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Wild Thing: Redheaded Stranger

Once absent from most of the state, house finches can be found across Texas today.

By Cliff Shackelford

Ever wonder how long that redheaded songster in your backyard has been around? Not the northern cardinal or summer tanager — they’re entirely red. I’m talking about the feeder-loving house finch.

Often confused with its close cousin, the purple finch, house finch males sport a brighter shade of red on head and chest. Purple finches are uncommon winter visitors to Texas, while the house finch can be found year-round.

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The female house finch is dingy brown with heavy streaks and speckles — no red head or chest. Best detected by a rich, warbling song, this bird often builds its nest deep inside hanging baskets or potted plants around the porch or patio. As the bird’s name implies, it is usually associated with urban or suburban areas except in far West Texas, where it can be found in desert scrub far from humans.

In decades-old literature, the house finch was called “linnet.” That name, however, is completely missing from a 1911 paper published in the journal The Auk by Howard Lacey on the bird life of the Kerrville area. There’s no way that Lacey, a careful and conscientious observer, could have missed this colorful and loud songster. It would take two decades for the linnet to reach the area near Lacey’s ranch. Since he died in 1929, we don’t know if he witnessed the colonization.

By the 1974 publication of Harry C. Oberholser’s book The Bird Life of Texas, the house finch had moved across the entire Hill Country, where its breeding range is described as being in places with “low humidity and hilly terrain.” The author notes that “permanent establishment in Texas east of Austin seems doubtful.”

How times have changed since then.

Originally a western species, house finches were introduced in the 1940s in New York to liven up city life with their bright color and lively song. Interestingly, those eastern birds quickly spread westward like wildfire; within a half-century, they met the original population, basically around the Interstate 35 corridor in Texas. Today, the bird’s distribution across Texas is virtually seamless. I remember their arrival in 1989 in East Texas, followed soon by breeding and, at last, the permanency we see today.

What once was a stranger in town has settled well into urban and suburban settings, lending color and song to our backyards.

Eye Problems

A pathogenic bacterium that causes a form of conjunctivitis has spread rapidly in house finches across the eastern United States. This disease, known appropriately as house finch eye disease, causes the birds to have red, swollen, runny or crusty eyes. To concerned backyard birders: There’s nothing you can do to save an infected bird, but regularly cleaning your bird feeders and bird baths can help reduce infection.

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See more wildlife articles on TP&W magazine's Texas wildlife page


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