A Confusion of Migrants

Spring migration hits its peak in the southern piedmont around May first. One of the highlights for many feeder watchers is the appearance of the male rose-breasted grosbeaks at sunflower feeders. They are spectacular birds, and those folks lucky enough to have one drop in for a snack will anticipate their return each year going forward.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak Female
 Photo by Lee Weber

Of course there is a female of the species too. They typically show up a few days later than the males and when the do, they will often join the males at a feeder. Most hosts can figure out the drabber, brownish-streaked females but this year there is another migrant that could cause some real confusion for casual feeder watchers.. 

Purple Finch Female
 Photo by Lee Weber

Female and immature male purple finches look remarkably similar to the female grosbeaks. We don’t deal with purple finches every year but they were especially plentiful this winter. They typically have moved out by May, but In plentiful years there are stragglers that can show up at feeders into early May. Study the accompanying photos or consult a field guide to see how similar they are to each other. Note the heavily streaked breast on the purple finch compared to the fine streaking on the grosbeak. The grosbeak also will typically show a white wing bar. There is some variation in these characters among the two species so a close and detailed look is often needed.

Purple Finch Male
 Photo by John Ennis


House Finch Male
 Photo by Phil Fowler

And while I’m on the subject of purple finches…they are not with us all year round, only during the late fall through early spring. They nest well north of us, no known records of nesting even from our mountains. I often hear feeder watchers talking about their purple finches in mid-summer but what they are really seeing are male house finches. The male house and purple finches are confusingly similar but we only need to worry about the ID during the winter when both might be at the feeders. Study the accompanying photos of the two males, or consult a field guide.  Note the male house finch is brown on the back, the male purple is reddish-brown. The house finch also has brown streaking on the belly which is lacking in the purple. Finally, the purple finch is a purplish red; the house is more of a rose red.