What Is This Red Sparrow at my Backyard Feeder?

Twenty-five years ago, many people living in Ontario and nearby provinces and states had grown accustomed to seeing a red or pink “sparrow” at their feeder. The birds cheerful singing brightened up many of my morning walks. Then they were almost wiped out by a disease and these little Western birds became rare again in my part of the East. Recently, though, they seem to be making a come back so you may see a rosy House Finch at your feeder or in your trees, too.

Photo of House Finch Male Red Leaves on NaturalCrooksDotCom

What Sparrow-sized Finch Has a Red Head, Red Cheek, Bright Red Chest, Brown Side Streaks and Red Spot Above the Tail?

Male House Finches are vivid and in some lights can even look as red as a male Cardinal. The strong dark streaks on their lower front and sides are an important identity clue. They have a sturdy, perhaps even over-sized looking bill. And they sing well.

Photo of House Finch Female Branch on NaturalCrooksDotCom

Female House Finches are much less colourful. Their bill and their generous streaking on the front help to identify them. Fortunately, they also are usually hanging out with one or more males to help clarify the id.

Isn’t This a Purple Finch?

Older field guides to Eastern birds may not mention House Finches. They originally were a Western bird but their range has shifted and they are now found throughout North America. According the AllAboutBirds website the eastern birds are descendents of ones released in New York state.

Previously, the only common red finch in eastern Ontario was the Purple Finch. Purple Finches, which are more red than violet, don’t have the generous dark streaks on the front and sides. They are also red on the nape of the neck and down the back onto the tops of the wings. Purple Finches also tend to nest a bit further north than southern Ontario. During migration, though, it’s possible to see a Purple Finch moving through Mississauga or Toronto.

Photo of House Finch Male Singing on NaturalCrooksDotCom
If I ever find an easy way to record sounds well, you’ll be able to hear as well as “see” finches like these singing.

What Decimated the House Finch Population?

A disease called mycoplasmal conjunctivitis swept through the House Finch population, starting in the east, with a noticeable impact starting in 1994. This disease causes red puffy eyes but it also causes respiratory difficulties according to the Cornell website. The disease affected the eyes so badly that many of the infected birds died of hunger or predation.  At the time, bird watchers were told it would be good to disinfect feeders regularly as the disease could be spread to the next bird coming to eat.

There is a lot of information about the disease on this website.

Photo of House Finches Three Row on NaturalCrooksDotCom
House Finches are social as you can see. This added to the rapid spread of the disease.

Apparently, the disease has now swept through the population and although it is still a problem the birds numbers have recovered.

Certainly I have seen quite a few House Finches in the past three years. We have a pair that raises a family in a nest in our back yard. And I’ve seen them in several of the local parks. On a frosty mid-October morning at Riverwood, I found 7 (3 males and 4 females) sunning themselves in an old spruce tree. I hope to see some of them this winter at the feeders there: their red plumage adds a cheerful note.

Photo of House Finch Female Sneer on NaturalCrooksDotCom
Something about the shape of their bills and the set of their eyes makes some House Finches look like they are sneering.

Related Reading

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6 thoughts on “What Is This Red Sparrow at my Backyard Feeder?

  1. I live in Ardmore Alabama, we have a pair of the Red sparrow -finch in our yard11 I have never seen one before!! They are beautiful!!!

  2. I just had a male and female at our feeder! Thanks for sharing the information on these house finches! I’m in Merrifield, Minnesota for tracking. I hope they will hang around, they are pretty.

  3. I live in Central NY and this is the first year I’ve seen what I thought was a Red Sparrow at my feeder. Beautiful

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