponent and stretch out his neck. This can escalate into each male opening his beak, as a threat—back off, buddy. Sometimes the stand off evolves into an actual pecking fight. Ouch! Winner gets the lady finch.

Of course, this is during the breeding season. If you see two purple finches fighting at your winter feeder, it could be a male and a female. Not that it’s here nor there, but when fighting over food, the females usually win.

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