Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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[Mystery bird] Purple Finch, Carpodacus purpureus, photographed at the Big Sioux Recreation Area near Brandon, South Dakota. [I will identify this bird for you in 48 hours]

Image: Terry Sohl, 4 November 2007 [larger view]. You are encouraged to purchase photographs from this photographer. I am happy to email his contact information to you.

Canon 20D, 400 5.6L.

Please name at least one field mark that supports your identification.

Review all mystery birds to date.


  1. #1 Duncraft
    February 9, 2010

    Going to say Purple Finch, although this isn’t a typical pose. The shape of the head doesn’t look right. However, the lack of streaks on the belly is what I based my guess on. That and the muted wing bars.

  2. #2 darwinsdog
    February 9, 2010

    House finch is the most common bird where I live in New Mexico. There are scores around the feeder every day and in summer nesting pairs raise broods in the Rhus & Forestiera thickets round abouts. On the farm, house finches have decimated crops of black oil sunflower seeds.

  3. #3 Bardiac
    February 9, 2010

    I thought male House Finch, too. The beak and face look Housish to me; but the reddish wash on the wings makes me think male Purple Finch. I also don’t see the white markings on the wing coverts or streakiness along the sides I see in the House Finch pictures.

    Do non-breeding Purple finches look a little browner?

  4. #4 David Hilmy
    February 9, 2010

    The fact that there is significant red on the wings should help you distinguish between the two of the possible species already suggested above (House or Purple)… further differentiators would include: the House would have grey cheeks whereas the Purple should have reddish pink, the House also has brownsh streaks along the flanks instead of the pink in a Purple… more subtle is the bill shape, with the House having a blunt short bill and the Purple a slighlty longer thinner one…

    but there is a third possibility that should one could also consider, the Cassin’s Finch, really only differentaited from the Purple Finch in that it’s head is usually a much deeper color than anywhere esle on its body that shows pinky-red, but more importantly for me, the facial pattern is not as obvious as in the Purple…

    this guide might help you work out which of the three it might be: Project Feder Watch: Tricky Bird IDs: House Finch, Purple Finch, and Cassin’s Finch

  5. #5 John Callender
    February 9, 2010

    The beak, the relatively bright forehead, and the head shape make me want to say House. The pinkish/purplish color, and the absence of obvious brown streaks on the flanks, make me want to say Purple. The absence of a bright crown pushes me away from Cassins.

    When in doubt, I’ll go with structure over plumage. I’ve seen a lot of variation in House Finch plumage color (if never this particular shade), but if I were looking at this bird without regard to the color I’d be calling it House Finch all the way. So that’s what I’m going to go with.

  6. #6 David Hilmy
    February 9, 2010

    Hi John,

    Currently watching several pairs of House Finches right outside my window, there is a noticeable lack of pink on the wings, no pink behind the neck, obvious brown streaking along the flanks, and other than some color in the malar region, no pink in the cheeks…

    male Purple Finch

    male House Finch

  7. #7 Adrian
    February 9, 2010

    Hi, does the extent of the red on the chest and belly coupled with a dullish crown tend towards Purple Finch rather than Cassin’s? I may be wrong as it’s 11 years since I saw these two.

  8. #8 David Hilmy
    February 9, 2010

    Hi Adrian,

    I think the “dullish crown” is the key mark- in Cassin’s the crown, whether subdued or not, contrasts markedly with its own breast and face coloring (the crested look is not always a consistent mark) and is almost always a lot brighter…

    I would also expect the pinkish breast coloring to fade to whitish much earlier on the upper breast before reaching the belly…

    note also that we are close enough to the above bird to get a good look at the head and face and if this were a Cassin’s there would be a good chance we would see a white eyering

    male Cassin’s 1

    male Cassin’s 2

  9. #9 Adrian
    February 9, 2010

    Thanks David, my notes from that time don’t mention the contrast of the crown but do note the extent of the red onto the belly.

  10. #10 David Hilmy
    February 9, 2010

    and by the way, the Big Sioux Recreation Area is right across the state almost at the Minnesota/Iowa border, roughly 250-300 miles from the eastern extremity of the Cassin’s Finch range in South Dakota

  11. #11 psweet
    February 9, 2010

    Another mark against Cassin’s is the lack of fine streaks on the lower flanks, just as the lack of blurry brown streaks on the belly rules out House Finch. On the other hand, I do have to admit to a bit of confusion with regards to the pattern of pink on the forehead — not quite what I expect with regards to Purple.

  12. #12 David Hilmy
    February 9, 2010


    The following photos seem to demonstrate a lot of variability in the streaking along the flanks of Cassin’s so I’m not sure that is necessarily a consistent mark…

    Cassin’s Finch, Oregon, June 2006

    Cassin’s Finch, Oregon, Winter

    Cassin’s Finch, Oregon, May 2003

    Cassin’s Finch, Washington, October 2007

  13. #13 Ken Trease
    February 9, 2010

    It looks like a sparrow dipped in raspberry juice.

  14. #14 John Callender
    February 10, 2010

    Sigh. Live and learn.

  15. #15 psweet
    February 10, 2010

    Thanks for the links, David. It looks like you’re right — guess we still need to be careful trusting the field guides. I first figured it would have something to do with season and feather wear, but that doesn’t even seem to be the case.

  16. #16 Визитки
    February 22, 2010

    Hi, does the extent of the red on the chest and belly coupled with a dullish crown tend towards Purple Finch rather than Cassin’s? I may be wrong as it’s 11 years since I saw these two.

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