The house finch

The accidental resident
Sherri Thompson The house finch
Rate this item
(0 votes)

It’s no surprise that a city defined by former immigrant neighborhoods would be the gateway for yet another group of newcomers forced to gain a foothold in unfamiliar terrain. Such is the case with Carpodacus mexicanus — the house finch — which was often called the California linnet and the Hollywood finch before it was smuggled to the eastern United States.

Now this western bird has proved to be at home in the more tempestuous east, warbling wherever it finds food and hospitable terrain. But it wasn’t that way until California bird dealers illegally trapped and shipped tens of thousands of house finches to nearly every eastern state, $35 per hundred. Wild and ill suited for cages, most died in captivity. In 1940, however, some two dozen were discovered by an incensed birdwatcher in Brooklyn, N.Y., who alerted the National Audubon Society. In turn, state and federal agencies were notified and nervous pet shop owners disposed of the feathered evidence by opening their cages.

These exotic escapees made a go of it, and the first recorded wild nesting produced four birds in May 1943 on Long Island. From there, house finches radiated outward, up and down the eastern seaboard and inland far enough to link up with their conspecific western brethren. House finches now are found year-​round in western Pennsylvania, breeding each summer in surprising nooks, such as a lantern fixture, where I once found them in Fox Chapel.

This species brings a small splash of color and life to bird feeders and yards. Similar to our native purple finch, the male house finch has a red head, chest and back, and a brown– and buff-​streaked belly and tail. The female is a bland, streaky gray and buff. In the grass– and twig-​built nest I watched one early June, four eggs had been laid, each a pale blue gray with a few brown spots or streaks. They hatched soon enough, after some 14 days of incubation. Then it was all about tending the young. Any activity at the nest roused the scrawny necks and gaping yellow-​red maws of vulnerable babies whose skin was so transparent I could see the food go down. The superfine down of their first few days gave way to pin feathers that took about two weeks to erupt into real plumage. And off the fledglings went, out into the world.

What is the next Hollywood finch? In Miami’s warm clime and the far less tropical locales of San Francisco, Chicago and New York City, for example, escaped or released birds such as monk parakeets have established local breeding populations, much as house finches did previously. Flip through the last few pages of a Peterson’s Field Guide. There you’ll find an increasingly longer list of “Exotics: Introduced Birds and Escapes.” Ornithologists, birders, pet shop owners, farmers, politicians, even power company executives debate the impacts of such displaced species even as 100,000 wild birds continue to be annually imported into the United States — a number that’s down almost tenfold since the passage of the Wild Bird Conservation Act of 1992.


David Liebmann

David Liebmann is an educator who has birded throughout the country.

Explore Related Stories:

Other stories in this category: « The wood duck Wintering in Pittsburgh »
Welcome to Pittsburgh Quarterly
Win a two-night stay at Hotel Monaco

To enter to win a two-​night stay at Hotel Monaco plus dinner for two at The Commoner, sign up by June 20 for our great (and free) newsletter.

We’ll keep you updated with web-​only stories and art plus exclusive news and updates. Get more between the issues! Fill out the form below, and be sure to check your email for a link to confirm your subscription.

Kimpton Hotel Monaco Pittsburgh is a fantastic revival of the beautiful James H. Reed building, originally erected in 1903. The classic building in Downtown Pittsburgh serves as a captivating destination for both leisure and business travelers journeying to the Steel City. The stunning Beaux Arts-​style of the building is perfectly matched with the locally inspired interior of the hotel, which is both vibrant and whimsical. The Commoner, adjacent to Kimpton Hotel Monaco Pittsburgh, is an 120-​seat gastropub serving breakfast, lunch, brunch and dinner, helmed by executive chef Wyatt Lash. The restaurant’s menu showcases approachable, seasonal favorites, an expansive beer program and cocktails that lean toward the classics with an original twist.

Entry is open to anyone in the United States 18 years or older. Blackout dates may apply.

View past newsletters here.

Win a two-​night stay at Hotel Monaco plus dinner for two at The Commoner!

To enter, sign up below for our great (and free) newsletter by June 20. We’ll keep you updated with web-​only stories and art plus exclusive news and updates. Get more between the issues!

Already signed up? Please click the “Don’t Show This Again” button below

First Name(*)
Please let us know your name.

Last Name(*)
Invalid Input

Your Email(*)
Please let us know your email address.

Please check the box for security purposes.
Invalid Input

Don't have an account yet? Register Now!

Sign in to your account.