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.