A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

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


Fairly common, but seen much less often in Sonoma County than its close relative the House Finch. Present all year, but numbers increase in the spring and into the summer. Sightings are most common during the breeding season. Favors mixed forest edge habitats and brushy areas. Fairly common feeder visitor in the winter.

Males are likely to be confused only with House Finch. The two birds may be hard to distinguish at a distance or if viewed only fleetingly through brush or tree branches or on the wing, but a good look should allow them to be separated without too much difficulty. Purple Finch 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 (Haemorhous mexicanus), being mostly white or pale below with irregular patches of the raspberry color. House Finch tends to be more reddish or orange in color than the raspberry Purple Finch--although color is variable in both species and color alone is not a reliable indicator. In Purple Finch, look for a darker, brownish ear patch (that extends to around the eye) and a touch of dark brown where a malar stripe is often found in sparrows, these offset by a broad, paler “eyebrow” and a light area just below the ear patch. The head is all you really need to see. Focus on this pattern of light and dark and on the shape of the head.

Male House Finch has the heavy-browed look you may 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, except at the nape. Purple Finch may look very slightly crested. The line created by the junction of the upper and lower sections of the bill is markedly curved in Purple Finch, straighter in House Finch.

When in doubt, it's probably a House Finch in Sonoma County, but it's always worth checking to be be sure. Female Purple Finch looks very much like female House Finch, but a female Purple Finch will have the more distinct facial pattern of its male counterpart, with the pale, broad eyebrow, the dark patch at the "ear" with a pale area below it and then the darker malar streak. Also note that female House Finch will have streaking throughout its underparts while female Purple Finch tends to be plain white at the vent. Female Purple Finch is typically more streaked on the breast and flanks than the male.

This bird and other finches were moved to the genus Haemorhous in late 2012. Older sources will list this bird as Carpodacus purpureus

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. 667-668

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

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 357

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 470

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. 29, 66, 420

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

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 73

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. 746

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 339

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



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016

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.


Purple Finch, Stone Castle Lane, Santa Rosa, January 24, 2012

Note the raspberry wash extending all down the back, lack of strong streaking on flanks.

For comparison: House Finch, Santa Rosa, December 4, 2012

For comparison: Female House Finch, Santa Rosa, December 4, 2012

Purple Finch

Haemorhous purpureus

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated August 1, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County

Purple Finch, Lake Ralphine, Santa Rosa, December 20, 2015