A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


One of our most common birds all year round. May be abundant in forest edge habitats and brushy areas. Common in suburbs as well. Often in small flocks of five to about 20 birds or more, but may be solitary or in pairs. Regular feeder visitor. Males are readily identified by the red breast, head, and heavy forehead, but also note the brownish cap. Rump usually washed with red as well, but back is a streaky brown. Folded wings mostly brown. Streaked on sides and belly. Females are streaked brown all over.

Note that House Finch and a number of other finches were moved to the genus Haemorhous in late 2012. Older sources will list this bird as Carpodacus mexicanus.

Males are likely to be confused only with Purple Finch, but that bird is much less common here (I see Purple Finch only occasionally in Sonoma County, House Finch virtually every day). Purple Finch (Haemorhous purpureus) is washed with a raspberry color distributed over the back as well as the head, upper breast, scapulars and coverts, and the bird is less streaky on the sides and belly than House Finch, being mostly white or pale below with irregular patches of the raspberry color. House Finch tends to be a more reddish or orange in color than the raspberry Purple Finch--although color is variable in both birds and color alone is not a reliable indicator. In Purple Finch, look for a darker, brownish ear patch and a touch of dark brown where a malar stripe is often found in sparrows. The head is all you really need to see. Focus on its shape. Male House Finch has the heavy-browed look we associate with caricatures of cavemen and will almost always have brown on the top of the head; Purple Finch has a more elegant brow, without the bulge, and will be raspberry-colored also on the top of the head--with no brown. House Finch has a proportionately more massive bill. Purple Finch has a more distinct facial pattern, the most conspicuous feature of which is the brownish auricular patch and brown malar marking (photo below). When in doubt, viewing birds fleetingly or at a distance, it's probably (but not necessarily) a House Finch in Sonoma County. Females may be confused with female Purple Finch, but a female Purple Finch will have the much more distinct facial pattern of its male counterpart, with the dark patch at the "ear" and the malar stripe. Also note that female House Finches tend to be streaked throughout their underparts, female Purple Finches tend to be white or nearly white at the vent. 

Male House Finches show much color variation. Typical is a medium pinkish-red, but some birds are on the purple side (closer to Purple Finch), a few are distinctly orange (see photo below). Some birds have much more extensive areas of color than others. The bird in the top photo here is fairly typical. Some birds in Sonoma County are paler, and some may have very little color at all. House Finch populations in southern California are generally less brightly colored than our birds and tend to be more orange.

At a distance, Pine Siskin may be confused with female House Finch. The bill is the best diagnostic. Pine Siskin has a markedly slender, more pointed bill. The House Finch has a typical, broad, seed-cracking finch bill. Also, Pine Siskin has a head that gives the impression of being too small for the body, unlike the House Finch, and the streaking on Pine Siskin is much clearer (contrasting more sharply with its background) and finer than on House Finch. Streaking on Pine Siskin includes the head and back as well. House Finch females will be streaked only on the breast, belly, and sides.

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 124

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 443

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 177

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 456

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 518

Dunne, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, 2006, pp. 669-670

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 646

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 359

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 469

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 366

Kaufman, Advanced Birding, 1990, pp. 267-273

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 62-63, 88, 128, 132, 420

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, pp. 274, 275-276

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 74

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, p. 292

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, p. 362

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  p. 342

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 450

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 747

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 341

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--House Finch



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


An usually drab male House Finch--with very little color at all.

The throat, forehead, and "eyebrow" are just washed with pale orange

Santa Rosa, December 10, 2010

For comparison: Male Purple Finch. Note raspberry red crown, strong brownish ear patch, brownish malar blotch, raspberry and brown back, bright raspberry rump, and pale belly

with irregular blotches of color rather than streaking.

Santa Rosa, January 24, 2012

Female House Finch, Santa Rosa, December 4, 2012

House Finch, Stone Castle Lane, Santa Rosa, December 4, 2012

For comparison: Pine Siskin. Note very finely pointed bill, sharply contrasting streaking, yellow in folded wings.

Santa Rosa, December 4, 2012

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated July 15, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County

House Finch

Haemorhous mexicanus