Purple Finch Haemorhous purpureus Scientific name definitions

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


Welcome to Birds of the World!

You are currently viewing one of the free accounts available in our complimentary tour of Birds of the World. In this courtesy review, you can access all the life history articles and the multimedia galleries associated with this account.

For complete access to all accounts, a subscription is required.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? Sign in


Walking, Hopping, Climbing, Etc

When on ground, usually hops, but will walk over very short distances. In trees, walks sideways over short distances, flits over longer distances and between branches.


Undulating trajectory during sustained flight. Also sallies from perch to catch insects (Harlow 1971).


Preening, Head-Scratching, Stretching, Bathing, Anting, Etc

Bathing reported, even when air temperatures below freezing (Forbush 1929, Stratton 1967).

Sleeping, Roosting, Sunbathing

During winter, roosts communally in conifers (Laskey 1958a). Reported to sunbathe (Straw 1919).

Daily Time Budget

No data.

Agonistic Behavior

Physical Interactions

Will peck opponents (Popp 1987a). Males and females exhibit aggressive behavior toward both sexes. No reports of aerial chases.

Communicative Interactions

Three basic displays identified (Gobeil 1963, Popp 1987a). Low Head Forward: lowest-intensity display, with body horizontal, neck extended, bill pointed at opponent (62% of 351 displays). High Head Forward: upright posture, neck extended toward opponent, beak often gaping (21% of displays). Bill Display: highest-intensity posture, with body extended to maximum vertical height with bill pointed down toward opponent (16% of displays), often associated with Pecking (1% of displays). Similar head-forward displays reported in House and Cassin's finches (Hill 1993c, Hahn 1996).

No ritualized appeasement display beyond vacating a disputed space, although submissive postures such as leaning away or hopping backward reported (Popp 1987a).

Of interactions observed by Popp (Popp 1987a), opponents left without a display being given in 7% of encounters, left after a single display in 70%, and displayed back in 23% (n = 351). In cases where opponents displayed back, winners were birds that escalated their display, losers generally used lower display levels initially and tended not to escalate display. More effective displays at causing opponents to vacate an area (Bill Display, and Bill Display with Pecking) were also displays that had higher risks of inducing an attack by the opponent (Popp 1987a).

In intraspecific antagonistic interactions between the sexes, female-plumaged birds displace males at a much higher rate (96% of 226) than expected by chance (Shedd 1990). No evidence of differential targets of aggression among the sexes, at least during the winter; fractions of male-male, female-female, and male-female antagonistic interactions follow a random distribution (Shedd 1990).



Available evidence indicates that males defend spatial territories, but definitive study is required. Males consistently sing near nest during breeding season (Mousley 1919, Saunders cited in Bent 1968b). Continual experimental removal of territorial males resulted in a consistent influx of replacement males (Hemsley and Cope 1951), which suggests a large population of floating nonbreeders, a situation consistent with territory establishment. Establishment of breeding territories differs from that in House and Cassin's finches, which defend females rather than territories (Hill 1993c, Hahn 1996, JTW). Difference in territorial strategy possibly arises from difference in spatial and temporal distribution of food resources during the breeding season (ephemeral or unpredictable for House and Cassin's finches, relatively constant for Purple Finches), but this hypothesis needs further study.

No reports of interspecific territoriality. Feeding territories sometimes attempted around bird feeders in winter (Gobeil 1963). Dominance hierarchies may be established (Popp 1987a), but no details of factors affecting dominance position (e.g., age, sex, vocalizations, coloration, or physical prowess).

Individual Distance

Will tolerate individuals 5 cm away at feeders (Bent 1968b).

Sexual Behavior

Mating System And Sex Ratio

No evidence for mating system other than monogamy. Skewed sex ratio favoring males (57% males: 43% females) found in each of 3 independent and extensive banding studies in Michigan (Magee 1940), Pennsylvania (Groskin 1950b), and N. Carolina (Blake 1955). A less-skewed sex ratio (52% males: 48% females) found more recently in an extensive banding study in New York (Yunick 1983a). Basis for the differences a potentially interesting topic for further exploration. Similar sex-ratio patterns reported in House and Cassin's finches (Hill 1993c, Hahn 1996).

