The House Finch

Thanks to an undercover Audubon sting, this bird is more of a backyard staple than a celebrity.

The House Finch: A Hollywood Fugitive

I would have loved to be in the same room when the Hollywood Finch was born.

No one knows exactly how it happened, but I imagine it went like this:

We’re in the office of a marketing company in Los Angeles in the early 1900s. There’s a slick-looking PR guy with his feet up on his desk, smoking a cigar. In front of him is a pet store owner at the end of his rope: He’s going to go out of business unless he can figure out a way to sell more birds. In a cage on the desk is a lovely, red male House Finch. The PR guy chomps on his cigar as he squints at the bird.

“Not selling enough of these House Finches, eh?” he says. “Hmm, House Finch. I got it! Ya need a fanicer name! Sex sells, baby, and ‘House Finch’ is about as sexy as white bread! A flashy bird like this deserves betetr! From now on, these aren’t House Finches. They’re . . . they’re . . . ” He smiles wide; the California sunlight glints off his gold tooth. “They’re Hollywood Finches, baby!”

The rest is history. Real, well-documented, fascinating history. 

In April 1941, birders were excited to find a single House Finch at Jones Beach, Long Island, New York. Previously unknown east of the Mississippi, the species is native to Mexico, the Southwest, and the Pacific Coast. That first bird disappeared after a few days, but the following March, birder John Elliott found a flock of seven House Finches a few miles away in Babylon, Long Island. These birds stuck around. By the following year the finches were actually nesting in Babylon, and by 1944 a couple of small colonies were found in other locations nearby. In 1947, Elliott wrote an article in a local Linnaean newsletter, summarizing the presence of the finches and speculating about how they may have arrived. He got a response from a Dr. Edward Fleisher who, back in 1940, had visited a Brooklyn pet store that was selling 20 House Finches as Hollywood Finches. Fleisher knew that the trapping of the species was illegal under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and sought help from (who else) the National Audubon Society.

Once Audubon got involved, a whole secret ring of House Finch shipments from California to pet stores on the East Coast was discovered. Undercover Audubon operatives arranged fake transactions of birds—$35 for a lot of 100—to catch criminals in the act. It was eventually determined that about 100,000 House Finches had been captured in California and shipped east. Males made up more than 90 percent of that quarry.

Once word got out that the feds were about to crack down on the sale of “Hollywood Finches,” the shops had to get rid of their illegal stock. The easiest way to do that was to just let them fly out the door. Thus, a whole bunch of House Finches are released in New York City in 1940. They eventually settled in Long Island and the surrounding countryside, confounding local birders.  

What happened next is even more remarkable. Plenty of birds escape pet stores and colonize new areas (Monk Parakeets are an example), but few have thrived and expanded the way House Finches have. Within 20 years of their release in New York City, House Finches were already in Boston and Philadelphia; 20 years after that, they were breeding from Maine to Georgia. Today they’re one of our most widespread birds, and are found throughout the lower 48 states and Hawaii.

The bird’s adaptability may be the key to its rapid spread. House Finches can cohabitate with humans, eating readily from feeders, nesting in man-made nooks and crannies, and so on. Yet somehow they manage to avoid the scorn aimed toward species with similar backstories, like the European Starling and the House Sparrow. Maybe it’s because House Finches get more attractive as they shovel down more food. Maybe it’s because they’re easily confused with Purple Finches, which are also chill. Or maybe it’s just that people like having a little Hollywood in their lives.

(Read the entire riveting story of the House Finch and its escape here.)