Photo Credit: Bill Horn
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Carpodacus purpureus
OTHER NAMES: purple linnet; purple grosbeak; red linnet; gray linnet
DESCRIPTION: A medium sized finch about the size of a husky sparrow, five to six inches in length, with a wingspan of nine to ten inches, and weighing 0.75 to 1.1 ounces.
The mature male has a tie-died raspberry colored crest, breast, back and rump, with the brightest coloring on the head and rump. The nape and back are brown streaked. The sides and belly are whitish with undertones of pale red. The wings and notched tail are brown. The bill is a cone shaped and the eye dark brown. The legs are black. The adult female is light brown on the top of the body and white on the underside of the body. There are bold dark brown streaks over most of the body. The abdomen and under tail coverts are white with no markings. Females also have a distinct white line above the eye and a dark jaw stripe. Immature purple finches resemble the adult female. After the post juvenal molt, approximately fifty percent of the males will show some pinkish tints in their first winter plumage.
DISTRIBUTION: There are two subspecies of the purple finch, the California purple finch arpodacus purpureus californicus, a western population, located on the Pacific Coast of the United States and Canada. The eastern population Carpodacus purpureus purpureus is located in the eastern United States and Canada. Documentation from the 1800s, states that the purple finch was a common summer resident of the southern New England states. The introduction of the English house sparrow in the late 1800s displaced the purple finch from residential areas, but it was still common in the rural areas of New England. The introduction of the house finch in New York during the 1900s further reduced the purple finch breeding range. The current breeding range covers the coniferous and mixed forests in Canada and the northeastern United States and along the Pacific coast south to Baja California. Most purple finches winter south of the breeding range with some migrants arriving in the gulf coast states during severe winters.
HABITAT: Purple finches prefer open mixed and coniferous forest with abundant openings. In winter, purple finches often frequent bird feeders. During migration, it utilizes a broad range of forested and open habitats; often choosing dense conifers for roosting.
FEEDING HABITS: Staple foods of the purple finch are seeds, buds, blossoms and small fruits usually taken from the outer branches of trees. They travel in small flocks, upon lighting in a tree the individuals move to the ends of the branches to forage. Rivalries are common at bird feeders. In the winter, they prefer seeds of conifers, juniper, ash, dogwood, beech, hawthorn, elm, sycamore, popular, ironwood, hemlock, willow and many weeds especially ragweed and burdock. They will eat almost any seed provided at a bird feeder, but exhibit a preference for sunflower seeds. When blossoms appear on fruit trees, purple finches will crush the base of the flowers to get the nectar. This activity knocks some of the blossoms from the tree and gives the impression that the birds are causing significant damage. In summer, they show a preference for berries such as mulberry, strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, or the fruits of cherry and grape. They will also, eat insects but feed their young mostly seeds. The purple finch genus name Carpodacus is Latin for “fruit biting” and is expressive of their feeding on berries, fruit buds and blossoms.
LIFE HISTORY AND ECOLOGY: The purple finch is noted for its colorful plumage, ecstatic courtship song and display of the adult male. The spring migration north is protracted and usually later than expected. Birds arrive in northern New England from March through May. The purple finch sings three different songs. The warbling song of early spring is the one most frequently heard. This song is whistled while the birds are still in flocks. At times, several birds may sing at once forming a chorus. Their songs vary from six to 23 notes, sang rapidly, with no two notes in succession in the same pitch. There is considerable variation in the notes when this song is repeated. This song lasts from one to three seconds. The territorial song is heard from April to July when the birds are breeding. This song has a series of rapid notes all of the same pitch near the beginning followed by some warbling notes with a high-pitched note near the end. This song does not vary. It usually lasts from 2.5 to 3.25 seconds, but can be repeated several times in succession resulting in lengthy periods of singing. The song that is least heard resembles a vireo singing. It can be heard in the spring or the fall migrations and consists of three different phrases of two to five notes each sung alternately with a short pause between phrases.
Once the singing of the male has attracted a female, he performs his courtship dance. The dance has some variation between individuals but includes dancing about the female with wings dangling and chest extended, the tail cocked straight up like a wren. He will then beat his wings in the manner of a grouse drumming occasionally rising a foot or so into the air. In between dances, the male sometimes offers the female some grass or straw. The male often sings during the display or sometimes chirps softly. Males have been seen to lean back on their tail and vibrate their wings. In response, a receptive female will squat and vibrate her wings. The actual breeding takes about two seconds.
Almost all purple finch nests are constructed in coniferous trees, usually spruces or cedars. Nests are typically well concealed in the thickest part of the tree usually 15 to 20 feet off the ground and well away from the trunk. Nesting materials commonly used include fine twigs, rootlets, grass, and animal hair. Both parents construct the nest. The female lays four or five elongated eggs about 1 inch in length and 0.5-inch in diameter. The eggs are pale bluish green marked sometimes with additional lighter tones. The entire egg has specks of brown or black with a concentration of these dots toward the larger end. The female incubates the eggs for approximately 13 days, while the male stays busy bringing food to his mate. When not collecting food, the male perches nearby and sings.
Both parents feed the young partially chewed seeds, berries and some insects. The young in the nest make a call sounding like “peewee”. The young fledge in about 14 days. The parents continue to feed them for about two more weeks after they have left the nest. Peak feeding times are early morning and late afternoon. When flying the birds make a call sounding like “tick.” After the young disperse, the monogamous pair will use the same nest to raise a second brood.
As winter approaches, most purple finches begin a protracted and variable migration. Records from bird banders indicate they generally move north to south but in varying directions and distances. In the fall migration, the birds tend to segregate themselves by sex, with flocks of males seen together, and then flocks of females. These flocks normally range in size from six to 20 birds. The purple finch is a very hearty bird and is capable of wintering in the north but most move south to the middle states with some individuals migrating to the gulf coast states.
As spring nears, larger flocks began the journey back to the breeding grounds. It is during this period that they visit blooming fruit trees and crack the base of the flower to get nectar, appearing to cause a loss in the future fruit crop. However, some orchard growers respond that the pruning is not excessive and in their feeding, they consume some destructive pest such as plant lice, caterpillars, cankerworms.
The average lifespan for a purple finch is about four years but some live as long as eight years.
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AUTHOR: Steve Bryant, Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries, January 2009