Pair Bond

Females may chose males in part on the basis of song competition by males (Ringueberg cited in Bent 1968b). Male courtship display described in detail in Wellman 1920 and Bent 1968b . Males flutter wings vigorously while hopping, thrusting out breast, cocking up tail, raising crest, and singing, often holding a piece of nesting material in beak. Song during display described as softly warbling or "chippering." Male then flies vertically to a height of about 30 cm. When he returns to the ground, he droops wings, spreads tail as a support, points beak skyward, and tilts body back as far as possible. Female response to the display is variable; includes copulation, apparent selection of nest site. Precopulatory display by female described as lifting of tail, trembling wings following male display. No significant postcopulatory display recorded.

No information on duration of pair bond.

Extra-Pair Copulation

None reported; needs further study.

Social and Interspecific Behavior

Degree Of Sociality

Pairs solitary during the breeding season. During winter, birds forage and roost in single and multi-species flocks with Pine Siskins (Spinus pinus) and American Goldfinches (Whittle and Fletcher 1924, Laskey 1958a, Popp 1988c). Flock sizes range from 2 to > 200 (Laskey 1958a, Scheider and Crumb 1985, James and Neal 1986, JTW). When roosting, flocks favor dense conifers such as eastern redcedar (Laskey 1958a). Groups wander widely within and between years, and individual birds do not stay in a particular group (Whittle and Fletcher 1924).


None reported.

Nonpredatory Interspecific Interactions

Interspecific aggression reported between Purple Finches and Northern Mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos; Mueller and Mueller 1971), American Robins (Turdus migratorius; Pietz and Pietz 1987), Pine Siskins, American Goldfinches (Popp 1989b), House Sparrows (Passer domesticus; Nest Record Card Program [NRCP] data), and House Finches (Shedd 1990). In interactions with House Finches, Purple Finches lost 90.9% of the encounters (Shedd 1990, n = 444). Intraspecific encounters among Purple Finches occurred at a slightly higher rate than interspecific encounters, whereas House Finches interacted in approximate proportion to the relative abundance of conspecifics and heterospecifics. Purple Finches subordinate to Pine Siskins and dominant to American Goldfinches (Popp 1989b). When initiating an interspecific aggressive interaction, Purple Finches choose the aggressive behavior that gives the most success in chasing the target away without prompting a retaliatory attack from the target (Low Head Forward for American Goldfinches, High Head Forward for Pine Siskins; Popp 1989b).

Occurs in mixed-species flocks with American Goldfinches and Pine Siskins during the winter (Popp 1988c); no quantitative information on flock composition. In presence of conspecifics or heterospecifics, time spent scanning for predators reduced 32-18% (0.75 ± 0.09 SD to 0.89 ± 0.15 SD scans/s), relative to scan rates when alone (1.09 ± 0.1 SD scans/s).


Kinds Of Predators And Manner Of Predation

Recorded predators on adults include Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata; Downs 1958b), Barn Owl (Tyto alba; Dawe et al. 1978), Merlin (Falco columbarius; Lawrence 1949a), Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus; Weaver 1940, Storer 1966), American Kestrel (Falco sparverius; Weaver 1940, Ritchison 1983a), domestic cat (Felis domestica; Weaver 1940, W. E. Cook pers. comm.), and domestic dog (Canis familiaris; Collister 1989). Eggs and young consumed by Blue Jay (NRCP data), California Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica; Rowley 1929), Clark's Nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana; NRCP data), Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula; NRCP data), and red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus; NRCP data). No details of capture reported, with the exception of an American Kestrel taking a Purple Finch in midair after it had been flushed by an observer (Ritchison 1983a).

Response To Predators

Occasionally joins in mobbing predator. During nest depredation, adults often remain in the vicinity calling (NRCP data).

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