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.
This will be 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!
You will be notified when new articles are shared! Register here!
If you want to learn about attracting finches to your backyard with a bird feeder, check out one of these articles:
Cassin's Finch and Purple Finch identification
In this article, I will focus on male finches; however, structural tips can also be helpful with female red finches. If you need help with House Finches compared to these two species, sign up above!
As an Amazon Associate, we earn from qualifying purchases.
Links may lead to affiliate sites.
Our favorite feeder for Purple and Cassin's Finches!
See our full list of favorite bird feeders!
When comparing a Cassin's Finch and a Purple Finch, I like to key in on a few distinct areas: head, flank, and back. Birders can quickly separate these two similar species using the field marks and the shape of these three areas. Let's explore using the photos provided.
Cassin's Finch field marks
Head: The head of the Cassin's Finch has a few noticeable differences from the Purple Finch. The crown and forecrown of the Cassin's Finch contrast greater from the nape. It makes the crown and forecrown of the Cassin's Finch appear redder than the Purple Finch, though this may be only due to the contrast. The throat of the Cassin's Finch has less saturation than most Purple Finches, though this can vary in individuals. The feathers bordering the upper and lower bill are often white or buffy on the male Cassin's Finch. In a Purple Finch, this feathering is typically more colored purple, yellow, or buffy, though white is possible. A final field mark easily seen on these two finches involves the feather around the eyes. This field mark, the eyering, contrasts with the face color by being white or buffy in the Cassin's Finch.
The bill of the Cassin's Finch is straighter, larger, longer, and more pointed than the Purple Finch. However, individual variation can confuse birders when relying solely upon the bill. Combine this trait with those mentioned in this species profile.
Many backyard birders may attempt to use the crest of the Cassin's Finch as an identification mark, but both species can raise or lower their crests. Do not rely solely upon this field mark. It may show more frequently in Cassin's Finches, but an obvious crest, or lack thereof, does not guarantee a Cassin's or Purple Finch.
Use sunflower seed to attract finches!
Flank: The flank to undertail coverts of the Cassin's Finch are far less colorful than a Purple Finch. The undertails of both male and female Cassin's Finches have dark markations that are not seen in male or female Purple Finches. These two features are useful in quickly separating the Cassin's and Purple Finches.
Back: The nape and back of the Cassin's Finch have more distinct markations and less color saturation than in adult male Purple Finches. This can vary, but the dark centers have more contrast, and the fringes of each feather are more orange-ish than red or purple.
Overall Appearance: The Cassin's Finch is a sharper-shaped, redder, and point-billed red-colored finch than the Purple Finch. The wing length and primary projection are greater than the Purple Finch's. However, this can be difficult for those without experience using the field mark.
Purple Finch field marks
Head: The head of the Purple Finch has a more round overall appearance, including the more round-ish bill. This appearance is not a guaranteed field mark and can vary based on individual and behavior. Some Cassin's Finches can also appear round-headed. The top of the bill often has more of a curve than the Cassin's Finch, and the bill is shorter and less pointed. Pay attention to the eyering of the Purple Finch, as it is rarely as light-colored as that found on the Cassin's Finch.
Upgrade your view of finches with the Nikon M5!
Flank: The flank and undertail of the Purple Finch lack the dark markations of the Cassin's Finch but offer significantly more purple coloration. Regardless of male or female, the undertail of the Purple Finch rarely has dark markings. 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 pink to purple coloration. The dark patterning of the feathers contrasts far less than seen in the Cassin's Finch.
Overall Appearance: The Purple Finch is a softer, more-rounded appearing, and shorter-billed finch. Its wing length and primary projection are lesser than the Cassin's Finch. Use this only if you have experience with it.
Female Cassin's Finch vs female Purple Finch
Using the image above, compare the shape and markations of the heads of the Cassin's and Purple Finch. The top of the bill in the Purple finch is taller and more curved than the female Cassin's Finch, though this can be difficult to determine in the field. The facial pattern of the female Purple Finch can be significantly more obvious, though this can differ from individual to individual. Even with females, birders can look for a more obvious eyering in the Cassin's Finch. The photo below does not display the difference well. Look to the second image comparing these two female finches.
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. Use the three arrows pointing to each bird to help find these three spots.
Help birds on their wintering grounds by only drinking Bird Friendly coffee!
The female Cassin's Finch bill is longer, straighter, pointy, and longer-appearing than the Purple Finch. Posture can affect how the bill appears to the eye, so combine bill appearance with the next tips. Take note of the eyerings in the following image. The Cassin's Finch contrasts more with its face than the Purple Finch.
The back pattern of the Purple Finch is often more blurred or displays less contrast than the pattern of the Cassin's Finch. It gives the Cassin's 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 Cassin's 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 Cassin's Finch. The Cassin's Finch undertail coverts have distinct markings that are lacking on the Purple Finch. The clean, white undertail of the Purple Finch shouts its identification as loud 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 Cassin's Finch appear longer than most Purple Finches. However, there can be exceptions. Use this with the other tips listed above.
Our favorite photo ID guide can help your skills!
Cassin's Finch Range and Habitat
The Cassin's Finch is found in the intermountain west. During winter and migration, it can wander further south and east into the desert southwest and Great Plains.
Cassin's Finch Habitat
Cassin's Finch are most often found in mature forests of lodgepole pine and ponderosa pine. Untouched mature forests and selectively logged forests with substantial mature trees can host dense populations of Cassin's Finch.
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 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.
We use Sony for photos of our backyard birds!
Attract Purple Finches and Cassin's Finches to your yard!
Purple and Cassin's 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 some finches prefer Nyjer seed, larger finches like the Cassin's and Purple prefer 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 Cassin's Finch Identification
Separating these two species can be tricky. Luckily for most backyard bird feeders, these two species are not frequently seen in the same areas. However, if you are fortunate enough to get both species in your area, I hope this guide is helpful to your birding adventures!
Want more tips on birds, feeding birds, identifying birds, wildlife safety, and more?? Join our site, subscribe to our Flocking YouTube, like us on Facebook, follow us on Instagram and Twitter, and visit our Amazon Storefront.