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A chapter from the electronic book:  Life Histories of Familiar North American Birds

Purple Finch
Carpodacus purpureus [Eastern Purple Finch]  

[Published in 1968: Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 237 (Part 1): 264-278]

The above name may be misleading to the novice, for it is no more purple, as we understand the term today, than it is blue or yellow. Crimson finch would be a more appropriate name. (However, the "purple" of the Bible and of classical writers was not very different from the red of the male purple finch.) The species has also been called "linnet" and even "purple grosbeak."

Before the introduction and the subsequent increase of the house sparrow, during the last quarter of the previous century, the purple finch was a common summer resident in southern New England, where we now know it almost entirely as a winter visitor. J. A. Allen (1869) wrote at that time: "Nearly all observers in Southern New England that I have met remark that this bird has greatly increased there during the last ten years; especially it is more numerous in the breeding season." It was certainly common enough when I was a boy in the 1870s. We could find plenty of nests in the spruces near our homes and we caught the birds under sieves, or in cage traps; they made attractive pets as cage birds, for they sang well in captivity.

But, as the sparrows increased, the finches became steadily rarer until now, when only an occasional pair can be found nesting in southeastern Massachusetts. William Brewster (1906) tells a similar story for the Cambridge region: "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--including even Cambridgeport. 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."

This is certainly true of the increasingly densely built up urban areas, but, reports C. H. Blake, some sizable populations still breed in the outer ring of suburbs. In Lexington, Mass., backyard trapping by Mr. and Mrs. Parker C. Reed has shown a fair number of breeding birds present. In some (approximately alternate) years many birds in juvenal plumage come to the traps in late summer and fall. They banded 343 such in 1954. Of course these represent the production of a considerable area; nevertheless singing summer males are not really uncommon 15 to 18 miles from Boston. At the present time the controlling factor is more likely to be the availability of suitable nesting trees rather than the house sparrow.

Spring.--Wells W. Cooke (1914) makes the following interesting observation.

The great bulk of the individuals winter south of the breeding range, but a small percentage remain at this season, farther north in the southern part of the breeding range, and sometimes even to the middle part. There is therefore a broad belt, covering at least a third of the entire range of the species, in which migration dates are unsatisfactory, because the records of real spring migration are so mixed with notes on birds that have wintered. The case is made more involved by the fact that the Purple Finch is normally a late migrant, so that there are, in reality, two sets of notes, one of birds that have wintered unnoticed in the deep woods and are recorded when they spread to the open country during the first warm days of spring, and the other of migrants from the south that arrive two to six weeks later.

As Cooke implies, the spring migration is later than one might suppose. In Pennsylvania (Groskin, 1950) it is in March and April; in eastern Massachusetts, in April and May. While there is certainly a generally northward movement, it is questionable as to what extent migrating finches set even a roughly true north course. The data presented by Groskin (1950) show a northwestward course toward Michigan and a northeastward one into New England from his station in southeast Pennsylvania; northward recaptures of his banded birds were few and the distances mostly less than 100 miles. He was also able to show that an occasional bird makes a fairly long southward trip in spring.

Courtship.--Much has been written about the ecstatic and colorful courtship display of the purple finch. One of the best accounts of it is in the following note sent to me by Kenneth C. Parkes, who observed the performance at Ithaca, N.Y., at 5:30 a.m., daylight saving time, on May 19, 1940: "When I first approached the pair, the male bird was hopping around with dangling wings and thrown-up chest, much in the fashion of the male house sparrow. The female was feeding on the grass nearby, not paying the least bit of attention to the male. His wings beat faster and faster until quite blurred. His tail was cocked up in the air like that of a wren. All this time he was chippering softly. Finally, with wings beating seemingly fully as fast as those of a hummingbird, he rose a foot or so straight up in the air.

