It’s like closing time in a singles bar. Purple finches are in full courtship atop the oaks in my yard. They pause only long enough to empty my bird feeder and then resume their amorous advances. Impassioned finches are profoundly vocal, and they’ve been warbling arias for several weeks. Whenever I look up, I see males waggling their wings at females. I suppose that works. And it’s cheaper than jewelry.
Since the wooing has been nonstop, I’ve had little choice but to watch the birds and the bees. I started observing things I hadn’t noticed before. For instance, there can be several males and females in the same tree, all courting. Males of most other species would be angrily protecting a territory, driving off rivals. Not finches.
Finches are among the most gregarious birds in the world. Males try to outperform their rivals, not outmuscle them. American goldfinches are among the last species to nest in Maine, and their courtship has not yet begun. But they, too, are singing up a storm and cleaning out my feeders.
I’ve had a lot of time to watch these finch interactions, and as anyone who has watched the behavior of chickens can tell you, finches sort out their relationships into a kind of pecking order. When there are more finches than feeding slots, the aggressive birds win, and it matters not if they are male or female. In fact, the females usually win.
These squabbles over feeder space are well choreographed. Finches lean toward their rivals, pointing the sharp end of their bills at the encroacher. If that doesn’t work, they may stand more erect and continue to wave bills, then lean forward again, opening their mouths menacingly. If none of these displays work, an actual pecking may occur.
It’s a different story up in the treetops. Males sing, and when a female shows interest, a male will hop up to her. He’ll puff out his chest, drop his wings slightly, and wiggle them in the same way fledglings beg for food. He may extend a gift, perhaps something that might be useful in nest building. There may be several of these rituals going on throughout the boughs.
Roger Tory Peterson described purple finches as looking like sparrows dipped in raspberry juice. I object to calling them purple. Magenta maybe. They have heavy bills, good for cracking seeds. They are home in the northern forest, happiest in coniferous areas but content in mixed woodlands. They tend to stay in the tree tops but will forage in weedy brush later in the year and often pick up gravel along dirt roads in the morning.
The purple finch is the official state bird of New Hampshire. I’m assuming all the better birds were taken.
Besides purple finches, Maine is also home to house finches. Birders need to take care to discern the difference between the two similar species. Male house finches are a red-orange color, through the head and chest only. They are otherwise brown. Females of both species are brown and streaky, though female purple finches have heavier streaking and a prominent mustache.
Purple finches are more comfortable in forested areas. House finches prefer urban and suburban neighborhoods. Both come to bird feeders, and it is possible for the two species to overlap. Mostly, they don’t. The two finches sing similar songs — warbling and long-winded. The purple finch song is a bit sweeter and more melodic. The house finch song is a trifle more nasal, often with a “zhreee” in the middle. Between song and habitat preference, the two species are easier to separate than they might otherwise be if one relied on field marks alone.
House finches were originally birds of Mexico and the southwestern U.S. They were introduced to the eastern United States about 60 years ago, when they were illegally sold as cage birds. Some escaped or were released. Colonies became established. They rapidly widened their range and are now well established over most of the country as year-round residents.
Purple finches breed in northern coniferous regions but often wander far south in winter in search of food. House finches win most competitions, and the population of purple finches has been reduced by half over the last 50 years. However, judging by the treetop romance going on above my house, lots of babies will be made this year. I’ve been watching passionate finches for a few hours now, and if you’ll excuse me I need to go take a cold shower.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.