You know a bird is beautiful when Robert Tory Peterson describes it as a “sparrow dipped in raspberry juice.” New Hampshire must have thought the same, for they voted the Purple Finch the state bird in 1957.
Originally, the Purple Finch ran into opposition from proponents of the New Hampshire hen. However, Representative Robert Monahan was so passionate about the finch, and so scared that “some other state beats us to it,” that when he brought it up for public hearing his proposal won support first from the House, and then the Senate. The Purple Finch officially became the state bird on April 25th.
Most of the United States only sees Purple Finches in the winter months, when they migrate south. Parts of the Pacific Coast, New England, and the Great Lakes region are home to the finches all year round, including, of course, New Hampshire. Though they breed in coniferous or mixed woods, during the winter they can be found in fields, shrublands, and even backyards.
Purple Finches have a wide diet, which includes seeds, buds, nectar, fruit, berries, and insects. When eating seeds, these finches use large beaks to crush the seeds, while their tongues “extract the nut.”
Unfortunately, Purple Finch populations are decreasing by around 1.4% per year; between 1966 and 2010 their numbers declined by almost 50%. House Finches have played a role in this decline According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, “[o]ne study of finch behavior found that Purple Finches lost out to House Finches more than 95% of the times the two birds encountered each other.”
House Finches are an invasive species, introduced to the Eastern United States in the 1940’s when they were released on Long Island, and their dominance over Purple Finches is a perfect illustrative story of the problems with invasive species. Interestingly, the two finch species actually look similar, but the Purple Finch is more red overall and may actually have less vibrant red than the House Finch.
Conjunctivitis could also be causing the decline in population. It has hit the House Finch population hard and has been observed in Purple Finches too.