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House Finch vs Purple Finch | Learn to identify House and Purple Finches

These three red-colored finches can lead to misidentification at your backyard bird feeder if you do not know what to look for. I hope to change that.

Male Purple Finch vs Male House Finch vs Cassin's Finch
The Purple Finch, House Finch, and Cassin's Finch can be a challenging identification to those new to these finches visiting their bird feeders!

This is part of a series of articles addressing the identification of these three similar finches that frequent bird feeders. Sign up for our site if you want to learn to identify the Purple, House, and Cassin's Finches!


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If you want to learn about attracting finches to your backyard with a bird feeder, check out one of these articles:


House Finch and Purple Finch identification

In this article, I will focus on male House and Purple Finches; however, structural tips can also be helpful with female red finches. At the end of the article, guidance will be provided on the browner female finches.

 

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Our favorite feeder for House and Purple Finches!

woodlink going green platform bird feeder for large finches

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When comparing a House Finch and a Purple Finch, I like to key in on a few distinct areas: head, flank, breast, wing, and back. Birders can quickly separate these two similar species using the field marks of these main areas. Let's dig into these finch identifications!

House Finch vs Purple Finch
A House Finch can be easily identified vs a Purple Finch with some practice!

House Finch field marks

Head: The House Finch has a fairly plain head, outside of the red coloration that covers most of it. While most of the head is red, the area behind the eye (the auriculars) is grayish, far grayer than in a Purple Finch. The pattern of the House Finch is never as distinct as the Purple Finch, though Purple Finch males have less pattern as the darker barbs wear off from fall to spring.


The bill of the House Finch is stubby and far more roundish in appearance than the Purple Finch.

 

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a cassin's finch sits next to blackoil sunflower seed
 

Flank: The flank of the House Finch has dark streaking that extends from the breast onto the flanks and extends to the undertail coverts. Rarely is coloration found on the flank or undertail coverts as found in the Purple Finch. Red is rarely, if ever, found on the tail of the House Finch.


Wing: The wing of the House Finch has distinct white wingbars. This is quite the contrast from the male Purple Finch that has purple or reddish wingbars. This is a distinct and useful field mark. Remember it!


Breast: The breast of the House Finch does not have the extensive color of the Purple Finch. Instead, the brown streaks encroach into the breast coloration of the House Finch.


Back: The back of the House Finch, like most of its body, lacks the extensive color on the back when compared to the Purple Finch. The patterning is dark but not always distinct. Variation can be wild, so use this field mark combined with others.


Overall Appearance: The House Finch appears smaller, less covered in color, smaller-billed, grayer, and more streaked. Pay close attention to the head and wings.

House Finch head and Purple Finch head with identification help
Compare the head of the House Finch vs the Purple Finch.

Purple Finch field marks

Head: The head of the Purple Finch has a larger overall appearance, including the larger appearing bill. This appearance is not a guaranteed field mark and can vary based on individual and behavior. The top of the bill often has less of a curve than the House Finch, and the bill is longer and more pointed.

 

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Breast: The breast of the Purple Finch has far more coloration extending down to the lower breast than most House Finches. This color is also more of a purple or rosy color than the bright red of the House Finch.


Wing: Purple Finch males have purple wingbars. House Finch males have white wingbars. If you can see the wingbars, you can quickly identify one of these two finches from the other.


Flank: The flank and undertail of the Purple Finch lack the dark markations of the House Finch but offer significantly more purple coloration. Regardless of male or female, the undertail of the Purple Finch rarely has dark streaks. If you can see the undertail, it can be one of the most helpful identification clues.


Back: The back of the Purple Finch is heavily saturated with a pinkish-to-purple coloration. House Finch rarely exhibit any extensive coloration down their backs.


Overall Appearance: The Purple Finch is a larger, bulky, and more colorful finch than the House Finch. Its wing length and primary projection are greater than the House Finch. Use the wing length and primary projection only if you have experience with it.

A male Purple Finch vs a male House Finch.
The shapes of the Purple and House Finches can be separated by close study.


