Purple Finches aren’t purple, and House Finches don’t stick to houses. But that’s only the start of the confusion around these two doppelgangers. A red and brown bird at your feeder might be either one throughout much of the United States. So how can we tell them apart?
First, consult a map. House Finches are common and widespread across most of North America, including Hawaii. Meanwhile, Purple Finches nest in Canada, along the Pacific, and in the Northeast. In winter they migrate as far south as Florida, but they don't typically visit the Interior West at any time of year.
Even experts get flummoxed by finches, but don’t despair. With a little practice, you can learn the clearest field marks for each of these species. Click or tap on the dots on the photos and let them guide you.
A few more notes: Color is helpful, but it varies among individuals, so use caution. Females and young males of both species are simply brown and white, and can be especially tricky. Female Purple Finches have a well-defined white mark above each eye and are more crisply patterned. As always, structure and behavior are also useful.
Gradually, it will become easier to identify these finches—but don’t get overconfident. Separating them requires care; you need to depend on multiple characteristics to confirm each ID.
One last caveat: In the Interior West, the Cassin’s Finch—a third look-alike—is also thrown into the mix. It generally doesn't overlap with the Purple Finch, which is fortunate because the two are remarkably similar. (Cassin’s has a longer, straighter beak and a noticeable eye ring.) But there are a few places where it's possible to see any of the three red finches! Among high-elevation conifer forests in western Montana to northwestern New Mexico and Nevada, Cassin’s is the most likely of the trio.
The good news is that all three of these finches love sunflower seeds. Even on the coldest days, they will stick around, brightening up the yard with animated flashes of color. So as long as you have a feeder, you'll have plenty of opportunities to study up.