"The female flew over at this point, and the male came down directly on top of her, although she immediately slipped out from under him. The male leaned over backward at an almost impossible angle, with his wings dangling against the ground and his bill pointed straight up in the air. The female gave a little jump and hit the male's bill with hers. Both birds immediately flew into the branches of a small birch, under which the performance had taken place. Although I was no more than 15 or 20 feet from the birds during the performance, and was right out in the open, they took absolutely no notice of me."

Gordon B. Wellman (1920) gives a similar account of the display, but adds some interesting features. When the male "was about two inches from and in front of" the female

he picked up a straw, dropped it and picked up a piece of grass which hung from each side of his bill. This seemed to be the signal for the greatest agitation on his part; with ecstatic dance, full song and vibrating wings he moved slowly on beating feet, back and forth before the female; then he rose six inches in the air, poured forth glorious song notes and dropped to the ground at one side of the female. He landed on his feet but instantly took a most dramatic pose by holding stiffly his spread tail to the ground and tilting back on that support with head held high, the raised crest and carmine ruff adding to the effect. Then like a little tragedian he rolled over on his side, apparently lifeless; the song ceased and the straw fell from his bill. Up to this time the female had remained oblivious as far as outward manifestation showed, but now she turned quickly and gave the male as he lay "dead" a vicious peck in the breast, whereat he came to and flew up in the tree, a normal bird once more, and was soon singing in the usual deliberate fashion from a high perch. The female busied herself about the spot where he had just danced and soon finding the straw and grass which he had dropped she picked them up in her bill and flew into the tree where she went searching from place to place for a spot to start a nest.

Sometimes the courtship consists largely of competition in song. Rev. J. H. Langille (1884) quotes an observation made by Eugene Ringueberg, who saw a female alight on a branch, after having been chased by two males, singing as hard as they could; the males alighted near her, and each "faced the female with neck outstretched and crest raised to its fullest dimensions, and leaned forward far enough to show conspicuously its bright rump, and to aid in this display, spread both wings and tail to the widest extent; and moving, or more properly dancing, up and down, poured forth such a volume of song as I did not think them capable of producing."

Mrs. Louise de Kiriline Lawrence, writing from Rutherglen, Ontario, says she watched a male dance before a female. The male had a piece of nesting material, a pine needle in his bill. His crest was raised like a plume; his wings drooped and vibrated like a hummingbird's; his tail was raised. He uttered a continuous, soft warbling song with the most exquisite whistles and passages. The display continued for at least a minute and a half. The female paid no attention. The next day, June 3, a generally similar performance took place. This time the female flew up onto a rock, "tucked" softly, sank herself down, lifted her tail, and began trembling her wings. The male, in an ecstasy, flew toward her. He had nothing in his bill. She sank down deeper, rippled her wings faster. The male lifted himself from the rock on wings fluttering so rapidly as to be practically invisible and descended upon her for about two seconds, a fairy union on the rock in the sun. When the act was ended, both birds sat motionless, facing each other for several seconds. Then the female shook herself and flew off. A moment later the male followed.

Nesting.--Nearly all the nests of the purple finch that I have seen or read about have been placed in coniferous trees, mainly spruces. In my egg-collecting days, we boys could always find one or more nests in a row of white spruces, built along a suburban road as a windbreak. The nests were fairly well concealed in the thickest parts of the trees and not far from the tops, perhaps 15 or 20 feet from the ground. But I once found one in an apple tree in an orchard. The nests were made of fine twigs and rootlets and were lined with finer rootlets and horsehair.

In the Cambridge region of Massachusetts, William Brewster (1906) found purple finches nesting "in hilly pastures sprinkled with Virginia junipers among the dense foliage of which they love to conceal their nests." They bred there so commonly at one time that he "found no less than six nests containing eggs or young within a space of half an acre," on June 6, 1869.

