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


Pair Formation

Little information available. Reported courtship behavior (see Behavior: sexual behavior, above) tends to immediately precede nest-building, but exact role of this behavior in pair formation versus synchronizing other breeding activities unclear.


Recorded dates of initiation of building from early Apr through Jul for nests not known to be renests (Nest Record Card Program [NRCP] data). Geographic variation: ne. North America (Pennsylvania and north, east of Michigan) mean Julian date 151.2 ± 19.5 SD (range 95–178, n = 37); se. North America (south of Pennsylvania) 139.8 ± 45.0 (range 91–178, n = 4); central North America (Michigan west to Alberta) 162.5 ± 11.6 (range 147–174, n = 4); w. North America (California to Washington) 130.8 ± 17.8 (range 94–145, n = 8).

First/Only Brood Per Season

Available data sufficient to describe reproductive phenology based on data from NRCP data for nests not known to be renests (Figure 3 .). Data undoubtedly include some second nestings. First egg dates range from 1 Apr to 28 Jul; hatching dates from 20 Apr to 6 Aug; fledging dates from 24 Apr to 27 Aug (Grimm 1953a, Yunick 1983a, NRCP data). One extreme observation of nest with 4 eggs, 3 young in Mar from Fairfield, CT, in 1967 (NRCP data). Data insufficient to permit extensive geographic comparisons: first egg dates range from 15 May to 23 Jul in New York (n = 15; NRCP data, JTW), from 9 Apr to 26 May in Pennsylvania (n = 6; NRCP data, JTW), and from 30 May to 22 Jun in Michigan (n = 5; NRCP data, JTW), suggesting a trend in later nest initiation with increasing latitude.

Second/Later Broods Per Season

Requires further study of marked breeding populations to determine phenology and rates of multiple nesting. Known multiple nestings: case 1— brood fledged 24 Apr, first egg in second nest 26 Apr (NRCP data); case 2— brood in Pennsylvania fledged 25 Jun, second nest started 26 Jun and fledged in mid-Jul, possible third brood fledged around 3 Aug (Grimm 1953a); case 3— in California 13 May, nest inactive 28 May, second nest being built 3 Jun (NRCP data); case 4— in New York 10 May, nest lost in storm 14 May, new nest built nearby 21 May, first egg in nest 28 May, fledged 21 Jun; case 5– in nest 6 Jun, eggs gone and new nest with eggs 14 Jun, nest depredated 20 Jun.

Nest Site

Selection Process

Both members of pair seem to participate in choosing nest site, but no details of their roles available (NRCP data). Requires further study.


Usually placed out on a branch of a conifer tree (342/435, 79% of nests in NRCP and Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology [WFVZ] egg-collection data), the vast majority in Douglas-fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii), Austrian pine (Pinus nigra), Scotch pine (P. sylvestrus), or spruce. Sometimes placed on a branch of a deciduous tree (74/435, 17%), usually an oak (Quercus spp.), maple, or fruit tree (apple and Prunus spp.). Other nesting substrates include conifer shrubs (6/435, 1%), deciduous shrubs (3/435, <1%), vines (5/435, 1%), nesting platforms designed to attract Eastern Phoebes (Sayornis phoebe) (2/435, <1%), a wreath of conifer branches (1/435, <1%), rock crushing machinery (1/435, <1%), and an airplane (1/435, <1%). H. p. californicus nests at a significantly higher rate on nonconifer substrates (72/116, 62%) than does H. p. purpureus (15/319, 5%). Within subspecies, southern populations nest at significantly higher rates on nonconifer substrates (2/8, 25% for H. p. purpureus south of Pennsylvania; 66/97, 68% for H. p. californicus in California) than do northern populations (13/311, 4% for other H. p. purpureus populations; 6/19, 31% for H. p. californicus populations in Washington and Oregon). No information on relative availability of nesting substrates in different areas, so unclear whether differences reflect changes in substrate availability across different habitats or variation in substrate preferences among populations.

Site Characteristics

Placed 0.75–18.3 m above ground (NRCP data), occasionally on ground (Munro 1922a). Nest sites typically have an overhanging branch or other structure.


