Nature Nut: House finches now make nearly every state their home
My first encounter with these birds was when they began nesting in a hanging flower basket on my parents' porch more than 20 years ago. They just placed a small nest in the middle of the pot and went about the business of laying eggs and raising their young.
I recall looking them up and finding out house finches were historically found throughout much of the Western U.S., but not native around here. Story has it that in the 1940s, house finches from the Western U.S. were sold on the East Coast as "Hollywood finches." However, when pet store owners found out they faced fines for having protected birds, they let them go and they have spread Westward since.
Bird counts in the 1960s showed only a few house finches in a couple of Eastern states. Counts from successive decades show a westward movement, now reaching all the way through the Dakotas to join the native Western population. And they have even been introduced into Hawaii to provide another invasive non-native species to their already long list.
One account I recall reading about was of the first reported Minnesota nesting of house finches in Winona County in 1989. Since then, many of you have probably had house finches nesting in your flower baskets, or perhaps above a porch light, or some other platform around your house perimeter.
While female house finches are somewhat sparrow-like in appearance, the males have a lot of reddish coloration. House finches are not sparrows, but instead in a family that includes other species, some with finch in their name, like goldfinches or purple finches, and some without, like redpolls and grosbeaks.
In the winter, when purple finches may be around, it is quite easy to mistake them for house finches. I've gotten so I look at the colors on the males, with a reddish color most likely a house finch, and a more raspberry-purplish red being the purple finch. Female purple finches can also be told apart from female house finches by their distinct white eyebrow.
We have house finches that recently built a nest under our roof overhang. Had it been a messy house sparrow, or more aggressive barn swallow, my wife would have probably suggested I not let the nest-building get too far along. But the melodic call of the house finches gained them favor, so now we watch and listen to their activity daily. It should be noted, once completed, most nests are protected by law.
In the mid-'90s, house finches in the Eastern populations began showing signs of infectious conjunctivitis. This mutant bacteria strain that researchers felt jumped to the house finches eventually reached the Western populations.
Some believe the small number of released Eastern birds created a weak gene pool that was in part cause for these birds getting infected. People noticing house finches with mattery rings around their eyes are encouraged to disinfect and shut down feeders and bird baths for a couple weeks to minimize the spread.
It is unfortunate that humans have been responsible for moving a non-native species into Minnesota. However, on the plus side, house finches do seem to compete for house sparrow habitat and are certainly more colorful and melodic than the non-native sparrows. So, if you want to enjoy them around your home, just put out a hanging flower basket and chances are you will.