Female House Finch vs female Purple Finch

Using the image above and below, compare the shape and markations of the heads of the House and Purple Finch. The bill of the House Finch is smaller and more curved than the female Purple Finch. This is more easily distinguished in House and Purple Finches than in Purple vs Cassin's. The facial pattern of the female Purple Finch is significantly more obvious. Compare the two facial patterns and bills in the image below.

Female House Finch vs Female Purple Finch
A close view of a female House Finch and a female Purple Finch.

Comparing the females of these two finch species in profile can offer further identification clues. Use the image below to compare the bill size, back pattern, and undertail coverts from perched birds in the field. Use the three arrows pointing to each bird to help find these three spots.

 

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The female House Finch bill is smaller, more curved, less pointy, and stubbier than the Purple Finch.


The back pattern of the Purple Finch is often more distinct and contrasted than the back pattern of the House Finch. It gives the Purple Finch a more streaked back, though a bird with worn feathers may be difficult to notice the pattern of.


Perhaps my favorite field mark to look for on the Purple and House Finch involves a spot that can be quite difficult to see! Looking at the undertail coverts, you can see quite the difference between the Purple and House Finch. The House Finch undertail coverts have distinct streakings that are lacking on the Purple Finch. The clean, white undertail of the Purple Finch shouts its identification as loud as these birds can sing!


As mentioned above, one final identification clue that can be used for these two female finches involves the wings. Use it with caution if you are not familiar with it. The wings and primary projection of the Purple Finch appear longer than the House Finch. There can be exceptions, so use this with the other tips listed above.

Female Purple Finch vs female House Finch
Pay close attention to these three areas when looking at female Purple and House Finches. This House Finch female is likely an older female and shows some pinkish feathers.
 

Our favorite photo ID guide can help your skills!

Zach holding both Crossley Guides to Birds
 

House Finch Range and Habitat

The House Finch was originally found in the western United States and southwestern British Columbia. However, a small population was released into Long Island, NY, from a pet store in 1939. This population grew and grew, and now, the eastern populations can have their origins traced from this introduced population.

House Finch range map
The original range of the House Finch included western regions. The eastern populations came from caged birds that were released.

House Finch Habitat

House Finch habitat is unique. The eastern populations that were introduced in the mid-1900s depend almost exclusively on developed areas with bird feeders. In the west, where populations are native, House Finches are often found in desert, shrubland, and juniper forest.


Purple Finch Range and Habitat

There are two subspecies of Purple Finch recognized by most ornithologists. These two subspecies make up the two very different ranges. The Pacific Purple Finch is found from British Columbia to Baja California. The eastern Purple Finch is found in the easternmost of their range.

Purple Finch Range Map
Purple Finches have two distinct areas within their range: Pacific and eastern.

Purple Finch Habitat

The Purple Finch can be found in a variety of habitats. Its breeding habitat is primarily moist coniferous forest. However, it can also be found breeding in mixed forests. During the winter, its habitat can be coniferous, deciduous, and mixed coniferous-deciduous forests, urban and suburban areas, mixed shrub and conifer habitats, weedy fields, and hedgerows. Its winter habitat and range are most likely dictated by food availability.

 

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Attract Purple Finches and House Finches to your yard!

Purple and House Finches are frequent backyard visitors. Creating a backyard habitat is the best first step any bird-lover can take to attract Purple, Cassin's, and House Finches. A bird feeder can also offer a supplemental food source to attract these red finches. While House Finches enjoy Nyjer seed and sunflower seed, Purple Finches prefer mostly sunflower seed. Offering a permanent water source is also a great addition to any backyard bird operation. All birds need water, and it may attract more than just seed-eating birds!


Final Thoughts on Purple Finch and House Finch ID

Separating these two species can be tricky. Due to human intervention, these two share much of eastern AND western North America. Facial pattern, bill shape, undertail streaking, and wingbars are just a few of the tips we offered in this article. Learn to quickly separate these two feeder finches by following ALL the tips we provided here!


 

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