By John Keeling
The House Finch
The house finch is a sparrow-sized bird which is a very common year-round resident at lakeside. The male has a red breast and cap, though is not as strikingly red as the vermilion flycatcher, which is the other small red-breasted bird commonly seen here. In fact the intensity of the color varies with the season, being brighter in mating season, when females tend to pick males with the brightest red color. These birds are typically heard singing a complicated twittering trill from the tops of bushes and trees.
The female of the species is easily confused with a sparrow, because it is brown all over, and has highly streaked under-parts. You will often find the males and females foraging together in small groups, as they are very social birds. This knowledge will assist you in identifying the females.
Notice the heavy beak which is required to crush seeds, which are the principal food source. In season they will also eat berries and attack fruit, a practice which does not endear them to commercial fruit growers.
House finches are highly adaptable being found in backyards, town centers, farmlands and desert. Their adaptability to human environments has allowed them to aggressively expand their range from northern Mexico, up the Pacific side of the Rockies to Washington state and British Columbia. Most interesting is that in the 1940s these birds were sold in cages in New York under the name of ‘Hollywood finches’. Escapees soon became naturalized, and within 50 years the progeny of those birds spread south to Florida, north to eastern Canada, and also to the mid-west. They are now one of the most common birds in both Mexico and the U.S.
They are monogamous and mate three or more times in the period March to July. The female constructs a cup-shaped nest of twigs and leaves, lined with feathers, in a tree or creeper or on a ledge. She lays about 4 eggs, (one a day), and incubates them for 14 days, and sits the babies for a few more days while they are still tiny. Throughout this time the female is fed by the male. For a brief period both parents feed the chicks. The young leave the nest within two and half weeks, after which they are fed by the male, allowing the female to start building a new nest right away.
Naturally, there are predators. At this time of the year I see ravens occasionally checking out the house finch nesting colonies in the tall, thin cedars near my house in Ajijic, and casually lifting a chick or two for lunch, while the parents helplessly send out loud alarm calls.
(John Keeling and his wife lead the ‘Lake Chapala Birding Club’ which is a group of people interested in birds. To receive notices of bird walks etc., leave your e-mail address at avesajijic.com. )