Construction Process

Based on NRCP data, takes 3–8 d to build. Female performs majority of nest construction. Male also reported to participate, but details of participation (material provision vs. nest construction) not given (Verner and Willson 1969, NRCP data). In one report, male accompanied female while she built nest but neither carried nesting materials nor aided in construction (Webster 1898).

Structure And Composition Matter

Nest made of a base of twigs, sticks, and roots, cup lined with fine grasses, fibers, and animal hair (Grimm 1953a, Bent 1968b, NRCP data, WFVZ data).


Measurements available from 1 nest: outside diameter 17 mm, outside height 11 mm, inside (cup) diameter 11 mm, depth 7 mm (WFVZ).


No information. Overhangs typical of nest sites probably reduce temperature fluctuations experienced by the nest.

Maintenance Or Reuse Of Nests, Alternate Nests

No evidence that nests are reused. No reports of alternate nests. Nest material added to nest during use (NRCP data).

Nonbreeding Nests

None reported



Short subelliptical


Mean of 50 eggs: 20.2 mm length, 14.6 mm breadth; maximum length 22.4 mm, minimum 17.8 mm; maximum breadth 16.8 mm, minimum 13.5 mm (Bent 1968b). Within subspecies, H. p. purpureus mean 20.02 mm length (range 18.69–22.14, based on averages of 20 clutches containing a total of 83 eggs), 14.58 mm breadth (range 13.84–15.31 mm); H. p. californicus mean length 20.05 mm (range 18.91–22.17 mm, n = averages from 20 clutches containing 82 eggs), 14.32 mm breadth (range 13.73–14.87 mm) (WFVZ).


Mean mass of 1 egg 4.2 g (n = 29), each egg 17.2% of female mass (Amadon 1943). Mass of eggshells averages 0.119 g (range 0.098–0.133 g, averages of 20 clutches containing 83 eggs) in H. p. purpureus, and 0.109 g (range 0.097–0.128 g, averages of 20 clutches containing 82 eggs) in H. p. californicus (WFVZ).


Pale greenish blue background with dots, spots, or occasional scrawls of brown or black, generally concentrated at the widest end of the egg.

Surface Texture

Smooth with slight gloss.

Eggshell Thickness, Pre- And Post-DDT

No information.

Clutch Size

From sample of 258 nests combined from NRCP and WFVZ data, mean clutch size of 3.94 ± 0.8 SD, median 4.0, range 2–7. Frequency distribution (clutch size-number observations): 2–12, 3–57, 4–129, 5–56, 6–3, 7–1.

Significant geographic variation in clutch size, with a tendency for larger clutches in the north: s. California (south of Monterey Bay) mean 3.8 ± 0.58 SD (n = 25), n. California 4.13 ± 0.57 SD (n = 56), Oregon and Washington 4.27 ± 0.96 SD (n = 15), southeastern population (Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia) mean 4.13 ± 0.72 SD (n = 16), n. U.S. (Michigan, New York, New England states) mean 3.76 ± 0.96 SD (n = 132), Canada 4.5 ± 0.65 SD (n = 14).


Starts 1–5 d following nest completion. One egg laid/day until clutch complete. No information on sexual guarding, replacement of individual eggs. Lost clutches not replaced in the same nest. No evidence for or against intraspecific egg-dumping.


Onset Of Broodiness And Incubation In Relation To Laying

Females sometimes found on nest prior to laying of last egg (NRCP data), but unclear whether incubating, laying egg, or maintaining nest.

Incubation Patch

Female has single incubation patch (Blake 1955, Yunick 1983a).

Incubation Period

12–13 d (NRCP data).

Parental Behavior

Few data. Female incubates most of the time, but male also participates (Mousley 1919, Munro 1922a). Male feeds female both on and off the nest while she is incubating (Knight 1908, Covell 1922, Stratton 1967). Female often hard to flush off the nest (NRCP data), even known to require physical removal to observe nest contents (Dawson 1923). No information on daily patterns of incubation or change-over activities.

