Birding on Bloedel: Listen up for this songbird’s season

“A Year of Birding in Bloedel” is a column that runs every Friday in the Bainbridge Islander. The project is planned to continue in 52 parts through 2014 to help readers find and identify birds in the island’s garden sanctuary. Beginning with this entry on the bald eagle, each column will also be published  here on the Bainbridge Conversation blog each Friday. 

The author, Ted Anderson, is a retired professor of biology, having taught at McKendree University (Ill.) for 32 years and for the University of Michigan’s summer biological station for 20 years, where he frequently taught the biology of birds.

Anderson is also the author of “Biology of the Ubiquitous House Sparrow, from Genes to Populations” (2006), and “The Life of David Lack, Father of Evolutionary Ecology” (2013). Ted and his wife Carol have been members of Bloedel Reserve for seven years. They live in Kingston. 

The purple finch is a year-old Northwest resident.
The purple finch is a year-old Northwest resident.

In the Pacific Northwest we are fortunate that the Purple Finch (Haemorhous purpureus) is a year-round resident, while in much of the rest of the lower 48 it only occurs as a winter resident, migrating to the coniferous forests of Canada for the summer breeding season.

Like many other bird species, the sparrow-sized Purple Finch shows a striking color dimorphism, the males being predominantly raspberry red, while the females have a subdued brownish back and light underparts. Like the male, the female has a short, deeply forked tail, which helps to distinguish it from similarly plumaged sparrows.

Male Purple Finches begin singing in Bloedel in mid-March. Birdsong is generally understood to be a form of advertisement indicating that the male is establishing and defending a breeding territory. The signal is directed to both females and males of the same species. It acts as an attractant to females searching for mates and a nesting site, and as a deterrent to other males by notifying them that the singing male is prepared to defend his territory against interlopers.

The song of the Purple Finch is a melodious, warbling series of notes all on about the same pitch. In flight the birds emit a very characteristic “tick” call. When my wife and I visited Bloedel last week we heard singing Purple Finches in the forest adjacent to the parking area near the entrance and in the forest to the left of the path as we walked past the barns on our way to the bird marsh. Purple Finches typically build their nests near the ends of branches of an evergreen in mature conifer forests. The male’s singing perch is usually fairly high in a conifer, and he can be very difficult to spot.

During the winter Purple Finches frequently visit backyard bird feeders, particularly finch feeders containing niger or thistle seed. Here they are easily confused with their close cousin, the House Finch. The head and chest of male House Finches tend to be orange-red to true red rather than raspberry red, and the belly is heavily streaked while that of male Purple Finches is whitish with a few faint or no streaks. Females are very similar except that the female Purple Finch as a prominent white stripe over the eye that the female House Finch lacks. As their name implies, House Finches live in close association with humans, typically nesting in residential areas, city parks and on golf courses.


About Ethan Fowler

Ethan Fowler has more than 20 years of journalism experience with 19 years of daily and weekly newspaper experience covering news, features and sports, as well as being an editor for 14 of those years. He has won several writing awards over the years in Washington state, Virginia, Texas and Georgia, including award-winning investigative journalism. Fowler was paid by the Review & Herald Publishing Association in 2009 to co-author a book, "Brushed Back: The Story of Trevor Bullock," with his wife. The book details the real life of a top minor league pitcher in the Philadelphia Phillies organization and his Christian faith. "Brushed Back" has sold more than 2,000 copies since its release.