E. A. Samuels (1883) says: "The nest is usually built in a pine or cedar tree, and is sometimes thirty or even forty feet from the ground--oftener about fifteen or twenty. It is constructed of fine roots and grasses, and is lined with horsehair and hog's bristles. One specimen in my collection has the cast-off skin of a snake woven in the rest of the fabric; and I have seen nests lined with mosses."

Eggs.--The eggs laid by the purple finch vary from three to six, with four or five most commonly found. They are slightly glossy and ovate, sometimes tending to short-ovate. The ground color may be "pale Niagara green," or "Etain blue," and they are sparingly speckled and spotted with shades of "olive-brown," "deep olive," "citrine drab," "mummy brown," and black. The usual type has sharp and clearly defined spots of black and browns scattered over the entire egg. Less frequently the eggs are marked with clouded spots of the lighter tones such as "citrine drab" and "deep olive," but all show a tendency to concentration of spots toward the large end where they often form a loose wreath.

The measurements of 50 eggs average 20.2 by 14.6 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 22.4 by 14.2, 19.8 by 16.8, 17.8 by 13.7, and 20.1 by 13.5 millimeters.

Young.--Ora W. Knight (1908) writes: "Both male and female assist in building the nest, but I have only once caught the male assisting in the task of incubation, and then he was perched on the eggs half standing and literally bursting with melody. . . . The male frequently feeds the female while she is incubating, and when not so engaged is perched on the top of some nearby tree singing his best.

"Incubation requires about thirteen days and the young leave in fourteen more. Both parents Feed them for a considerable while after they have left the nest."

Francis H. Allen wrote in his notes for June 25, 1911: "A young one in a shad bush, fed by its father, makes a constant sweet little pee-wee note. The old bird gathers the June-berries industriously for a long time, doubtless swallowing many, but apparently retaining some in the mouth or gullet, for the feeding process is a prolonged one. The young when being fed is very eager and vociferous and follows its parent up when the latter starts away. The old bird chews the berries, sometimes if not always, and sometimes picks off only part of one at a time, perhaps when the fruit is not ripe enough to be easily detached. The pee-wee note seems to be characteristic. I hear it from others of the young. The syllables are about evenly accented."

Plumages.--Dwight (1900) describes the juvenal plumage of the eastern purple finch as follows: "Above, wood-brown, broadly streaked with olive-brown and showing whitish streaks if the feathers be so disarranged as to expose a lighter portion. Below, dull white streaked with paler olive-brown, least on the chin, throat and middle of abdomen and crissum, the last two areas often unmarked. An indistinct whitish superciliary line. Wings and tail deep olive-brown, edged with pale buff deepest and broadest on tertiaries and wing coverts. . . ."

Minor exceptions may be taken to Dwight's description, according to C. H. Blake (1955). The throat is completely streaked but the streaks are very narrow. In fact, all the streaking of the under parts in the juvenal plumage is narrower than in first winter plumage. Finally, among birds handled in eastern Massachusetts, streaks occur on the juvenal under tail coverts in nearly 90 percent of the individuals.

The first winter plumage is acquired by a partial postjuvenal molt involving the contour plumage and the wing coverts, but not the rest of the wings or the tail. This is not very different from the juvenal plumage, but "the streaks are bolder, the brown usually with a greenish yellow tinge merging into the buffy edgings" (Dwight, 1900).

In eastern Massachusetts, according to Blake, the inception of postjuvenal molt is quite evenly distributed over the period from August 4 to September 8. The duration of this molt is probably about 8 weeks. In the Lexington, Mass., sample of 343 juvenile birds 26 percent (roughly half the males) showed some ruddy or pinkish tints in the first winter plumage. The available evidence from returns of banded birds is that all such birds are males. This ruddy coloring varies in intensity from a very faint tinting to color approaching that of the adult male. Its area may be very restricted or may extend to practically all the regions that are red or rosy in the fully colored male.

The first nuptial plumage is acquired by wear, most of the buffy tints being lost and the edgings becoming whitish. The birds breed in this plumage and the males sing.

