Purple Finch Haemorhous purpureus Scientific name definitions

J. Timothy Wootton
Version: 1.0 — Published March 4, 2020
Text last updated January 1, 1996


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A relatively large (length 12.4–15.4 cm) Haemorhous finch with a notched tail. Beak short, conical, with culmen in silhouette shallowly curved. Sexually dimorphic plumage in adults. In males, raspberry red coloration spreads relatively uniformly across upperparts, head, neck, and sides; lower belly and undertail-coverts usually unmarked, white. Females and immatures, which are virtually indistinguishable, generally have little or no red, are strongly streaked across back and sides of belly with dark brown over gray, and have a conspicuous light eyebrow stripe contrasting with a solid ear patch; background belly coloration of females and juveniles bright white. Males of the West Coast subspecies H. p. californicus are darker overall than eastern birds (H. p. purpureus), and females are duskier below with poorly defined streaks.

Similar Species

Most easily confused with its two congeners, the House Finch (H. mexicanus) and the Cassin's Finch (H. cassinii). Red of male House Finch usually (but not always) brighter and more orange-tinted (Geranium to Flame Scarlet of Smithe 1975) compared to rosy-red of male Purple Finch; in House Finch the red coloration only covers the front of the crown, the superciliary stripe, and the throat and breast. Back of male House Finch has no reddish wash, and belly is not white but heavily streaked, giving it a much browner appearance. Female House Finch differs from female Purple Finch by having no distinct superciliary or malar stripe (i.e., a plain head pattern), a nearly uniform brown back, and completely streaked undersides, with the streaks long and thin rather than short and wide (Hill 1993c, JTW). Structurally House Finch is smaller and slimmer, and longer-tailed. It has a smallish bill with a strongly curved culmen; Purple Finch has a larger bill with moderately curved culmen.

Cassin's Finch is more difficult to distinguish from Purple Finch. Male Cassin's Finch has a much duller red on its breast (Ruby to Spinel Pink), a brighter red crown (Crimson to Spectrum Red), duller red on rump (ranging from Geranium Pink to Peach Red to Ferruginous), and little red wash on back of neck. As a result, the red crown of male Cassin's Finch, feathers of which are often carried rather erect, contrasts with the color of the back. Male Cassin's often has finely streaked flanks and undertail coverts (typically unmarked in male Purple). Female Cassin's Finch differs from female Purple Finch by having strong streaking down through the undertail-coverts (typically unmarked on Purple Finch, although about 2% of female Purple Finches have this too), streaked rather than solid ear patches, no clear distinction between the malar area and the throat (nor between the superciliary and crown), and a white or gray edge to the back contour feathers, which gives a more spotted and overall lighter appearance to the back. Additionally, back color lacks yellow-olive-green hues typical of females of most sympatric populations of Purple Finches in w. North America. Flight feathers and tail feathers are edged greenish in Purple Finch; whitish in Cassin's. Structurally Cassin's Finch is a bit larger and longer-winged. The culmen of Purple Finch is slightly curved, whereas that of Cassin's Finch is straight (Kaufman 1990a, JTW).

Vocalizations, particularly call notes, also help separate these species. House Finch has a higher-pitched, more strident warbling song than the Purple Finch, whereas the Cassin's Finch has a longer, more varied warbling song. The sharp, single pick call note of the Purple Finch (which sounds like two pairs of scissors being struck together) differs markedly from the harsh, whistled wheet of the House Finch or the multisyllable twidle-ip typical of the Cassin's Finch, although Purple Finches have been known to make twidle-ip calls on occasion (T. Hahn pers. comm.).


For an additional detailed description, see Blake 1955. Unless otherwise stated, the following descriptions apply to H. p. purpureus. Colors follow Smithe (Smithe 1975).


Not feathered except for a few wisps of down. No information on relationship of down to feather tracts, although down present in feather tracts in House Finches (Hill 1983), but not specifically reported to be in feather tracts in Cassin's Finches (Hahn 1996).

Juvenile Plumage

No information regarding specific timing of Prejuvenile molt relative to age of bird, nor pattern of Prejuvenile molt. Birds in Juvenile plumage collected 20 Jun–16 Oct (Blake 1955).

Crown and superciliary heavily mottled brown (Fuscus to Van Dyke Brown) on grayish background (Light to Pale Neutral Gray). Back and rump feathers more uniform brown than later plumages, with centers of feathers dark brown (Van Dyke Brown) with lighter brownish-tan (Mikado Brown to Clay Color) edges. Remiges and rectrices mostly dark brown (Van Dyke Brown to Hair Brown) with light brown (ranging from Buff to Clay Color to Makado Brown) edges dorsally, and dark brown with a lighter sheen (Dark Drab to Van Dyke Brown) ventrally. Auricular area largely dark brown (Van Dyke Brown to Hair Brown). Throat, malar region, side, axillars, and belly heavily streaked, with lighter streaking on the belly and sparse streaking on the undertail-coverts. Streaks brown (ranging from Van Dyke Brown to Hair Brown to Dark Brownish Olive) on grayish white (ranging from White to Pearl Gray to Pale Neutral Gray) background. Body feathers generally fluffy and undertail-coverts decomposed (sparse and downy). Tibiotarsal feathering sparse. No evidence of differences between sexes.

