Finches: Fringillidae

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FINCHES: Fringillidae



The family Fringillidae consists of "true" finches that are small- to moderately large-sized birds with a compact body, a short, conical-shaped bill, strong skull, and a peaked head with large jaw muscles. They have easily seen shoulder patches, a short neck, plumage (feathers) that vary from dull to colorful, nine small outer primary feathers on their wings that are hidden by wing coverts (small feather around quill base), and a long tail with twelve feathers. Finches are 3 to 10 inches (7.6 to 25.4 centimeters) long and weigh between 0.3 and 2.1 ounces (8 and 60 grams).


Finches range throughout the Americas, Europe, Asia, and Africa.


They prefer forests, shrubby areas, savannas (flat grasslands), grasslands, agricultural areas, parks, and gardens.


Finches eat seeds, grains, and other vegetable matter. They also eat insects and other small invertebrates (animals without a backbone). Many species forage on the ground, while others feed in trees.


Finches are strong fliers, and able to hop and run over short distances. Some species migrate long distances to warmer climates, while others wander constantly in search for food. Finches are mostly quiet birds, but do have short, sharp calls that are used to communicate and to warn of predators. Males use unique songs to defend a large breeding territory and to attract a mate. Because finches are spread out throughout the world, songs vary widely.

Female finches build cup-shaped nests of grasses and other plant fibers. Nests are constructed in trees, shrubs, or rocky crevices. Most species breed as a mating pair, but others form small family groups. Once the male and female bonds, they are monogamous (muh-NAH-guh-mus; one mate) for the breeding season. Females lay two to six eggs, which vary with respect to species as to color and markings. The eggs are incubated (kept warm for hatching) usually by the female, but sometimes by both parents, which also take care of young.


Many species have been captured and bred as cage-birds or pets because people like their beautiful songs, attractive plumage, and habits.


Finches have a bill suited for shelling seeds. Each seed is wedged in a special groove on the side of the palate (roof of the mouth) and crushed by raising its lower jaw onto it. The shell husk is then peeled off with the tongue, releasing the kernel. The bird throws away the husk, and the kernel is taken off with its tongue and swallowed.


One species is listed as Critically Endangered, facing an extremely high risk of extinction; five species are Endangered, facing a very high risk of extinction; three species are Vulnerable, facing a high risk of extinction; four species are Near Threatened, in danger of becoming threatened with extinction; and one species is Extinct, died out.


Physical characteristics: Chaffinches have a white shoulder patch, a white wing-bar, and white tail markings. Males are patterned with a blue-gray back and front of head, a pink-to-rust face, throat, breast, and sides, a gray-green rump, a white belly, flanks, and undertail coverts, and a gray-blue tail. Females are duller with a yellow-brown overall color, a paler colored belly, a brown eye line, and light olive-brown upperparts. Color variations and streaking patterns occur because of wide geographical range. Adults are about 6 inches (15.2 centimeters) long, with a wingspan of about 9.5 inches (24.1 centimeters).

Geographic range: Chaffinches are widely spread throughout most of Europe, across the Middle East, through the Ukraine and western Russia to Afghanistan, and in North Africa, the Canary Islands, and the Azores.

Habitat: They are found in a variety of woodlands and open forests, urban and suburban parks and gardens, and fields with hedgerows.

Diet: Their diet consists of seeds (including pine) and fruits. Young chaffinches are fed insect larvae (LAR-vee), caterpillars, butterflies, moths, and other invertebrates, which are brought up from the stomachs of parents as partially digested food. They feed from trees and bushes.

Behavior and reproduction: Chaffinches are found alone or in pairs during the nesting season, and in groups and small flocks after breeding. They are migratory birds and females prefer to migrate farther south than males. Their song is a bold warbling such as "fyeet, fyeet, lya-lya-vee, chee-yew-keak." Their call is a "pink-pink" and their flight call is "cheup." Chaffinches build well-hidden, cup-shaped nests of grasses and lichens. Nests are neatly constructed in trees or shrubs that are near to trunks or large branches. The incubation period (time sitting on eggs) is ten to sixteen days, only done by the female. One to two broods (young born and raised together) are raised each year by the pair (mostly by female).

Chaffinches and people: People enjoy chaffinches for their beauty and song both in residential and agricultural areas. They have been kept as pets for their beautiful singing.

Conservation status: Chaffinches are not threatened. They are widespread and abundant throughout their habitat. In fact, they have grown in numbers as their native habitats of forests have been turned into urbanized and agricultural lands, but only when such areas contain trees, shrubs, and hedgerows. ∎


Physical characteristics: Male American goldfinches are colored an overall bright canary yellow, with black wings marked in double white bars and white edging, a black tail, and a black face cap. Males are not as brightly colored in the winter. Females are a dull grayish-yellow, with dark wings and tails, pale yellow under parts without a black cap, and olive upper parts. Juveniles are olive-yellow, with darker wings. Adults are 4.3 to 5.0 inches (10.9 to 12.7 centimeters) long and weigh about 0.5 ounces (14 grams). Their wingspan is 8.8 to 9.0 inches (22.4 to 22.9 centimeters) long.