The adult winter plumage is acquired by a complete postnuptial molt, beginning in July or early August, at which old and young birds become indistinguishable, the males assuming the pink plumage. Dwight (1900) describes the male as follows: "Above, pale geranium-red (often carmine or brick-red), hoary on the pileum and nape, the feathers of the back with dusky shaft lines and broad greenish buff edgings. Below, a hoary geranium-pink blending into white on abdomen and crissum, the flanks buffy with a few dusky streaks. Wings and tail clove-brown the edgings tinged with pale brick-red."

The adult nuptial plumage is acquired by wear, the hoary effect disappearing and the reds and pinks becoming clearer and brighter.

C. H. Blake reports that the molts of the female are the same as those of the male and that for 2 years or more she resembles closely the brown first winter plumage. Thereafter, in at least some populations, the female acquires a coloration very like that of the reddened first winter males described above. On the average such old females are a little less extensively reddened than the young males. A very few females develop a general yellowing the the plumage.

Dwight (1900) remarks: "In captivity pink adults assume golden or bronzed feathers at their first moult, never reassuming the pink dress."

Several articles have been published by bird banders who have noticed abnormal coloring in portions of the plumages of purple finches. Notable among these is the veteran bird-bander, M. J. Magee, of Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., who had banded and examined no less than 6,157 purple finches up to 1927, and as many as 1,168 in a single year. ***

Charles L. Whittle (1928) and Helen G. Whittle (1928) have noted such abnormal coloring in banded purple finches. The former writes: "Buffiness and bright yellow olive are common on the upper parts of many birds of this race, the latter usually appearing of greatest intensity on the rump of old females, and the former usually regularly placed on the sides of or including the breast of both young and old birds, especially noticeable on old birds in fresh postnuptial plumage, when they can hardly be distinguished from juvenile birds. Such buffy color is also not infrequently irregularly placed on the breast, one example being a well-marked band nearly one-half inch wide crossing it diagonally."

Helen G. Whittle (1928) refers to these as color-phases, "erythrism and xanthochroism." A female, "banded June 15, 1924, was a return-3 in 1927, at which time it was an olivaceous bird having a 'dull rosy rump with a central patch of rich olive-yellow.' As a return-4, May 9, 1928, the crown had a few crimson feathers, and the rump and upper tail-coverts were yellow with patches of rich reddish brown in the latter area."

Magee (1924) lists a number of females and young males showing some yellow or red in the plumage.

Some patches of yellowish or olive color, particularly on adult males, are evidently a result of feather replacement at a time when the bird's diet cannot provide the red pigment (C. H. Blake).

Food.--Ora W. Knight (1908) sums up the food of this finch very well as follows: "As to the food of the Purple Finch, the species is primarily a seed eater during the winter and spring, eating all sorts of weed and grass seeds, also to a lesser extent a few buds of apple, maple and birch as well as other tree buds. In late spring they eat some insects, such as beetles, green caterpillars and small larvae of various sorts. In summer they are fruit eaters to quite an extent, partaking of strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, cherries, both wild and cultivated and many other fruits. They seem to relish the fruit of the dogwoods, elders and viburnums very much."

Alexander F. Skutch writes to me: "In Maryland on October 27, 1929, I watched a purple finch feeding on the dry 'cones' of the tulip poplar. One by one it pulled the winged scales from the cluster, and with one deft bite cut out the seed from the thicker end of each, then allowed the empty wing to flutter slowly to the ground."

Hervey Brackbill observed that, near Baltimore, Md., its food included berries of the Japanese honeysuckle, seeds of tulip tree, white ash, American elm, and Chinese elm, and buds of oaks and red maple.

Charles H. Blake of Lincoln, Mass., says that it "eats buds of Populus tremuloides, Prunus serotina, and Ulmus americana in early spring. In winter, feeds on fruits of Juniperus virginiana and Ilex verticillata."

