Meet the Island City’s Reddest Bird

Rick Lewis    The brightly colored house finch is known to frequent feeders on both the east and west coasts. The males feature red plumage that attracts their plainer mates.

A commonly found beautiful local bird called the house finch, is helping humans solve complex questions about epidemics and disease spread. I’ve had the opportunity to observe them during twice-monthly bird surveys at the Elsie Roemer Bird Sanctuary at Crown Beach this past year.

On one of my forays last spring, the cheerful bird with the red headband, rump and breast flew from a bird feeder to the top of a nearby tree. He perched there like a perfect ornament, surveying his territory. This male house finch mated and raised a family this summer along our shoreline. 

I wish I’d caught the courtship of the colorful male and his drab partner. The female flutters her wings and pecks at the male’s beak. He then simulates regurgitation before feeding her, as if she were a baby bird. I spied the pair a few weeks into nesting season, as they darted under a patio cover, tending to their nestlings tucked under the awning. 

Lately I’ve been seeing streaky brown juveniles joining their parents and sparrows to forage for seeds and plants along the shoreline. They congregate around sunflower seed-filled feeders.

The male gets his splendid red feathers from the plants he eats in his spring-time molt. Some males don’t find enough fruit or plants with the right carotenoids to give the bright red color. They end up orangish or even yellow. Females are reported to prefer the brightest red males, likely judging them fitter and better at getting food for their future young. 

House finches eat seeds, cracking them open with their conical, sturdy beaks, along with plant buds and fruits. They forage on the ground, or feed on swaying weed stalks and in trees. They even feed their nestlings these plant items rather than high-protein insects, which even vegetarian bird species give their young to help them grow quickly. 

They lay two to six small, beautiful, pale blue to white eggs, speckled with fine black or purple spots. Adult finches incubate their eggs in a cup-shaped nest for about two weeks, then the helpless, blind, naked babies are tended by the parents for another two-to-three weeks before they fledge out of the nest to join the parents and other birds in flocks.

Native to the western states, house finches were introduced to Oahu, Hawaii, sometime before 1870 and are now abundant on all of the major Hawaiian Islands. They were also taken from the west to Long Island, N.Y., in 1940 as part of a failed attempt to sell pet “Hollywood Birds.” They were turned loose and spread across the eastern U.S. and southern Canada over the next 50 years. The western birds are not migratory, remaining near their home territories year round.

Alameda residents can help house finches by planting native plants that provide seeds or fruits. If you put out bird feeders, choose the smaller, black oil sunflower seeds to attract these birds. Be aware, though, that house finches are having trouble with a highly contagious (among them, not humans) eye disease that causes swollen red, crusty eyes which may result in blindness for some. 

To help prevent the spread of this disease, if you notice house finches with these symptoms, take down your feeder for a few days to allow them to disperse and thoroughly sanitize the feeder before putting it up again. The disease started in 1994 in Washington D.C. It didn’t spread into the western population until 2006. 

Importantly, scientists have been studying the disease and gained knowledge about how epidemics such as the Zica virus spread and mutate among humans. If you see birds with the eye disease, report it on the Cornell University’s Project FeederWatch website, www.feederwatch.org, to help researchers keep track of the spread and severity.

 

To learn more about efforts to protect our native birds and how to help the Friends of the Alameda Wildlife Reserve with bird habitat issues, go to Golden Gate Audubon’s website, www.goldengateaudubon.org.

Sharol Nelson-Embry is a volunteer with the Golden Gate Audubon Society.