A red splash of feathers heralds a visit by a male house finch.

Mexican migrant flocks to local birdfeeders

Brightening our winters, the beautiful house finch is an abundant – albeit recent – avian resident

A red splash of feathers brings birdwatchers pure joy when cold winds blow.

Brightening our winters, the beautiful house finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) is an abundant – albeit recent – avian resident.

Prior to 1940, the species lived only in Mexico and the American southwest. Adult males, with their red-orange head and breast, caught the attention of illegal pet traders who brought them to New York City and slapped them with the moniker “Hollywood finches.”

Soon enough the law caught wind of this and, to avoid prosecution under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, illegal owners and vendors released the caged birds.

These bright, attractive Mexican migrants have now spread all across the U.S. and into extreme southern Canada; descendants of the original released birds are correctly categorized as naturalized (non-native) residents, long established. House finches need a ‘house’ and as their common name suggests, must nest in an existing cavity or under an overhang (roof).

They nourish their young exclusively with plant matter, and thus rely heavily on bird feeders when breeding.

Occasionally, dietary availability causes male plumage colour variations of yellow through orange. Males that choose the best seeds have the brightest red color, the highest social ranking and thus the females’ top mating choice.

Across North America, house finches have become common year-round, due in part to more backyard birdfeeders. Similar finch (Fringillidae) relatives include the purple and Cassin’s.

Scientists at Cornell University’s Ornithology Lab are currently studying house finch conjunctivitis.

Symptoms of the disease (first observed in 1994) include redness and swelling around birds’ eyes.

wildernesswest@shaw.ca.