Mrs. Amelia R. Laskey, of Nashville, Tenn., has seen purple finches feeding on the berries of a privet hedge and perched on a twig, nibbling at hackberries.

Purple finches are very fond of the seed balls of the sycamore and the sweet gum in the south, and farther north they feed on sumac berries and the buds of the balsam fir, in addition to the items mentioned above. Their well-known habit of feeding on the buds and blossoms of fruit trees is discussed under their economic status, below.

Economic Status.--When we see the purple finches flocking into our orchards in the spring and a shower of blossoms falling to the ground, we are apt to condemn them as detrimental to the interests of the orchardist. But here is what Edward H. Forbush (1913) has to say in its defense:

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 Purple Finch 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.

In further exoneration of the purple finch as a bud and blossom eater, M. J. Magee (1926a) published two photographs of one of his apple trees, one showing the tree in full blossom and the other showing it so heavily laden with apples that the branches had to be supported. Eleven bushels of apples were taken from that tree, better apples than ever and "hardly a wormy one in the lot. I doubt if their budding does any harm, certainly not to apples in any event." More purple finches were in his trees that year than ever before.

Another exonerator, Horace Groskin (1938), who raises seckel pears in Pennsylvania, writes: "I have found, during the past three years, that the pruning the birds give the tree is decidedly beneficial. In the fall of each year when the birds were present in the spring, I have noted a very marked improvement in the amount of fruit on the tree, and last year we not only had the largest number of pears on this tree we ever had before, but a great many of the pears were double the size of the normal seckel pear, and the flavor seemed to be decidedly improved. Let us be fair to the Purple Finch."

Behavior.--Purple finches are more or less gregarious at times, especially in winter; they are sociable and friendly at such times, except when feeding causes rivalry. Then they become selfish and belligerent. When several of them are eating at a feeding station they often seem quite hostile toward any new arrival, raising the feathers of the crown and rushing at him with wide-open bill. Occasional pecking may result, which seems to produce no great damage. The attacked one usually retreats somewhat and proceeds to feed only a few inches from his pursuer.

Hervey Brackbill says in his notes: "On one occasion a migrant in the female or immature plumage flew against the window at which my feeding tray is placed, in what appeared to be shadow-boxing. There were three such finches on the tray, the floor of which is above the window frame and runs within 6 inches of the pane. After all the birds had eaten for a while, the one nearest the window apparently noticed its reflection there. It stopped feeding and began moving back and forth along the very inside edge of the tray, with now one eye and now the other cocked toward the pane; sometimes it stood still for appreciable periods and stared. Once it rubbed one side of its head and then after a bit the other, against the edge of the shelf; the impression it gave was that of rubbing its eyes, as if to see whether the bird in the glass would then still be there. Then it resumed its movement back and forth along the edge of the tray, always looking at the window. Finally, perhaps 1 to 2 minutes after it had first caught sight of its reflection, it flew up and struck the window pane once and then flew away. The other birds went on eating."

Sun-bathing, common with robins and some other birds, is sometimes indulged in by purple finches. Mrs. Herman F. Straw (1919) describes it as follows:

One day I noticed one of the birds squatting on the shelf, tail and one wing spread out to the fullest extent, one leg stretched as far as possible to one side, its neck turned so far around that the head seemed upside down, mouth open, and feathers fluffed out all over the body. Such a strange position! I felt sure this Finch was dying, and feared I had given it something that had poisoned it. . . . Consequently I was much relieved when another Finch, flying to the shelf just at this time, pecked the first bird, instantly restoring him to life and flight. Since then I have often seen seven or eight birds at the same time, in as many ungainly and ludicrous positions, "sunning" themselves in the bright, hot sunshine.

