We know that birds will visit birdbaths, water features, seed feeders, suet feeders, and flowers. Shelter is also quite appealing. So we know what attracts them to backyards, but how did they get here — beyond the obvious fact that they have wings and fly.
Some of our birds are year-round residents. We see others because we are fortuitously located on their migration path and seasonally witness them traveling north or south over Montclair. But there is another bird in the eastern U.S. and Canada, typically non-migratory and found here year-round, that arrived in New Jersey relatively recently — the vibrant-colored house finch. And it probably got here originally by train.
Until the 1940s, the house finch was found only on the west coast. The first recorded instance of a house finch on the east coast was at Jones Beach, Long Island, in April 1941. Unexpected birds from distant places appear periodically and excite bird watchers, who are always on the lookout for vagrants or rarities. After a while, they tend to leave, or are not seen again for other reasons. However, something more was going on here, and in March 1942, they were spotted again. Seven house finches were identified in Babylon, Long Island, 12 miles from Jones Beach.
By 1943, house finches were found to be nesting, and the number of birds observed continued to increase. By the end of the decade, flocks could be found on Long Island and across the Hudson in New Jersey. As their numbers grew, the question remained as to how they got to the east coast. If the birds were moving east from their native habitat on the west coast, someone would probably have spotted them on the way, but that didn’t happen, and notably, no one recorded seeing house finches nesting across the country.
It transpires that the birds were being trapped on the west coast and shipped in containers to pet stores in the east. It was an illegal practice violating a migratory bird treaty between the United States and Mexico. (Mexico has nothing to do with this essay, but it a party to the treaty.) The only way to legally trap and transport the birds was with a federal permit, and no permits had been issued for house finches.
The story doesn’t end at this point. Pet stores looked for ways to get around the law and even wanted to change the bird’s name, but they certainly didn’t want to deal with the law and pay fines. There was no escape for the dealers, and they could think of only one remedy and responded rapidly. What does a bird dealer do with birds he can’t sell? He opens the birdcage door and a nearby window. The Long Island house finches saw their opportunity, took the hint, and left.
House finches are now found everywhere in the continental United States. The birds we see here are the descendants of those original birds shipped to Long Island and released. Over the next 50 years, the eastern population kept moving west, meeting up with the western population on the eastern Great Plains.
Here in New Jersey, we frequently see house finches in our yards. If you don’t see them, you probably hear them singing from the tops of shrubs and low branches. They may crowd your bird feeders or simply forage on the ground in small groups. The males are the most colorful, sporting red heads and chests. The female lacks the male’s color, but both birds have streaked chests. (Look for the streaked chest: If there are no streaks and a white belly, you may be seeing the less common purple finch.)
You may also notice that some house finches are not quite as red as others due to regional differences in diet. Like goldfinches, the house finch prefers seeds and berries. An occasional aphid won’t be ignored. Weeds are a primary source of seeds. After the young are hatched, they are fed with regurgitated seeds. In our garden, finches find the echinacea (cone flowers) and rudbeckia (black-eyed Susan). But to a gardener’s consternation, they will also eat the petals of zinnias.
Winter flocks of house finches will contain birds forming pairs. When breeding season begins, the birds construct nests almost anywhere, and if they find a tree cavity or an unused nest, they know it will work just as well. The female will then lay four or five eggs and she will incubate them. They will hatch in another two weeks, at which point the male and female both take responsibility for the feeding of the chicks until they leave the nest in another two weeks to take care of themselves. The adults may go through this again, raising as many as three broods in a year.