Basic I Plumage

Prebasic I molt occurs from Aug to Oct (Blake 1955). Rectrices and remiges not replaced during Prebasic I molt.

Crown and back heavily mottled, with body feathers brown (Van Dyke Brown) at center grading to light brown (Makado Brown, Clay Color, or Buff) and then grayish white (White to Pale Neutral Gray) on the edges. Superciliary and malar areas mostly white with fine, sparse brown (Van Dyke Brown) streaking. Auricular area nearly solid brown (Van Dyke Brown). Rump lighter than back with feathers having relatively small dark brown centers and larger areas of edge coloration. Upperwing coverts more uniform brown than back, with feathers having dark brown centers (Van DykeBrown) and lighter brown (ranging from Mikado Brown to Clay Color to Buff) edges. Remiges and rectrices dark brown (Fuscous to Sepia) with light edging (ranging from White to Pale Neutral Gray to Buff) on top, and brown with a lighter sheen (Dark Drab) ventrally. Central throat white with fine streaks or spots of brown (Van Dyke Brown). Edge of throat, sides, breast, and upper belly white, strongly marked with brown spots or streaks (Van Dyke Brown). Lower belly, underwing linings, and undertail-coverts usually solid white. Sexes similar.

H. p. californicus differs from H. p. purpureus by having a Yellowish Olive-Green to Citrine hue to edges of crown, back, wing, and tail feathers. Streaking on the underside is heavier and more poorly defined (“fuzzier”).

Definitive Basic Plumage

Definitive Prebasic molt complete, occurs from Jul to Nov (Blake 1955; also see Figure 3). Primaries molt from inner (P1) to outer (P9), secondaries from outer (S1) to inner (S6; Magee 1936b).

Crown and superciliary usually a purplish red (Carmine) but occasionally ranging to brighter red (Spectrum Red). Auriculars brownish red (Maroon). Back and wing coverts have a reddish wash over a mottled background, with feathers having dark centers (Van Dyke Brown to Maroon) and lighter edges (Brick Red to Maroon, occasionally ranging to Scarlet). When they first emerge, outer contour feathers on head, back, and wing coverts have red inner margins with a thin outer white margin which is lost with wear, making the males redder as the breeding season approaches. Rump solid red, somewhat lighter than the crown (Spectrum Red to Gem Ruby, occasionally ranging to Geranium). Remiges and rectrices dark brown (Sepia), with pinkish edges dorsally (Flesh Color occasionally ranging to Flame Scarlet), brown or dark gray with a light sheen ventrally (Hair Brown to Van Dyke Brown). Underparts usually (98% of the time) solid colored, without brown streaking (Blake 1955). Breast and throat solid reddish (Spectrum Red to Gem Ruby, occasionally ranging to Geranium). Belly and undertail-coverts white, although undertail-coverts may occasionally be have buffy pink (Flesh Color) markings.

Female identical to Basic I plumage, except in rare instances when older birds acquire a pink tinge on the head, neck, rump, and occasionally part of breast (Blake 1955, Kennard 1959).

Males of H. p. californicus differ from H. p. purpureus by tending to have a brighter red crown (Carmine to Spectrum Red), a duller red rump (Mahogany Red), a greenish tinge to the red edges of the upperbody feathers (Ferruginous), and a dingier belly and undertail-coverts (ranging from Flesh Color to Pale Horn to Drab Gray).

Definitive Alternate Plumage

A Prealternate molt has been observed in males during Apr, in which some feathers in front of head are replaced (Blake 1955). It has not been determined whether this molt also occurs in immature males (Prealternate I molt) or in females.

Bare Parts

Bill And Gape

In juveniles and immatures, upper mandible dark brown (Sepia [color terms from Smithe 1975]) at tip grading to lighter brown (Mars Brown) at center and base. Lower mandible slightly lighter brown (Verona to Sayal Brown), particularly in middle and base. In adults, bill usually dark with a lighter coloration below, but bill of adult male sometimes yellow throughout. Gape color changes from brown in winter, to yellow in spring and during the breeding season, to orange to bright red during the late summer molting period (Magee 1943, Yunick 1991).


Dark brown.

Legs And Feet

Dark brown.


Linear Measurements

Bill Length

Exposed culmen length (Wetherbee 1934): adult males 10.64 mm (range 9.5-12.0, n = 72), adult female 10.57 mm (range 9.25-12.00, n = 148), immature male 10.39 mm (range 9.5-11.25, n = 19), immature of unknown sex 10.25 mm (range 9.5-11.25, n = 23).