Voice.--Aretas A. Saunders contributes the following thorough study of the beautiful song of this finch: "The song of the purple finch is loud, clear, highly musical, and pleasing. There are three distinct ways of singing, more or less separated by the seasons of the year. The warbling song of early spring is probably the best known of these. This song is used while the birds are in flocks, and there are often several birds in the flock singing at once, in a chorus. The territory or nesting song comes a little later, after the birds are separated into pairs. The least common song is the 'vireo song,' which comes very early in the spring, or rarely in late fall or other seasons.

"The warbling song, according to 21 records in my collection, consists of from 6 to 23 notes. The notes are very rapid, and connected, with no two in succession on the same pitch. Liquid consonant sounds are common between the notes and connecting them. There is great variation in the song. Each song by one individual is likely to be followed, after a short pause, by another that is quite different in its notes and the arrangement of them. If a bird ever repeats one of these warbling songs again, exactly as it was, I have been unable to detect it. The pitch varies, in my records, from C''' to C''''. Songs vary in length from 1 to 3 1/5 seconds, and average about seven notes to a second. It is heard chiefly from February to April, but I have some records, from the Adirondacks, dated in July, after the nesting was over.

"The territory song is heard commonly from late April till July, wherever there are breeding birds. It is quite different from the warble. A few groups of notes in it are warbled, but there is a series of rapid notes, all on the same pitch, near the beginning of the song, and a high-pitched, strongly accented note, usually near the end. The song does not vary in the individual, as does the warble, but is the same in all details when repeated. When it is sung the birds are not in flocks so that, ordinarily, only a single individual is heard at one time. The bird often sings the song over and over, several times in succession, without a pause, a habit that is also common to the entirely unrelated ruby-crowned kinglet. I have 18 records of this song. The pitch varies from E''' to D'''', and the length from 2 3/5 to 3 1/5 seconds. But when the song is repeated over and over, it is, of course, much longer than this. I once watched a bird singing this repeated song in flight, holding its wings up at an angle and floating in the air, somewhat after the manner of the flight song of a longspur.

"The 'vireo song' is the least common of the three, and is usually to be heard in early March, or in late October or November. This song is made up of phrases of two to five notes each, and these phrases are alternated, with short pauses between them, in much the same manner as red-eyed and yellow-throated vireos. The song is less variable than any of the vireos, however, generally consisting of three different phrases only. While usually a spring or fall song, I once heard it in July in the Adirondacks, and then the bird singing it was in the plumage of a female, though probably an immature male.

"I have one record, from such an immature male, of a song of primitive character--a mixture of warbles, trills, and series of rapidly repeated notes, lasting about 5 seconds and varying in pitch from A''' to D''''.

"The chief season of singing in this species lasts from late February or early March to July. There is occasional singing in October or early November.

"The call note of this bird is a short, sharp tip or tick. A young bird, out of the nest calling for food, used a two-note phrase that sounded like yo wee, the second note two and one-half tones higher than the first."

Francis H. Allen writes to me: "I have records of several unusual purple finch songs. Perhaps the strangest of them was heard in West Roxbury, Mass., May 9, 1939. It seemed to be a medley of goldfinch song-notes with a recurrent imitation of the towhee's call, usually followed by a high-pitched trill suggesting the trill of the towhee's song but very rapid and beady in quality, and with a long, high-pitched, even note that suggested the cowbird."

Field marks.--The adult male purple finch is easily recognized by its color; no other sparrowlike bird of that size is similarly colored in rosy crimson. The female is marked more like a sparrow, but its markings are more like stripes, its bill is much heavier, and its tail is sharply emarginate. The immature male resembles the female. [EDITOR'S NOTE: See House Finch Field marks.]

Enemies.--Man is, or rather was, one of the worst enemies of this fine bird; in my boyhood days, it was easy to trap all the purple finches in the neighborhood in cagetraps baited with a singing male; in those days, there was considerable traffic in trapped cagebirds, and these "linnets" made most attractive ones; but, happily, this traffic has now been stopped, in this country at least.

Evidently, the purple finch is not very often imposed upon by the cowbird. Friedmann (1929) says: "This species is occasionally imposed upon by the Cowbird, there being several cases on record. . . .

