by Alex Forsythe
The Purple Finch is the state bird of New Hampshire, and it is the bird that ornithologist and field guide author Roger Tory Peterson called, “a sparrow dipped in raspberry juice”.
Purple Finches and House Finches can be difficult to distinguish. Male Purple Finches are more of a raspberry color than male House Finches which are more orange-red to purple-red, and the male Purple Finches have a splash of raspberry on their wings. Male House Finches have more streaking on their flanks and their wings have little to no reddish coloration on their wings. The female Purple Finch has stronger facial markings than the female House Finch and they are a drab greenish-brown, while the female House Finch is more of a brownish-gray. The tail of a Purple Finch is short with a deep notch, while the tail of a House Finch is longer with a slight notch.
Before the introduction of the House Sparrow and House Finch, Purple Finches were quite common. Today, Purple Finches are much less common, typically only seen in winter in Indiana. Only 55 Purple Finches were reported statewide in Indiana’s 114th CBC, the lowest totals in seven years. William Brewster, co-founder of the American Ornithologists’ Union, wrote: “Up to within twenty-five or thirty years the brilliant, ecstatic song of the Purple Finch might be heard through May, June and early July in almost every part of Cambridge… Many were the nests of this bird that I used to find in our Norway spruces and other ornamental evergreens, but since the English Sparrows became numerous the Purple Finches have abandoned one favorite urban haunt after another, and, excepting at their seasons of migration, I seldom see or hear them now in the older settled parts of Cambridge.”
The courtship of the Purple Finch is a dramatic display. “At times the Purple Finch seems to be overcome with emotion, and he will launch himself into the air with vibrating wings, rising upward and upward, melody pouring from his throat like a torrent down a mountain side, until he has reached an altitude of 200-to-300 feet, when with outstretched wings he descends in wide circles to the summit of the very tree from which he started. Occasionally this impassioned outbreak comes with such suddenness as to startle anyone who may be nearby. Often he may be seen about his mate on the limb of a tree or on the ground. His crest standing high and his tail spread with the bright feathers of his rump raised in the air.” – “Birds of America”, Volume 3, Pearson, Forbush, et al. 1917).
Purple Finches are often seen eating fruit tree blossoms, causing many to believe the birds were harming their trees or lessening their yield. Studies have shown the contrary to be true: trees visited by the finches bore healthier, larger and better tasting fruit (Magee 1926 and Groskin 1938). Edward Forbush, founder of the Massachusetts Audubon Society and author of “Birds of New England” was a defender of the Purple Finch: “This Finch appears at first sight to be destructive, for it devours buds and the blossoms of apple, cherry, peach, and plum trees, feeding on the stamens and pistils… They feed also upon the blossoms of the red maple, the seeds of such trees as the white ash, and the berries of the red cedar, mountain ash, and other trees. But, as with the Grosbeak, the pruning or cutting of buds, blossoms, and seeds of trees is not ordinarily excessive. On the other hand, this bird eats many of the seeds of the most destructive weeds, ragweed being a favorite. The PurpleFinch also destroys many orchard and woodland caterpillars. It is particularly destructive to plant lice and cankerworms. Its quest of weed seeds is sometimes rewarded by some insects which it finds on the ground, among them ground beetles and perhaps a few cutworms.”
It seems fitting that the little bird “dipped in raspberry juice” is a friend to fruit growers after all!