House finch male and female birds.                                                  Submitted photo

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The small finch with the cheery song and bright plumage is a year-round Evanston resident and is especially welcome during the cold days of winter.

The house finch was originally native to scrublands of southwestern North America and Mexico, where it inhabited springs, open dry areas with water, river banks, rocky ledges and forest edges.

These habitats are similar to the landscape created by Europeans who moved near the finch’s territory and who, inadvertently, invited them to expand their range.
The striking-colored male has a pale brown head with a contrasting brightly colored red crown and eyebrow stripe. Its red bib and upper breast grade into broad brown and white streaks from its belly to its squarish tail. Its back is subtly streaked grey-brown with a red rump. Its wings have faint whitish wing bars. The female and the young have a brown and white streaked belly, streaked crown and a plain brownish back and head. Some females have very faint red coloration on their crowns, breasts and rumps.

House finches show wide color variation both within populations and among the approximately 15 subspecies.

The bright red colors are the result of the intake and processing of carotenoids. Geoffrey Hill, biologist at Auburn University in Alabama, has spent the better part of his academic career studying the complex metabolic processes and other influences, including environmental, that range from a bird’s ingestion of a berry or seed to the expression of the food’s nutritional components in a bird’s feathers, beak, bill, pattern and leg coloration.

These parts of the bird are indicators of its overall health and are the main features that attract females as mates. Mr. Hill has used the house finch as his primary study bird because the male is colorful, abundant and easy to catch. What attracts males to the drab female is a question.

Finches gain their color during their annual molt when new feathers grow back and they consume their favorite carotenoid-containing foods that produce the red (and sometimes yellow or orange) pigments: grains, fruits, sunflower seeds, buds and flowers, whatever is in season. They are nomadic, drawn to foods that
are available.

The male’s appealing color, lovely, burbling song and friendliness to humans made it an ideal caged pet. Many birds were caught in California in the early 20th century and sold in New York as “Hollywood Finches.”

In 1940, Dr. Edward Fleisher found them in a Brooklyn pet shop and contacted the National Audubon Society, which found twenty pet shops selling the birds.

To escape prosecution under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, a pet shop owner liberated his finches. First found breeding in Long Island, the house finch population spread throughout the east. Meanwhile, the western population was also expanding.
Today house finches can be found from coast to coast from southern Canada to Chiapas, Mexico, with fewer numbers in the open Great Plains. In the east, they are especially dependent upon human habitats.

Early ornithologists Alexander Wilson, “the father of American Ornithology,” Thomas Nuttall and John J. Audubon called the bird the “Crimson-necked Bull-finch,” assuming a relationship with European finches.

The first list of the American Ornithological Union in 1886 called it the house finch, a name more descriptive of its behavior than its appearance. In 2012, DNA studies prompted scientists to separate the European species from the three species of American finches – house, purple and Cassin’s. The genus name was changed to Haemorhous, leaving the European finch genus as Carpodacus.

Males and females sing, the males more frequently, the female usually during mating season. House finches are monogamous and begin pairing in winter. Males perform a “butterfly flight” courtship display during which they fly up from their perch about 65 feet and then glide down again, singing continuously.

Males often feed females during courtship, starting with a behavior called “Billing,” during which both sexes make soft calling sounds, giving meaning to “billing and cooing.” Couples may remain paired throughout the year, though females may occasionally stray.

House finches nest in a wide variety of locations above ground. Basic nest requirements are a sturdy base with some protection from the elements. Both sexes prospect together for a nest site.

It is common for a pair to work on two nests simultaneously, abandon both, and then return to the same area, where the female builds the final nest.

In an act of bonding, the male brings offerings, though they are never incorporated. Nests consist of grasses, twigs and plant debris plus human castoffs such as twine, cellophane and even cigarette butts. Females lay an average of 4 eggs, incubate them for about 14 days, and feed the nestlings for about 15 days. Both parents fed the fledglings.

In 1994, house finches in Washington, D. C. contracted a contagious disease, mycoplasmal conjunctivitis, which led to a severe decline in their numbers.

In 2007, Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology used this opportunity to examine whether house finches and house sparrows, two introduced species, compete with each other. Using citizen science databases – Breeding Bird Surveys, Christmas Counts, and Project FeederWatch – they concluded that in the northeast in winter, a decrease in the abundance of house finch was correlated with an increase in abundance of house sparrows. They did not discuss the resources for which the species might be competing.

People with feeders can contribute to Project FeederWatch, helping to increase our information about these two species as well as other birds. The website is http://feederwatch.org/about/how-to-participate.