"As many as four eggs of the Cowbird have been found in a single nest of this bird together with seven of the owner."

Considerable has been published on the longevity of purple finches, based on the records of birdbanders. While the lifespan of the species apparently does not average more than 3 or 4 years, many individuals have managed to escape their enemies for 6 or 7 years, and a few have lived to be 8 or even 10 years old.

Fall.--The fall migrations of purple finches are somewhat erratic and irregular, varying in direction and extent. M. J. Magee (1924) writes from Michigan: "In the fall there is a tendency for the sexes to flock separately. Several times late in the fall flocks of from twenty to thirty, all crimson males, have dropped in for from a few hours to a day or two and then moved on. The following is from my 1922 notes: 'Have not had a crimson male at house from Aug. 23 to Oct. 4,' and my banding records show that after Aug. 7 I banded no crimson males although I trapped and banded 111 birds."

The migration route is usually from north to south, but Frederick C. Lincoln (1939) says that "banding studies have demonstrated that in addition to the normal north-and-south journeys there is also an east-and-west movement, since birds banded in Michigan have been subsequently recaptured at banding stations in New England."

Winter.--Most of us in New England have recently come to regard the purple finch as mainly a winter visitor since it has ceased to be a common summer resident here. We cannot always count on seeing it, as its visits are somewhat uncertain, being abundant some winters and scarce or entirely absent in others. When it does come, we welcome the little bands of rosy-colored males and striped females that flock to our feeding shelves, quarreling among themselves for the sunflower seeds and other food.

On rare occasions they have come in such large numbers as to be referred to as invasions. Such a visitation is described by Richard Lee Weaver (1940) as follows:

In the winter and spring of 1939, January to May, an unusual invasion of Purple Finches (Carpodacus purpureus) occurred throughout the northeastern United States and the Maritime Provinces. . . . Hundreds, and in many places thousands, of the birds congregated and fed on weed seeds and buds, or on grain supplied at many feeding stations. Sunflower seed was preferred to most other foods, and thousands of pounds of it were consumed. In one small town, over one thousand pounds of the seed were sold in one week during the invasion.

In the seven years prior to 1939, an average of 4,700 Purple Finches were banded throughout the country. In 1939 there were 21,592 birds banded. . . . Each of six or seven banders was responsible for banding over one thousand of the birds. Several people banded almost two thousand.

During their stay with us in New England, they are sometimes seen roving over the open country with flocks of siskins or goldfinches, feeding on weed seeds, wild fruits, buds, catkins, and such seeds as remain on the trees. But, where they are encouraged to do so, they congregate about our houses and  grounds, where they can find food. They are hardy birds and can live through severe winter weather if well fed.

Forbush (1929) says: "They bathe in brooks with the temperature below freezing point and some have been known to sing in the clearing weather directly after a blizzard. Nevertheless a few are overcome by starvation and cold, as occasionally one has been picked up from the snow helpless or dead. . . . Purple Finches spend winter nights in dense evergreen trees or thickets, or even in some open buildings or under the shelter of a cupola roof."

They wander as far south in winter as Louisiana and northern Florida. Arthur T. Wayne (1910) says that, in South Carolina, they "inhabit only forests which are of a deciduous growth and feed upon the seed of the sweet gum (Liquidamber styraciflua), and sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) during November, December, and a portion of January. The birds evidently migrate to points to the southward of South Carolina during midwinter for few are to be seen until the ash (sp?) and red maple (Acer rubrum) begin to flower about the middle of February, when there is a distinct migration."

 


Purple Finch*
Carpodacus purpureus [Eastern Purple Finch]

*(Original Source: Bent, Arthur Cleveland and collaborators (compiled and edited by Oliver L. Austin, Jr.). 1968. Smithsonian Institution United States National Museum Bulletin 237 (Part 1): 264-278. United States Government Printing Office)

 


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