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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Systematics History

Editor's Note: This article requires further editing work to merge existing content into the appropriate Subspecies sections. Please bear with us while this update takes place.

Geographic Variation

See below.


Two subspecies, H. p. purpureus and H. p. californicus, recognized in most treatments of the species, including this one. H. p. californicus breeds from British Columbia to n. Baja California; differs from H. p. purpureus in having its first primary longer than its fourth, generally more yellow- to olive-green in its body markings, sides and flanks of male strongly suffused with brownish, and red of male's rump darker and duller (Ridgway 1896, Blake 1955, JTW).

A third subspecies, H. p. nesophilus, recognized in 1957 American Ornithologists' Union's check-list; found in Newfoundland, described as darker (maroon purple rather than wine purple) and slightly larger than H. p. purpureus, based on a sample of only 9 birds (Burleigh and Peters 1948). Analysis of larger series of eastern Purple Finches suggests H. p. nesophilus an endpoint to a cline rather than a valid subspecies (Blake 1955). Two other subspecies proposed. H. p. taverneri in w. Canada considerably lighter than H. p. purpureus (Rand 1946a). H. p. rubidus in nw. U.S. darker than H. p. californicus (Duvall 1945b). Duvall's (Duvall 1945b) descriptions of geographic variation in coloration suggest to me that these subspecies simply reflect clinal variants.

Related Species

Purple, Cassin's, and House finches formerly were classified in the genus Carpodacus, which primarily is an Old World radiation. Protein electrophoresis analyses of North American cardueline finches (Marten and Johnson 1986) indicated that the three North American "Carpodacus" formed a monophyletic group, but did not include any Old World representatives of the genus. Multiple independent phylogenies based on DNA sequence data, from mitochondrial genes (Arnaiz-Villena et al. 2007a, Arnaiz-Villena et al. 2008) and both mitochondrial and nuclear genes (Nguembock et al. 2009, Lerner et al. 2011, Zuccon et al. 2012) consistently show that the three North American species are not closely related to true Carpodacus (rosefinches), and so the North American species now are separated in the genus Haemorhous (Zuccon et al. 2012).

Within North American Haemorhous, Purple Finch and Cassin's Finch are sister species (Smith et al. 2013). Marten and Johnson (1986) estimated the timing of the split between these two species as ca 3.1 million years before present (mybp); from their common ancestor with House Fincas as ca 9.3 mybp; and dated the split between the two subspecies of Purple Finch as from ca 78,000 years ago (Marten and Johnson 1986). More recent estimates of divergence times, based on a phlylogeny from multiple genes, are slightly older: ca 4.1 mybp for the divergence between Purple and Cassin's finches, ca 10.0 mybp for the divergence from the House Finch line, and ca 0.9 mybp for the divergence between H. p. purpureus and H. p. californicus (Smith et al. 2013).

Hybridization may occur but requires further study. A Purple Finch x Pine Grosbeak (Pinicola enucleator) hybrid reported (Thompson 1894). Evidence of intermediate forms between Purple Finch and other congeners suggests possible hybridization. Intermediate forms between Cassin's Finch and Purple Finch reported in S. Carolina (Wayne 1924b) and in the Cascade Mtns. of Washington (R. Peffer pers. comm.). Report of a male House Finch consorting with a female Purple Finch and her fledglings in Allegheny Co., NY (North American Nest Record Card [NRCP] data), and observation of an intermediate morph between a Purple Finch and a House Finch (voice similar in tonal quality but not pattern to House Finch; red coloration in areas typical of House Finch, but rosier and lacking the orange hues typical of House Finch; underparts white and lacking streaks, as is typical of Purple Finch) in Philadelphia, PA (K. Russell pers. comm.).


Purple Finch (Eastern) Haemorhous purpureus purpureus Scientific name definitions


S Canada (except SW) and NE USA; migrates mostly to SE USA S to C Texas and N Florida.


Purple Finch (Western) Haemorhous purpureus californicus Scientific name definitions


SW Canada (British Columbia) S along Pacific coast of W USA to California (Coast Ranges, Cascade Mts and W Sierra Nevada); non-breeding also to SE California, Arizona and extreme NW Mexico (NW Baja California).

Fossil History

Recorded from the late Pleistocene in central Tennessee (Parmalee and Klippel 1982).

Purple Finch
Adult male Purple Finch, Chester Co., PA, November.

Male purple finches are overall rosy red, with the color extending on to the mantle and the wing coverts. They retain this plumage year-round, but the reddish color can be tinged brown in fall when new feathers are tipped darker. The following is a link to this photographer's website: http://www.flickr.com/photos/puttefin/., Nov 02, 2013; photographer Kelly Colgan Azar

Purple Finch
Male and female or immature Purple Finches of the western subspecies, Skagit, WA, 7 October.

The western subspecies californicus is overall drabber, with poorly marked dingy underparts (females/immatures) compared with the nominate eastern birds .They also have a different song (see Sounds).

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
Female or immature Purple Finch of the western subspecies, Skagit, WA, 8 November.

Note blurry underpart streaking and less prominent head pattern than eastern birds. The californicus subspecies occurs primarily along the Pacific Coast north through Washington, overlapping with eastern birds somewhere in British Columbia.

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