About 10,000 different bird species populate the world, so it’s not surprising that several species look remarkably similar. Two of these species that look nearly identical are the House Finch and Purple Finch. I admittedly have a very difficult time telling the two apart, so I’m hoping this guide will not only give you clarification but also myself. Here are a few things you should know when trying to figure out which is which.
Location and time
When you see a finch at your feeder that has a reddish hue, the first thing that could help you is the location and the time of year. House Finches spend the entire year throughout the United States, except for parts of very northern United States and a strip right down the middle that includes places like the Dakotas, Nebraska and West Texas. So if you’re in those areas, chances are you’re seeing a Purple Finch.
If you’re in California or the East, it’s important to look at the time of year you spot the bird. If you see a bird in West Virginia during the winter, it could be either. But if it’s during the summer, it’ll likely be a House Finch, since Purple Finches will be up in Canada. Take a look at the charts below from Cornell’s All About Birds. If the location and time of year can’t help you, continue on.
The two species are roughly the same size, but they have slightly different body shapes. House Finches tend to have more slender bodies with proportionate heads. Purple Finches are stockier with larger heads. Depending on the posture of the bird, its body can take different shapes, so you want to make sure to observe the bird in various stances to determine the true shape of the body.
At first glance, both of these birds seem to have similar bills, but there are slight differences. A House Finch’s bill is shorter and the top is more drastically curved downward. The Purple Finch has a conical bill that doesn’t curve downward as much.
For males, you’ll often notice that both finches have reddish coloration, but there are differences if you pay close attention. First, the colors are markedly different when compared side-by-side. The House Finch’s color is a more vivid red and orange. The Purple Finch’s color is a deeper red and (you guessed it) purple. Both feature the color most prominently on their forehead and chest, but the House Finch has a “headband” of color with a brown crown. This means the top of their head is brown, as opposed to Purple Finches, which have color on the top of the head.
Purple Finches also have a faint white brow. House Finches have brown cheeks. Here’s one of my favorite descriptions of a Purple Finch from Cornell: “This species looks as if someone took a streaky, brown-and-white bird and dipped it in raspberry jam.”
Another way to tell them apart is their tail. The House Finch has a longer tail while the tail on a Purple Finch is shorter.
The plumage color section really helps with males, but females are deciphered from their markings. In Purple Finches, the faint white brow noticeable in males is a prominent white brow in females. Female House Finches, on the other hand, have a consistently plain head. The underbelly of female House Finches is a dull white with streaks that fade into the belly more. Female Purple Finches have sharper streak on the underbelly that contrast more with a whiter chest.
Female finches photographed by Kelly Colgan Azar
It’ll take some practice and the key to telling the difference is to give some time before making your judgments. See the bird from a few different angles, so you’re not tricked into thinking its one species when it’s really the other.