Geographic range: American goldfinches breed throughout most of southern Canada and the northern half of the United States. It winters in extreme southern Canada, through most of the United States, and northern Mexico.

Habitat: American goldfinch is one of the most common birds in the United States, usually seen in parks, farms, and suburban gardens. They inhabit open, mixed-species forests, and shrubby areas. They winter in shrubby habitats, old fields, and parks and gardens.

Diet: Their diet consists of small seeds and grains, especially liking plants in the aster family, including sunflower, lettuce, and thistles. They also eat insects.

Behavior and reproduction: American goldfinches fly with a very unique bounding flight. They are migratory birds, and social during the nonbreeding season when they are often found in large flocks, usually with other finches. The birds breed in loose colonies (bird groups that live together and are dependent on each other). Their courtship rituals include daring maneuvers and singing by males. Males court when their bright plumage appears. Their song is a series of musical warbles and trills, often with a long "baybeee" note. When flying, they sing songs like "per-chick-oree" or "po-tato-chips."

Monogamous American goldfinches begin to breed around the middle of June in their northern habitat, while in southern climates, they breed as early as March and continue through July. They defend a nesting territory. Most mating pairs raise only one brood each year. They build small cup-shaped nests that are woven with grasses and other plant fibers. Nests are placed in large thistles, other tall weeds, shrubs, or trees. Females lay four to six pale bluish white eggs. The incubation period is ten to twelve days, performed only by females. Both mates feed their young with a fledgling period lasting eleven to seventeen days. Young spend the fall following their parents. One to two broods occur each year.

American goldfinches and people: People find American goldfinches to be very popular birds to watch. It is the state bird of Iowa, New Jersey, and Washington.

Conservation status: American goldfinches are not threatened. They are widespread throughout their geographical range. However, their numbers have been decreasing during recent decades mostly due to habitat loss through developing their native lands for urban and agricultural uses. ∎


Physical characteristics: Red crossbills show much geographic variation in body size, and in bill size and shape, but not in color. They have a fairly heavy body (about the size of sparrows), a short forked tail, and a stout bill where the tips of the upper and lower mandibles (parts of bill) cross over. Males are colored an overall dusky brick red with dusky wings that have reddish edging, and a dusky black tail that is short and notched. The undertail coverts are dark with whitish edging, while the belly is whitish gray. Females are gray tinged with dull green, brightest on rump, with darker (dusky black) wings. Juveniles have weakly crossed mandibles, gray-olive upperparts, whitish under parts that are streaked with dark brown and washed with yellow, and a buff-yellow rump. Adults are 5.3 to 6.5 inches (14.0 to 16.5 centimeters) long and weigh about 1.4 ounces (40 grams). Their wingspan is 10.0 to 10.8 inches (25.4 to 27.4 centimeters) long.

Geographic range: Red crossbills range through the boreal and montane forest regions of both North America and Eurasia. They are found from coast to coast on both continents, breeding from southern Alaska, Manitoba, Quebec, and Newfoundland, south in west to northern Nicaragua, in eastern United States to Wisconsin and North Carolina.

Habitat: Red crossbills are mostly found in pine-containing conifer forests.

Diet: Their diet consists of conifer seeds mostly from the tree but sometimes off the ground, especially liking pine seeds. They remove seeds with its crossed bills and flexible tongue. The birds also eat insects and caterpillars.

Behavior and reproduction: Red crossbills are very social birds, especially during their nonbreeding season when they are found in large flocks. They sing a series of two-note phrases followed by a trilled warble, such as "jitt, jitt, jitt, jiiaa-jiia-jiiaaaa," "chipa-chipa-chipa," and "kip-kip-kip." The birds defend their territory with a repeated series of simple chirps as they fly around. During courtship, males fly above a female while vibrating wings and singing. Breeding pairs are monogamous. Females build saucer-shaped nests of twigs, grass, bark strips, and rootlets. Nests are lined with finer grasses, fur, feathers, hair, and moss, located near the end of conifer branches, and 6.6 to 40.0 feet (2 to 12 meters) off the ground. Females lay three to four light green-blue eggs that are spotted with brown and lilac. The incubation period is twelve to eighteen days. Only females incubate. The helpless newborns are brooded by the female and fed by both parents. The fledgling period is fifteen to twenty days. One to two broods occur each year.

Red crossbills and people: There is no known significant relationship between people and red crossbills.

Conservation status: Red crossbills are not threatened. They are abundant throughout their range, but some species are declining in numbers due to human activities such as logging operations. ∎



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Web sites:

Adkisson, Curtis S. "Red Crossbill." The Birds of North America, No. 256, 1996 (Cornell University).