- Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution
- Breeding Habitat
- Population Abundance
- Literature Cited
A permanent resident, but some birds undergo a short-distance migration south. The House Finch was a common species during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA).
Originally native to the southwestern United States and Mexico, the House Finch now has a breeding range that extends across much of the United States with the exception of the Great Plains, where populations are scattered. Small numbers also occur in southwestern and southeastern Canada. In the United States breeding densities are highest in California and Arizona (Figure 1).
Assigned a Continental Concern Score of 6/20 by Partners in Flight.
Permanent resident or short-distance migrant; the extent of seasonal movements is not well known.
A ground and foliage gleaner that feeds almost entirely on plants, including seeds, buds, and fruit.
Open-cup nest placed in a wide variety of vegetation and building structures; occasionally uses old nests of other birds.
The House Finch’s rapid expansion across the United States is a story of the consequences of an unintended introduction and of a species’ remarkable adaptability. Although most Minnesotans regard the House Finch as a newcomer to the state, the first official record was nearly 150 years ago, in 1876. Roberts (1932) reported that a male, either a long-distance straggler or an escaped captive bird, was shot by Robert McMullen in Minneapolis in the spring of that year. The specimen was saved, and a skin was prepared but subsequently lost. The incident was documented by George G. Cantwell, an early naturalist who spent several years in Minnesota in the late 1880s before moving west. His note about the finch specimen was documented in a longer article he published in 1890, titled “A List of the Birds of Minnesota” (Cantwell 1890). Roberts (1932) credited it as the “most complete and satisfactory list of birds in Minnesota up until that time.”
Nearly 100 years passed before the House Finch was once again sighted in Minnesota as it rapidly expanded westward following its introduction in New York City in 1939. For many years in the early 20th century, there was a profitable trade in caged House Finches. Often an economic pest in California fruit orchards, they were trapped and sold locally. They were also shipped to pet dealers in the eastern United States, where they were advertised as “Hollywood Finches” or “Red-headed Linnets” (Elliott and Arbib 1953; Cant 1962). Cant, an ornithologist in New York, received a pair as a gift in 1933 that were purchased from a pet shop in New Jersey. Recognizing them as wild-caught birds, he turned them over to the New York Zoological Society but pondered if others in his position had released untold numbers of the birds.
The first deliberate introduction of House Finches occurred a few years later, sometime around 1939, in Brooklyn. Unfortunately, due to the vigilant efforts of one private citizen who worked to bring an end to the illegal sale of songbirds, word spread among New York pet dealers that the finches they had were in possession illegally. Although the evidence is circumstantial, it seemed that one or more local dealers released the birds to avoid prosecution. At the time, no one thought these West Coast birds would survive the cold, northern winters (Elliott and Arbib 1953). The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
Within 30 years, in 1971 and 1972, the first observations of House Finches were documented in Minnesota (Freedland 1971; Arneson and Arneson 1972). These records were not well documented and left open the possibility that the observers had seen Purple Finches. It was nearly 10 more years before the first well-documented reports were submitted. The first was in the fall of 1980 in Minneapolis, when a bird was observed on two dates in November and December at a backyard feeder. Described in detail, the record left no doubt that House Finches were indeed seen, making it the first official sighting of wild House Finches in the state (Bruggers and Bruggers 1981). Then, three years later, Breckenridge and his wife observed and photographed a male at their feeder in Minneapolis in December 1983 (Breckenridge 1984). This was the first fully documented (with photograph) record for the state. More records quickly followed from all corners of the state, including the first documented nesting in Rice County in the summer of 1989 (Janssen 1989). Janssen (1992) provides an excellent, comprehensive overview of the species’ rapid range expansion in Minnesota. By the spring of 1992, House Finches had been observed in 80 of Minnesota’s 87 counties. Counties lacking reports were all confined to the very northern regions of the state (Cook, Lake, Carlton, Itasca, Koochiching, Lake of the Woods, and Kittson). By 1998 nesting had been documented in 22 counties (Hertzel and Janssen 1998).
Twenty-three years later, when the MNBBA was completed, observers reported 1,457 House Finches records from 18.2% (868/4,758) of the surveyed atlas blocks and from 23.3% (545/2,337) of the priority blocks. Breeding evidence was confirmed in 251 blocks (Figures 2 and 3; Table 1). The birds were observed in all but 3 (Cook, Koochiching, and Pennington) of Minnesota’s 87 counties, and breeding was documented in 60 counties; 2 counties, Redwood and Brown, were included because of 2 blocks along the Minnesota River valley that crossed county lines. The Twin Cities metropolitan region is the core of the species’ distribution in the state, and the largest concentration of records occurred in the Eastern Broadleaf Forest Province.
Atlas data were used to develop a model to predict breeding densities of House Finches statewide (Figure 4). Although the model predicts that the species occurs at very low densities throughout all but the very northern counties of the state, moderate densities occur in local population centers, especially the Twin Cities, Rochester, St. Cloud, Mankato, and Moorhead.
Many species have undergone dramatic changes since Roberts wrote his comprehensive account of Minnesota birds in 1932. Few, however, have so rapidly exploited suitable habitats across the state as the House Finch. From its first documented sighting in 1980 to the completion of the MNBBA 33 years later, the House Finch became a breeding resident in nearly all corners of the state!
Based on work originally detailed by Hamilton (1992), Badyaev et al. (2012) provided a graphic illustration of the species’ rapid westward range expansion using data collected by National Audubon’s annual Christmas Bird Count. In 1961 the House Finch was still largely confined to eastern New York state, by 1981 it occupied much of New England and the Appalachian Mountain Region, and by 1990 it had reached the Great Plains. At the same time, House Finch populations in the western United States also expanded east across the Great Plains (Badyaev et al. 2012).
*Note that the definition of confirmed nesting of a species is different for Breeding Bird Atlas projects, including the definition used by the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, compared with a more restrictive definition used by the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union. For details see the Data Methods Section.