The first time I saw Purple Finches was in Indiana in the summertime. A pair was sitting in a bush off the porch a few feet away in plain view. The male was a beautiful reddish color and his faithful mate was that non-descript brown that many birders describe as an LBJ; little brown jobbie.
What I learned later, as I got more into birding, is that I miss-identified this pair of birds. They were in fact House Finches. I made the common bird-identification mistakes of not consulting a field guide to understand the birds’ seasonal ranges and I didn’t recognize that some birds are confusingly similar.
Distinguishing between House and Purple Finches can be a bit tricky. But, there are clues to help make positive identifications much simpler.
First, check the species seasonal range. A field guide can be invaluable for this. Purple Finches are more likely to visit in the winter. Good luck trying to find one in Indiana in the summer. House Finches on the other hand are very common year-round throughout North America; especially, at bird feeders.
Second, look for field marks on the birds. Those distinguishing characteristics that set it apart from others.
You can tell the male finches apart mostly by coloration. The male Purple Finch has a more raspberry jam or red wine coloration. It looks like the bird was dipped head first into jam or wine making the cheek patch, back and wings tinged with the reddish coloration. The male House Finch is a red to orange (and sometimes yellow) coloration that is often most brilliant on the forehead. They have a brown cheek patch, back and wings (no red).
Female Purple and House Finches can be fairly simple to tell apart by looking for an eyebrow stripe. The female Purple Finch has a white eyebrow stripe. The female House Finch does not. Otherwise, they look almost exactly the same.
Take a closer look at that finch on your feeder. Are you sure it’s what you thought? Check out the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s helpful web page on Tricky Bird IDs for more tips on the difference between Purple and House Finches.
When did you see your first Purple or House Finch? Do they visit your bird feeders?