Wing Length

Groskin (Groskin 1941) reports average wing chords from samples taken throughout ne. U.S. in winter: 83.06-84.84 mm for males, 80.26-80.96 for females. Wetherbee (Wetherbee 1934) reports average wing chords for birds caught in summer in Worcester, MA: 83.44 mm (range 79.25-88.00, n = 72) for adult males, 80.52 mm (range 76.75-87.00, n = 148) for adult females, 81.27 mm (range 77.5-85.25, n = 19) for immature males, and 80.52 mm (range 76.75-84.50, n = 12) for immatures of unknown sex. Blake (Blake 1955) reports average wing chord of adult males as 84 mm (range 75-87, n = 84), of immature males as 80 mm (n = 8), of adult females as 79 mm (n = 9). Wing area averages 104 cm2(Poole 1938).

Tail Length

Wetherbee (Wetherbee 1934) made the following measurements: adult males 59.71 mm (range 54.25-62.75, n = 72), adult females 56.27 mm (range 35.25-62.50, n = 148), immature males 57.39 mm (range 52.0-62.0, n = 19), immatures of undetermined sex 56.13 mm (range 54.0-60.25, n = 23).

Tarsus Length

Average tarsus lengths reported by Wetherbee (Wetherbee 1934): adult males 17.17 mm (range 15.25-19.0, n = 72), adult females 17.04 mm (range 15.0-20.25, n = 148), immature males 17.31 mm (range 15.5-19.5, n = 19), immatures of unknown sex 17.2 mm (range 13.5-18.75, n = 23).

Total Length

Length from tip of beak to fork of tail (Wetherbee 1934): adult males 146.10 mm (range 140.0-154.0, n = 72), adult females 143.28 mm (range 123.5-152.5, n = 148), immature males 143.11 mm (range 136.5-149.0, n = 19), immatures of unknown sex 143.28 mm (range 134.5-146.5, n = 23).


In Chapel Hill, NC, in winter, males and first-year males: 26.06 ± 1.75 g SD (n = 906), not significantly different from older males (26.01 ± 1.69 g SD, n = 394) (Bartleson and Jensen 1955). Averaged 20.7 g (range 18.5-23.0), with adrenals averaging 0.0279% of body weight and thyroids averaging 0.014% of body weight (Hartman 1946). In Alabama, adult females 25.95 ± 1.58 g SD (n = 11); one adult male 24.4 g (Stewart and Skinner 1967). Mass in summer, Worcester, MA: adult males 25.86 g (range 20.40-29.98, n = 72), adult females 24.6 g (range 20.0-31.29, n = 148), immature males 24.37 g (range 22.0-27.36, n = 19), immatures of unknown sex 20.98 g (range 17.5-23.52, n = 23).

Purple Finch
Adult male Purple Finch, Ellijay, GA, 17 February.

In spring adult males at at their brightest. The buffy tipped fresh basic feathers are worn away to reveal the brighter pink coloration below. The following is a link to this photographer's website: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rbinv/., Feb 18, 2013; photographer Roy Brown

Purple Finch
Adult male Purple Finch head and bill detail, Lorrimer Sanctuary, NJ, 30 October.

On males, note strong rosy red wash on the entire head, nape and back (more restricted in House Finch). Also note large bill with slightly curved culmen (strongly curved in House Finch, straight in Cassin's Finch). The following is a link to this photographer's website: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mcbrian/., Oct 31, 2013; photographer Kevin Bolton

Purple Finch
Female or immature male Purple Finch, Ellijay, GA, 17 February.

Female or immatures of the Eastern subspecies are more crisply marked below than western birds. The following is a link to this photographer's website: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rbinv/., Feb 18, 2013; photographer Roy Brown

Purple Finch
Immature male Purple Finch, Newfoundland, 12 August.

Purple Finches undergo a complete prebasic molt in late summer. This bird is a second-year male, replacing the retained brownish plumage with new rosy red feathers. It will look completely adult male-like by fall. The following is a link to this photographer's website: http://www.flickr.com/photos/clbarret2003/., Aug 13, 2013; photographer Clyde Barrett

Purple Finch
Juvenile Purple Finch, Loleta, CA, 16 August.

Juvenile Purple Finches have loosely textured feathers below, and streaked brown throats. This bird is of the Pacific subspecies californicus, which is marked with blurrier streaks below that the Eastern nominate subspecies. The following is a link to this photographer's website: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cameronrognan/., Aug 17, 2013; photographer Cameron Rognan

Purple Finch
Figure 3. Annual cycle of breeding, migration, and molt of the Purple Finch

Annual cycle of breeding, migration, and molt of the Purple Finch based largely on information from Sault Ste. Marie, MI. Thick lines show peak activity, thin lines off-peak.

Purple Finch
Adult male Purple Finch, upstate NY, February.

This bird is interesting in having a few retained brownish breast feathers. These may be left over from formative plumage, or simply molted later and outside the hormonal window for generating rosy red plumage.; photographer Marie Reed

Recommended Citation

Wootton, J. T. (2020). Purple Finch (Haemorhous purpureus), version 1.0. In Birds of the World (A. F. Poole and F. B. Gill, Editors). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY, USA. https://doi.org/10.2173/bow.purfin.01