Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Hollywood Finches in the Snow

January 27, 2014.  A lot more snow had fallen, and I trudged out into 9 inches on the ground with an air temperature of 11 degrees.  Fortunately, the wind seemed primarily up in the trees instead of close to the ground.  The city’s snow plows hadn’t yet made it onto the side streets, but people like myself had been shoveling and others were getting their snow blowers started.  I heard the wind, the city plows on the main street, the snow blower a few houses down from me and…

This song is defiantly cheerful, and rather out of place with the snow blower accompaniment.  House Finches are one of the first birds I hear in January – often the very first.  They are originally from the Southwest, but their response to daylight apparently triumphs over temperature and weather conditions and it’s not unusual to hear their first songs while snow is on the ground.

I trudged to the back of the yard to try to locate the singer on the other side of the fence.

Sure enough - he was singing from a utility wire above the back of a neighbor’s yard and the clump of evergreens where the noisy House Sparrow flock hangs out in the afternoon.   House Finches are as at home in the back yard as the House Sparrows, nesting in hanging planter baskets and under awnings.   If you have bird feeders, they probably will be there.  They will dine at the feeders or on the ground, and they’ll sing from the trees and utility lines.

Take another listen to the song.  It’s quite different from that of a Tufted Titmouse, Cardinal, Robin, or Black-capped Chickadee.   There’s a song characteristic that I call “general finchiness:” long phrases, few rests, little if any identifiable rhythm and no easily- identifiable pitches.   If the notes in this song rapidly run together without defining pauses, that’s actually a useful identifying characteristic.  Except for their call notes, Goldfinch songs are somewhat similar, as are those of the Pine Siskins that sometimes overwinter here.   House Finches, however, seem especially boisterous.

They also have calls that sound almost conversational, although their short “comments” may also erupt into bursts of song and squabbling.  These are not quiet, subtle birds.

Although I am a native Clevelander, I didn’t grow up with House Finches.  They simply weren’t in Ohio back in the 1950s and 60s.   I still remember my surprise when my mother pointed them out to me at her mobile home park in Lorain County (west of Cleveland) during the late 1970s.  There were quite a few of what she called “Purple Finches” all around the mobile home park, but this was absolutely not the habitat where one would ever look for Purple Finches.  Her confusion was understandable, as that was the closest species she could find in her book of Eastern birds.  House Finches simply were not birds of the Eastern US.

House Finches are actually native to the western US and Mexico – in fact, the species name is Haemorhous mexicanus.   They were captured and illegally sold to pet stores in New York City as "Hollywood Finches" in the 1940s and subsequently released when the pet stores faced the possibility of prosecution.  The relocated House Finches began to breed, and eventually began to spread.  (Jeff Mitton, professor in the Department of Biology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado, has written a fascinating account of evolutionary changes in these eastern House Finches - including their songs.  It was published in Boulder Daily Camera on 2/16/12 and can be found here.)

But exactly when did they reach Ohio?

Thanks to the Ohio Ornithological Society, I found this species account that provided the specific information that so intrigued me. The first record for this species was in Lake County in 1964 and nesting was confirmed in eastern Ohio in 1976-77.  This exactly matched my mother’s discovery of her “purple” finches in her Lorain County mobile home park on Interstate 80/90 in Elyria.  Once she brought them to my attention, I started looking and listening for them in the Cleveland area.  They were indeed present, and by the 1980s they were common.

In the 1990s, their population here seemed to peak.  House Finches completely filled the large platform feeder in our back yard, and House Sparrow numbers noticeably dropped.  But then an eye infection, mycoplasmal conjunctivitis, appeared in House Finches in the east and many House Finches were not able to survive due to starvation and predation.   House Finch numbers now are considerably lower than in the 1990s.  Mycoplasmal conjunctivitis, though not as prevalent, is still present.   Should you see signs of  eye disease in House Finches at your feeders, you should take down the feeders, clean and bleach them, and give the finches a little time to disperse before putting the feeders back up. 

House Finches have been singing for three weeks now, and they were singing after the latest storm dropped another 4-5 inches of snow on us last night.

Maybe January is a perfectly reasonable time to begin singing one’s spring song in the southwestern US – I don’t know.  But here in Northeast Ohio, it’s a powerful affirmation for those of us who just cannot bear one more snowfall.

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