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February brings colorful finches to feeders

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By Sylvia Brockner

February looms ahead, the last really winter month with little to offer except more sunshine and Valentine’s Day. This is not to say that March will be spring for it is the month when we receive our greatest snowfall. Its only redeeming grace is that it has nice spring-like days between snow storms, robins begin to sing their evening song, the days are longer and there is a definite feeling that spring is coming, even though we may be clobbered with two feet of snow the next day.

There is little activity at the feeders in my yard at this time. There has been no big invasion of winter finches so far this year. These exotic wanderers, which often make winter birding exciting, have apparently found plenty to eat in their Canadian forests this year and have not had to wander south in search of food.

Elk and mule deer cross our yard on a regular basis. With the rather open winter so far, they also have been able to find plenty of food and appear to be in good shape. Now if they can endure the fickle March weather with it frequent deep snow, April will bring the first few green shoots to tempt their palates.

I received a phone call last week from a reader of this column asking me to write about the identification of winter finches again, especially the differences between house and Cassin’s finches. This is the time of year to learn about these two finches.

The house finches are already getting their bright strawberry red breeding plumage. You can hardly miss them at your feeders or in your neighborhood if you go out for a walk. They were the original native finches of the West, including the Denver area. Dr. Bergtold found them, previous to the house sparrow, the most common nesting bird in almost every backyard in Denver (1914). However, they were not common on the plains until man arrived with his backyard shrubs and trees. The house finch will nest almost anywhere: in other birds’ old nests, on porch lights, and door wreaths, in any cavity large enough to hold the nest, in trees and shrubs, and almost any place available.

These birds were commonly known as linnets in California and as Hollywood finches in the East where they were sold as caged birds. Their bright strawberry red spring plumage and their rich warbling song made them very popular as caged birds. After the Migratory Bird Treaty was passed, it was no longer legal to sell these native birds, and some that were already in pet stores on Long Island were released in fear of prosecution. Needless to say, these Hollywood finches with their friendly ways, tolerance to mankind and his ways, and a preference for open backyard habitat soon became common in the East and spread westward until they met their native counterparts in the West. They probably would have eventually spread across the country on their own, but obviously the eastern release sped up this change of range.

Male house finches become washed with bright strawberry red, that is red with a lot of orange in it, a true vermillion, when in breeding plumage. This is starting now and is usually in the spring. The coloring is most prominent on the head and includes the upper breast. House finches can mate almost any month of the year and seem to stay mated all year as they usually come to the feeder in pairs. The red coloring is most prominent on the breast and head, covering the entire head, down the neck and sometimes even on to the back.

Cassin’s finches were very common late winter birds (February and March) during our early years here. During the early 1980s, these birds suddenly crashed and are only recently beginning to return in small numbers. They are the native western species that is very similar to the eastern purple finch. Both of these birds are primarily brown with the males turning red in breeding plumage, but the Cassin’s finch is a much different color than the house finch. Cassin’s finch males are the color of red raspberry juice, a deep, rich, purplish red on their head, through and shading to a soft pale pink on their flanks or sides.

The females are brown-streaked birds also, but they have a bigger, longer, thicker bill than sparrows or house finches. Female Cassin’s finches also have a yellowish wash over their heads, especially on their cheeks during mating season, that is often quite noticeable. Male Cassin’s finches often do not acquire their red plumage until they are 2 years old, but they may mate successfully when only 1 year old. Therefore, people often think they are seeing two females mating.

Male Cassin’s finches also do not have red on the back of their head. They have a rectangular patch of bright red on the top of their head, which is squared off abruptly and does not shade down the back of the head. When alarmed, they can raise these red feathers like a small crest.

The eastern purple finches have a red wash over their entire head, which often spreads onto the breast and back. Cassin’s finches also have a central streak on their under-tail covert feathers, while purple finches are pure white. These three red winter finches are relatively easy to tell apart even though they are much alike. The trick is to learn the house finch now, while they are the only ones around. Then when the other species show up, they can be noticeably different.