To refresh your memory, here again is the photo for Bird Quiz #1. Read no further if you still want to have a shot at identifying these birds.
I had been actively birding only a week or two when I took a trip to Yellowstone National Park. There I saw and photographed a bird just like the bottom bird in the photo. I thumbed through all the pictures of sparrows in my brand new field guide, but couldn’t ID the bird. I filed the photo under “to be identified” and forgot about it.
Several years later, I was cleaning out my files and came across the photo. Noting the wedge-shaped beak, gray-brown coloring and streaked breast and sides, I instantly recognized my mystery bird as a female House Finch. What a difference a couple of years can make!
Now, how about the top bird? Is that also a female House Finch? It has the same wedge-shaped beak (although it seems a bit slimmer), the same gray-brown coloring, and the same streaks. Some might argue that the streaks are more “crisp” rather than blurred, but I can’t really see that in this photo. The give-away, however is the gray-brown “crest” on the head. This is a female Cassin’s Finch.
The photo was taken in La Veta, a small town in southern Colorado, where both finches are abundant. Here are the males of each species. Can you tell them apart now?
Yup, the one on the left is a Cassin’s Finch, as is the one below. The one on the right is a House Finch.
The red coloring on the males provides another clue. The Cassin’s Finches are more pinkish-red, while the House Finch is more orangey-red. In fact, a few individuals are orange, or even yellow!
However, we need to be careful when using color to ID a species. The position of the sun in the sky can have a profound effect on color, with the golden light of early morning or late afternoon rendering even Cassin’s Finches orangey.
I wanted to include a third finch—a Purple Finch—to make this more interesting. Sadly, in spite of trips to California and a variety of eastern states, I have yet to see a Purple Finch. Perhaps it’s my new “nemesis bird.”