The Beautiful Bird from the West
Who Came to Stay

If you had lived in Woodstock, New York sixty years ago, you couldn't have had the pleasure of viewing the delightful house finch from your living room window. This charming little bird, then known as the California linnet, was native to Mexico, the western United States, and southwestern Canada.
In 1940, some unscrupulous people captured California linnets and shipped them to New York, to be sold illegally as cage birds, going by the name “Hollywood Finches.” When the bird dealers in New York thought they were about to be arrested, they released the linnets into the wilds of Long Island.
There, they barely clung to life for a number of years, then finally, established a breeding colony. The descendants of these birds now occupy most of the eastern seaboard and are extending their populations ever westward toward their original range!
A house finch is a vivacious little bird, about the size of an English sparrow. The male bird has bright red feathers on his forehead, breast and rump. The rest of his upper parts are brown. His sides are pinkish-white, and his abdomen is white with brown streaks. His tail, legs and feet are brown. It is said that the most brightly colored males survive the winter better and more easily attract mates. (The beautiful red color is derived from carotenoid pigments that are obtained from the food the bird eats in the wild. The pigments are added to the feathers as they develop. When the house finch is kept in captivity, his red plumage may fade to a straw yellow.)
The house finch hen is modestly attired in a sparrow-like garb of grayish-brown with darker brown markings above, and white with dusky brown streaks below.
House finches really enjoy living near people. They inhabit open woodlands and farms, but they are especially prevalent in cities and suburbs. They dine primarily on weed seeds, some occasional blossoms, buds and fruits, injurious insects such as plant lice, and, best of all, the seed offerings at bird feeders. They mingle there with chickadees, titmice, cardinals, nuthatches and goldfinches. They are bold and impetuous, but never aggressive like English sparrows!
It is such a delight to listen to the musical song of the house finch! It consists of a clear, sweet flow of warbling notes. This song is very similar to that of the house finch's close relative, our native purple finch. The purple finch, however, is much more shy, and not so apt to perform in the vicinity of a house.
In the spring, when it is time to choose a nest site, house finches may utilize a natural cavity low in a tree, a bush near a building, or even a vine on the side of a porch. The hen builds the nest herself. It is a shallow, well-made cup constructed of thin twigs, fine weed and grass stems, rootlets and leaves, and is lined with horse hair or feathers. Sometimes, instead of building a new nest, she may actually use a nest previously owned by other birds – even of other species!
The house finch hen lays four to six pale, greenish-blue eggs that are decorated with a few black speckles. As she incubates the eggs for about two weeks, the devoted male bird feeds her on the nest. The baby birds hatch out with bulging eyes closed and are helpless. Both parents then feed their down-covered young. The babies develop so rapidly that when they are ready to leave the nest in another two weeks, they are fully feathered in brown-streaked plumage and greatly resemble their mother. A pair of house finches may raise two or even three broods in a single season!
(At this time, some populations of house finches are being decimated by a contagious bacterial disease that causes partial blindness. The afflicted birds fly into obstacles and can't well elude predators such as cats. Unfortunately, the goldfinch is susceptible to this disease as well. Ornithologists at Cornell University advise the regular cleaning of bird feeders with a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water in order to kill these germs.)


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