Photo of Male Purple Finch

Purple Finch or House Finch? ID Photographs and Clues

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Purple Finches and House Finches Visit the Feeder

The House Finch and Purple Finch species are very similar. It’s hard to observe the subtle differences between them without good photos. Even with good photos, the more I compare these look-a-likes, the more I just don’t know. The ID clues seemed elusive, depending on the season, depending on the location, the subspecies, the individual bird…. depending on the considerable color variation and the blurriness of their markings.

It was time to get serious about telling them apart.

First thing I had to do was to get good photographs of the male and female Purple Finches. I had a few photos of the male and female House Finches (positively identified by WhatBird.com). It wasn’t until late November that we had some visitors to our feeders that looked a little different. I was able to get a couple photos of them and, to my delight, Whatbird.com positively identified them as Purple Finches.

Purple Finches

Photo of Female Purple Finch
Female Purple Finch Calling Out to the Male —ISO 800; f/8; 1/1250 Second

Purple Finch ID Clues

A female (photo above) Purple Finch is a little easier to tell apart from a female House Finch. The face is very distinct with brown and white markings. Short, dark brown streaks decorate the female’s white breast.

A male Purple Finch (photo below) is clearly more raspberry colored than a male House Finch. Raspberry splash is evident on the nape, hind neck, back, chest and flanks. In addition, the males sport a subtle rose over brown color on the wings, and a not so subtle raspberry rump.

Additional Clues

  • Male and Female Purple Finches have bills that are shaped like a cone, with a straight upper mandible.
  • Male and female Purple Finches are larger and chunkier than House Finches.
  • The folded wings of the male and female Purple Finches are longer than House Finches and include a strong notch in the tail feathers.
Photo of Male Purple Finch
Male Purple Finch ISO 1600; f/5; 1/500 Second

House Finches

Photo of Male House Finch
Male House Finch
ISO 2000; f/8; 1/1250 Second

House Finch ID Clues

  • The Male House Finch (photo above) has a red or orange forehead, chin, upper throat & breast. The rump can be red or orange. The back and wings are brown. 
  • Females House Finches (photo below) have a plain gray/brown overall head. She has no strong facial markings. 
  • Male and female House Finches have bills with an upper mandible that curved downward  (curved culmen).  The bill appears more round than cone shaped.
  • Male and female House Finches have lots of long (front to back) blurry brown streaking on their chests and flanks.
  • Male and female House Finches are smaller and thinner than Purple Finches.
  • The folded wings of House Finches are shorter than Purple Finches, and their tails are longer with a slight notch.

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My Biggest Clue

I still think the differences are slight and subtle between these two closely related species. My biggest clue is that Purple Finches are irregular visitors….coming from the northern woodlands during migration. Since House Finches are much more common and widespread in the U.S., do not migrate, and are more likely to reside in Southwest MI year round, the odds are very good that I’m mostly observing House Finches.

Both species are beautiful, and bring much needed brightness and joy to an otherwise dreary southwest Michigan November.

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