The purple finch is a North American finch, related to the house finch and Cassin's finch. These were referred to the European genus Carpodacus, but more recently have been recognized in their own North American genus, Haemorhous. Confusingly, these pretty birds are not at all purple, though the male has ample bright pinkish-red on the head and chest (sometimes with a small red crest, not always evident). There is less striping on the breast and belly than in the house finch, with which it can easily be confused. The female is akin to the female house finch, but two pale but well-defined lines on face and cheek help to distinguish her from otherwise-stripy house finch and pine siskin. In a good viewing of a bird at a feeder, it is easy enough to tell the house and purple finches apart, but a glimpse may not suffice. Prior to 2016, we had heard tell of the purple finch but not seen one in the township. My only sighting of the species in the reporting period, prior to 2016, was of a small group at a feeder in East Bull Lake, up in the coniferous -dominated woodlands of Algoma, between Sudbury and Sault Ste. Marie, on 12 May 2006.
The explosive radiation of the introduced house finch, since its escape from New York in the 1940s, may have displaced the purple finch in a wide area of the east of the continent, our district included. This is affirmed by our observations, the majority at bird feeders, in which the house finch appears more frequently than the purple finch by a ratio of roughly 100:1. The purple finch more often than not appears as an individual bird or perhaps a male:female pair. The limited identifications have been made since 2015, in a late fall to midwinter period (September, November, February). Prior to the house finch "explosion", the continent-wide purple finch had already lost some eastern ground to the "English sparrow" (house sparrow: see Forbush and May, 1939, pp.491-492).
The purple finch nests in Ontario from mid-May to early August, and a favoured summer range for the birds lies just north of us in the southern Canadian Shield (Cadman et al., 2007, pp.610-611). Thus the few recorded sightings here fall outside the nesting season.
The first and second breeding bird atlases of the province (Cadman et al., 1987, 2007) display the distribution of the purple finch, which tends to favour coniferous forests over the open lands of the agricultural south. Levine (1998, pp.560-561) documented a similar distribution in New York state, with the purple finch common at higher elevations and in the north. An elegant description of the courtship, nesting and annual cycles of the purple finch can be found in Forbush and May (1939, pp.491-492).
Eastwards from Trent Hills, in the greater Kingston area, flocks as large as 300 (or in one case, 2,000) birds have been observed during the fall migration, though some small flocks may adopt a feeding station and overwinter there (Weir, 1989, pp.471-472). Spring and fall migrations are distributed around the start of May and the end of September. The purple finch has been reported at Presqu'ile park, though it may be seen there in summer more rarely now than in the past, and in winter it may appear during irregular irruptions (LaForest, 1993, p.380). In the Kawarthas, the species is mostly to be found in the north of the region, with migrations in May and October (Sadler, 1983, p.161).
Cadman,MD, Eagles,PFJ and Helleiner,FM (1987) Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario. Federation of Ontario Naturalists and Long Point Bird Observatory, published by University of Waterloo Press, 617pp.
Cadman,MD, Sutherland,DA, Beck,GG, Lepage,D and Couturier,AR (editors) (2007) Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario, 2001-2005. Bird Studies Canada, Environment Canada, Ontario Field Ornithologists, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, and Ontario Nature, 706pp.
Forbush,EH and May,JB (1939) Natural History of the Birds of Eastern and Central North America. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 554pp. and 97 plates.
LaForest,SM (1993) Birds of Presqu'ile Provincial Park. Friends of Presqu'ile Park, Brighton, Ontario / Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, 436pp.
Levine,E (editor) (1998) Bull's Birds of New York State. Comstock Publishing Associates, Cornell University Press, revised version, 622pp.
Sadler,D (1983) Our Heritage of Birds: Peterborough County in the Kawarthas. Peterborough Field Naturalists / Orchid Press, Peterborough, ON, 192pp.
Weir,RD (1989) Birds of the Kingston Area. Quarry Press, 608pp. plus map.