This is the time of year when one looks at the bird feeder and sees a red, sparrow-sized bird with streaking on the chest. After thumbing through the field guide, you confidently land on the finch page and say, “That’s a house finch.”
But after studying for another minute, the conviction slips. “. . . or is it a purple finch?”
For me the most reliable identification is to see the female birds. Female purple finches have bold, white eye lines above and below the eye, sweeping back along the head. They have thicker bills and tidy streaking on the chest, called “clean chested.”
The female house finch lacks the facial stripes, has a thinner bill and her chest streaking is closer, called “dirty chested.”
The male purple finch is described as wine-colored, with red covering the back and wings. They are thicker bodied, with no fine streaking below the wings.
The male house finch is more of a reddish-orange, leaner bodied and with fine streaking on the chest and under the wings.
Purple finches are more deliberate eaters when at the feeders, not as easily flushed as the house finches.
Mike Havlik is a naturalist in the Dallas County Conservation Department.