Hardiness Of Eggs Against Temperature Stress, Effect Of Egg Neglect

In 2 cases of egg neglect (eggs cold following clutch completion), eggs hatched in one instance but failed to hatch in the other (NRCP data). Both cases of egg neglect reported in Jul when temperature stress presumably less severe than early in breeding season.


Preliminary Events And Vocalizations

No information.

Shell-Breaking And Emergence

No information on times of hatching or duration of hatching. Eggs generally hatch within 24 h of each other (NRCP data).

Parental Assistance And Disposal Of Eggshells

No information on parental assistance in hatching. Eggshells removed from nest following hatching (NRCP data).

Young Birds

Condition At Hatching

Altricial young with eyes closed, little down. Little coordinated movement. No information on mass, measurements, or retention of egg tooth.

Growth And Development

No detailed information available.

Parental Care


Females brood young (NRCP data), but no detailed information available on circumstances, duration, or variation with age of young.


Both parents feed young by regurgitation (Straw 1919, NRCP data). Diet reported as consisting nearly entirely of seeds (Eastzer et al. 1980). No quantitative information available.

Nest Sanitation

Feces removed from nest while nestlings present (details of method not described). Feces deposited around edge of nest as young fledge (NRCP data). Invertebrate associates in the nest include mites (NRCP data) and dipterans (Apaulina sp., Protocalliphora azurea; Plath 1919b, Hall 1948).

Cooperative Breeding

One report of a bird, presumed to be a male (without red in its plumage), feeding both the incubating female and offspring following disappearance of territorial male (Webster 1898).

Brood Parasitism by Other Species

Identity Of The Parasitic Species

Brown-headed Cowbird.

Frequency Of Occurrence, Seasonal Or Geographic Variation

Of 372 nests, 22 (5.9%) parasitized by Brown-headed Cowbird (NRCP data, WFVZ data). Single egg laid in 73% of parasitized nests, 2 eggs laid in 27% of parasitized nests. Parasitism rates have not changed appreciably since 1926, based on analysis of cumulative-frequency distribution across years in the incidence of parasitized and unparasitized nests (NRCP data, JTW). Parasitism rates significantly higher in eastern (22/275, 8%) than in western (0/97, 0%) nests; patterns and rates similar to those of House Finch (Wootton 1986).

Timing Of Laying In Relation To Host'S Laying

Few data; eggs may be laid before, during, or after Purple Finch egg-laying period (NRCP data). Cowbird eggs laid from early Apr through late Jul.

Response Of Parasitic Mother, Eggs, Or Nestlings

Purple Finch accepts cowbird eggs when its own eggs are present; abandons nest when no Purple Finch eggs present (Rothstein 1975a, NRCP data).

Effects Of Parasitism On Host

Excluding nests abandoned prior to laying, mean clutch size for nests in which clutch size could be determined: 3.5 ± 0.94 SD (n = 14), significantly lower than overall mean clutch size. On average, 1.0 ± 1.85 SD (n = 8) Purple Finch young fledged per parasitized nest, not significantly different than the overall fledging rate (see Demography and Populations: measures of breeding activity, below).

Success Of Parasite With This Host

Of 12 eggs in nests where outcome could be determined, 1 young (8.3%) was successfully fledged (NRCP data). Purple Finch is probably not a good host for Brown-headed Cowbird because it feeds nestlings mostly seeds (Eastzer et al. 1980); cowbird young need a predominantly insect diet to develop well.

Fledgling Stage

Departure From The Nest

Fledge 13–16 d after hatching. Young completely feathered and can fly weakly; remain in the vicinity of the nest site during the first week after fledging (Stratton 1967).


No information.

Association With Parents Or Other Young

Both parents feed fledglings for an undetermined duration.

Ability To Get Around, Feed, And Care For Self

Can fly weakly; ability to care for self unknown.

Immature Stage

No information.

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
Purple Finch nest, California

San Gabriel Canyon, Los Angeles Co. CA. 11 May 1940. Ruler is in cm.; photographer Rene Corado

Purple Finch
Purple Finch clutch, California

Sonoma Co., CA. 19 Jun 1920. Ruler is in cm.; photographer Rene Corado

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