By Tony Gennaro
PNT Outdoors columnist
Have you noticed a bird with red feathers on the head and breast in your yard? If so, you were observing a male house finch, a beautiful bird that is with us year-round.
In addition to a show of color, the male announces the arrival of spring by uttering a continuous warbling song that lasts for several seconds. The female, on the other hand, is silent. She is brownish-gray and stripped. Her lack of visual distinction is important because she remains inconspicuous while tending to eggs and nestlings. Occasionally, in addition to feeding his mate and nestlings, the male flies into the courtship area to advertise the boundaries of the breeding couple’s territory.
Feather coloration on male house finches is brought about by carotenoids, pigments obtained from the seeds they eat. Males that select the best seeds have the brightest red color. Those that do not consume the best seeds have feather colorations ranging from pale red to orange. Males with the brightest feathers are highest in social rank among house finches and are the first choice of females. The reason is those high ranking males are the most aggressive and have the ability to select the best seeds, a behavior derived from their genes that will pass on to the breeding pair’s offspring.
The red colored feathers of house finches caused one of my students to make an interesting comment. He is from central, northern New Mexico where families have lived with the land for many generations. They name wildlife as they see fit, or they accept names given to wildlife by other individuals. For example, his mother referred to house finches as crucifixion sparrows. That was probably the name passed on through generations and given to house finches because it was believed that the redness of their feathers resulted from the blood of Jesus as birds flew past the cross on which he was being crucified. The name, crucifixion sparrow, is not listed in the literature. And, that is not surprising because names given to wildlife by local residents who live with nature are not always recognized in the scientific naming of birds.
Finally, house finches are unique huskers, that is, they use their beak to strip the protective coats from seeds in a split second, leaving the soft inner parts for a tasty meal. This behavior can be observed by placing sunflower seeds in a feeder and watching house finches go at it. But, there is one problem — often a pile of seed coats may have to be removed from underneath the feeder.
Desert Biologist Tony Gennaro of Portales writes a monthly column on creatures of the Southwest. Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org