Bird Watcher's General Store

Same House Finches Back? - 06/09/06


Dear Bird Folks,

How does a new House Finch couple find their way to my hidden porch light every May, build a new nest, raise a family or two, leave midsummer, only to return the following May to repeat the same behavior? Are they the same birds? Where do they go when they leave our porch? Also, a family member, who didn't want the birds to return, sprayed bleach over the nesting spot, but the birds returned anyway. I guess bleach doesn't bother them.

-Phyllis, Stamford, CT

I hope Phyl,

I hope I got your questions right. No offense but I had a little trouble reading your handwriting. Believe me, I'm the last one to complain about other people's writing. My handwriting looks like a doctor's prescription, written in the dark, during an earthquake. But trying to read your lengthy note, jammed onto the back of a postcard, was like trying to crack the Da Vinci Code. I'm pretty sure I got most of it right, but just in case I missed a few things, I put a call in to Tom Hanks. He's good at breaking codes.

House Finches, as their name implies, like to nest near houses. I'm talking about our houses here, not birdhouses. They may occasionally nest in a birdhouse or the dense foliage of a tree, but most of the time they'd rather nest in or under a structure built for humans. These birds want a dry roof over their heads. It seems Mrs. House Finch doesn't like to be caught out in the rain. It's bad enough that she has to sit on eggs all day without having to get soaked for her efforts. If you have a porch or any kind of overhang, chances are you will have a house finch nest.

In addition to an overhang, the finches also need a solid base to build their nest on. That is why porch lights are prime real estate to these birds. The light offers them a good base and that's all. It has nothing to do with the heat from the light keeping their eggs warm or allowing the birds to read late at night. Your porch light may seem like it's "hidden" to us, but the female finch is an expert at finding odd, out-of-the-way places to build her nest. It is the hidden part that increases the appeal.

Without marking the birds with leg bands, we can't be sure if you are getting the same couple returning each year, but there is a good chance you are, at least the same female. Female House Finches have a very high nest site fidelity. In fact, she is far more likely to return to the same nest location than she is to return with the same mate. As with humans, the females have no shortage of males willing to mate with them, but good housing can be tough to find and they don't like to give it up. When a divorce occurs, which is very common with these finches, the females, which invariably have the best lawyers, always get to keep the house.

The female finches may get to keep the house, but they are lousy housekeepers. Their nests are notoriously messy. Apparently they spend so much time studying divorce law that they have little time left over to housebreak their kids. When only a few days old the baby finches back up to the top of the nest and deposit their droppings along the nest's edge, leaving an ever growing ring of lovely excrement. This rather odd habit grosses out all of the poop-a-phobes of the world and they respond by trying to discourage the birds from nesting. If you don't want the birds to nest, you must cover up or block their chosen nest site before they return in the spring. Please don't spray the site with harsh chemicals. Tell your bleach-happy family member, Phyllis, that finches don't have a good sense of smell and thus don't even know anything was sprayed. The only thing that spraying bleach will do is turn the female finches into blondes, which of course will only increase their tendency to breed. An interesting note about House Finches is that the red coloring on the male birds can vary from bright red to dull orange, and anything in between. Like the pink on flamingos, their diet effects their coloring. The ever- cunning females have figured out that the redder the males the better they are at finding food for the family. Thus the bright red boys get the babes, while the dull dudes are left hanging out at the pool hall every Friday night.

In the western part of their range, House Finches usually stay close to their breeding area year round. The eastern birds, on the other hand, are more migratory. Once the nesting season is over the birds join flocks and move out, probably in an effort to get away from their disgusting nests. Wild House Finches only live for a few years, Phyllis, so it's only a matter of time before your porch light will be left alone each spring and all those birds that were raised there will be forgotten. They'll be forgotten unless you decide to make a movie about them. I can see it now, Phyllis of Stamford starring in "The Da Finchi Code." Do you want to call Tom Hanks this time or should I?



Artwork by Catherine Clark


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