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Purple Finch

Haemorhous purpureus ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: FRINGILLIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Purple Finch Photo

The Purple Finch is the bird that Roger Tory Peterson famously described as a “sparrow dipped in raspberry juice.” For many of us, they’re irregular winter visitors to our feeders, although these chunky, big-beaked finches do breed in northern North America and the West Coast. Separating them from House Finches requires a careful look, but the reward is a delicately colored, cleaner version of that red finch. Look for them in forests, too, where you’re likely to hear their warbling song from the highest parts of the trees.

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At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Length
4.7–6.3 in
12–16 cm
Wingspan
8.7–10.2 in
22–26 cm
Weight
0.6–1.1 oz
18–32 g
Relative Size
About the same size as House Finch and House Sparrow
Other Names
  • Roselin pourpré (French)
  • Gorrión purpúreo (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • The Purple Finch uses its big beak and tongue to crush seeds and extract the nut. They do a similar trick to get at nectar without eating an entire flower, and also to get to a seed buried inside a fleshy fruit.
  • Purple Finches seem to be losing numbers in eastern North America as House Finches have moved in after being brought to New York City in the 1950s. One study of finch behavior found that Purple Finches lost out to House Finches more than 95% of the times the two birds encountered each other.
  • Into their rich warbling songs, Purple Finches sometimes add in the sounds of other species, including Barn Swallows, American Goldfinches, Eastern Towhees, and Brown-headed Cowbirds.
  • Birds that eat fruits are doing plants a favor by distributing their seeds later on. But finches eat the seeds themselves. Though they may not look the part, finches are predators. From a seed's point of view, these birds' hefty beaks mark the end of the line.
  • The oldest recorded Purple Finch lived to be 11 years 9 months old.

Habitat


Forest

In summer, Purple Finches are primarily birds of moist, cool evergreen forests. You’ll also find them in mixed forests, along wooded streams, and in tree-lined suburbs. In winter they’re more widespread, using forests, shrubby areas, weedy fields, hedgerows, and backyards.

Food


Seeds

Purple Finches eat mainly seeds of coniferous trees and elms, tulip poplars, maples, and others. They also eat soft buds, nectar (extracted by biting the bases off flowers), and many berries and fruit, including blackberries, honeysuckle, poison ivy, crabapples, juniper berries, cherries, and apricots. In winter you may see Purple Finches eating seeds of low plants like dandelions, ragweed, and cocklebur. They eat some insects, including aphids, caterpillars, grasshoppers, and beetles.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
2–7 eggs
Number of Broods
1-2 broods
Egg Length
0.7–0.9 in
1.8–2.3 cm
Egg Width
0.5–0.6 in
1.3–1.6 cm
Incubation Period
12–13 days
Nestling Period
13–16 days
Egg Description
Pale greenish blue marked with brown and black.
Condition at Hatching
Naked, eyes closed, helpless.
Nest Description

Nests take 3-8 days to build, with the female doing most or all of the work. She makes the base from twigs, sticks, and roots, then lines the cup with fine grasses and animal hair. The finished nest is about 7 inches wide and 4 inches tall.

Nest Placement

Tree

Look for Purple Finch nests far out on the limb of a coniferous tree or, particularly to the south of its breeding range, in deciduous trees such as oaks, maples, and cherries. Occasionally nests in shrubs or among vine tangles. Nests can be 2.5 feet up to 60 feet off the ground and are often built under an overhanging branch for shelter.

Purple Finch Nest Image 1
© René Corado / WFVZ

Purple Finch Nest Image 2
© René Corado / WFVZ

Behavior


Foliage Gleaner

Aggressive Purple Finches show their agitation by leaning toward their opponent, neck stretched out and bill pointed at the other bird. This can intensify to standing upright, opening the beak or pointing it downward at opponent, and sometimes results in actual pecking attacks. During disputes at food sources and in flocks, females usually win out over males. Courting males sing softly while hopping and fluffing feathers in front of the female, often holding a twig or grass stem in the beak. If things go well, the next step is a short flight about one foot straight up, followed by drooping the wings and pointing his beak to the sky. Mating may follow.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Purple Finch populations decreased by 1.4 percent per year between 1966 and 2010, resulting in a cumulative decline of 46 percent, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 6.4 million with 92 percent spending some part of the year in the U.S., 66 percent in Canada, and 1 percent in Mexico. The rate a 9 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List. Populations may suffer in some areas from competition with the recently arrived House Finch.

Credits

Range Map Help

Purple Finch Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

Short-distance migrant. Purple Finches are erratic migrants that follow cone crops. Typically they leave Canadian breeding grounds to winter widely across central and southeastern U.S, returning to specific regions roughly every other year. Birds that breed in northeastern U.S. and along the Pacific Coast may not migrate.

Backyard Tips

Purple Finches have large, seed-cracking beaks, and they seem to like black oil sunflower seeds best. A seed preference study determined that they choose thinner sunflower seeds over wider ones. Coniferous trees in your backyard may encourage Purple Finches to visit.

Find This Bird

Your backyard sunflower seed feeder is probably a great place to look for Purple Finches if you live within their winter range. This species moves very erratically from year to year, so if you don’t have them this year, there’s always a chance they’ll arrive next year.

Get Involved

Join Project FeederWatch and contribute your Purple Finch sightings this winter

The erratic movements of Purple Finches and other seed-eating birds present a scientific puzzle – one that requires lots of data all collected simultaneously over a huge area for us to begin to understand. One great way to help scientists get a handle on finch movements is to contribute your sightings to the Avian Knowledge Network by participating in eBird.

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