You may have been fortunate enough this winter to have seen this week’s featured creature at your bird feeders.

Which is a real joy, because purple finches aren’t always common in the Ada area. In fact, even when they’re here, they’re not all that common.

They are winter visitors to Oklahoma. However, purple finches can be somewhat irruptive. Basically, they are more abundant some winters than others.

But this winter, there were hundreds of reports of purple finches in Oklahoma and Texas. And that’s just from the people who make reports.

I’m always thrilled to see them, and, I must admit, I haven’t seen any in years.

Maybe two months ago, I looked out at my feeder and was surprised to see what appeared to be two adult female purple finches around my feeding station. They visited several times throughout the day, consuming many black oil sunflower seeds. I say “appeared to be,” as immature purple finches — both male and female — are virtually indistinguishable from adult females.

I was happy to see them, and I’d hoped they would return the following day with other purple finches, including the colorful adult males.

And they did. The next day, I had four females/immatures and two adult males at the feeders.

The confusion

So, let’s just get down to the nitty-gritty.

To someone with less experience in birding, the purple finch can easily be confused with the house finch, which is a more common, permanent area resident. Heck, even experts get flummoxed once in a while.

Both birds appear sparrow-like in appearance. However, the males are more colorful than any sparrow.

The house finch I will feature next week.

Once you know how to tell the two apart, you won’t be as apt to guess wrong in the future.

First, we’ll discuss the males of each species, then the females. Both species are sexually dimorphic, which, in these cases, means their colors differ.

Male purple finches look as if they were dipped in red wine, while male house finches look as if they were dipped in cherry Kool-Aid, if you ask me.

While male purple finches aren’t exactly purple — more of a raspberry — they appear more purple than house finches, which have red, if not reddish orange, colors. But not always. I’ve seen some house finches with more drab red.

Hold on to this week’s column and compare with the photos in next week’s column.

Both have streaks, but the bellies of house finches — female and male — are heavily streaked. Only the female and immature/juvenile purple finches have belly streaks.

But use caution while comparing colors. It is helpful, but colors vary among individual birds. I’ve seen males of both species that hardly had any color, while others were bursting with color.

Another thing that helps distinguish the two is, purple finches have a deeper notch at the end of the tail.

But what I look for the most, if possible, is the facial markings. I’ll explain in the description.

Description

The female purple finch is a mixture of white and various shades of brown. Females, immatures and juveniles also have heavily streaked breasts and bellies.

Among the things that distinguish purple finch females from female house finches are the bold facial markings, a whitish eyebrow and a whitish stripe extending from the chin back toward the nape of the neck (see photo).

Males, too, have these light stripes, but, due to the coloring, they appear stained pink (see photo).

Make note that immature purple finches — both male and female — look just like adult females. Males usually don’t start getting their color until they are at least a year old.

Roger Tory Peterson, the famous American naturalist, ornithologist, artist and educator, described the adult male purple finch as a “sparrow dipped in raspberry juice.”

Purple finches are about six inches in length. They are chunky birds and have short conical beaks.

Range

As I mentioned previously, purple finches are winter visitors to Oklahoma — the eastern two-thirds of the state, that is. That winter range also extends straight north to Canada, east to Maine, south to the panhandle of Florida, and then back east to north and east Texas. They also winter along the Pacific Coast and southern Arizona.

Their breeding range includes parts of California, most of Canada and many U.S. states surrounding the Great Lakes.

Habitat

In winter, purple finches can be found in woodlands, overgrown fields, hedgerows, suburbs and residential yards.

Food

In summer, purple finches eat seeds, berries, tree buds and some insects.

In winter, they eat mostly seeds. They are attracted to residential feeders and like black oil sunflower seeds, hulled sunflower seeds, millet and nyjer. At my feeding stations, they spent as much time eating seeds off the ground as they did at feeders.

Odds and Ends

• The Cornell Lab of Ornithology reports the purple finch is one of the least-studied finches in North America. This is because it is neither common enough to be easily studied nor rare enough to be threatened with extinction.

Randy Mitchell is a freelance writer and photographer. He has been an avid birdwatcher, nature enthusiast and photographer for 40 years. Reach him at rnw@usa.com.