Gerry Rising is the author of BIRDS AND BIRD WATCHING. His new book is ABOUT MATHEMATICS.

house finch

These birds were once marketed as alternatives to household canaries.

I have only recently begun feeding birds again. My wife insisted we quit some years ago, after squirrels completely destroyed two expensive feeders that she had given me as gifts. We still have pesky squirrels in our yard, but now I buy pepper-tainted bird seed and suet. This turns away squirrels and other mammals, but does not harm the birds. 

Unfortunately, the pepper doesn’t discourage non-native birds like house sparrows and starlings. The starlings have only visited a few times, but more than a dozen house sparrows jostle for position at the trays and perches several times a day.

Happily, a few individuals representing other species have appeared as well, bringing my list to over a dozen in just two weeks. My wife’s favorite, a lovely male cardinal, shows up at dawn and dusk and a few other times during the day, a female joining him only once or twice so far. I was especially pleased when Doris called me to the window overlooking the feeder to ask, “What is that pink bird among the sparrows?” It was a house finch, our most recent newcomer.

To younger birders, that observation means very little; house finches are now reasonably common here. They would have checked it carefully nonetheless, hoping that it was a purple finch instead. I, on the other hand, was delighted. No matter how common house finches have become, whenever I see them, they remind me of a history in the eastern United States that began during my lifetime and involved two very dear friends, now sadly long departed. They were John Elliott, with whom I spent many delightful hours birding on Long Island, and Bob Arbib, who was my most important correspondent when I edited the state journal, The Kingbird. 

It begins formally with an article by Elliott and Arbib that appeared in the professional ornithological journal, The Auk, in January 1953. It starts: “On January 17, 1948, at Hewlett, Nassau County, Long Island, New York, an adult male House Finch, Carpodacus mexicanus, was collected by Arbib from a flock of forty or more birds. This specimen (now No. 348793, American Museum of Natural History) was the first House Finch collected in the eastern United States, and it proved that the species had been correctly identified as a resident—indeed, a breeding bird on Long Island—an assertion that had been maintained in the face of some skepticism during the previous five years.”

You would not have to see the date to realize that those were different times; then, “collected” meant shot, a requirement for identification of a regional newcomer no longer necessary now that photography can do the job.

The article continues to explain the source of those birds. The established range of house finches until the mid-twentieth century was the southwestern United States and western Mexico. In January of 1940, a Brooklyn resident, Dr. Edward Fleisher, found some of these birds being sold in a pet shop as Hollywood finches. Other stores called them red-headed linnets. His report to the National Audubon Society led to a check of the situation in the west by the Biological Survey Division of Game Management. They found that thousands of these birds were being illegally trapped in the Southwest and shipped east to sell as an alternative to household canaries.

Faced with possible prosecution for selling birds protected under the 1918 International Migratory Bird Treaty, the stores simply released them. As one friend put it at the time: “When the game warden appeared at the front door, the house finches went out the rear.” Some of those birds established a new eastern population.

I was teaching at that time in Connecticut and John Elliott showed me some of those birds. I then moved to Minnesota and, while I was there, house finches spread rapidly and beat me to Buffalo. When I arrived in the mid-1960s, they were here. Christmas count evidence suggests that the eastern range already extends now to within a few hundred miles of the western population. 

That is, unfortunately, only part of the house finch story. At first, they became so common that they outnumbered house sparrows, whose population had declined with the end of horse-drawn transportation as sparrows commonly fed on horse manure. Eventually,  groups of house finches even appeared to be more aggressive than their other immigrant cousins. Then, in early 1994, a disease first identified among house finches in Washington, DC began to spread rapidly. It was a form of conjunctivitis, a virulent relative of the milder human pink eye. As one aspect of the disease, house finches developed nasty crusts over their eyes, which sometimes blinded them.

For these small birds, the effect of the disease was harsh: a reduction of sixty percent of their eastern population. In 2002, the disease appeared in the west as well, resulting in a seventy percent kill-off. Thankfully, the disease has apparently run its course—I assume because of “herd immunity”—and we are no longer seeing sick finches. I see no evidence that the house finch population is increasing to those highs of thirty years ago, but am happy to see one or two at my backyard feeders.

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