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Purple Finch

Haemorhous purpureus
Minnesota Seasonal Status:

A regular breeding resident, migrant, and winter visitant. The Purple Finch was an uncommon species during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (MNBBA).

North American Breeding Distribution and Relative Abundance:

Primarily found in low densities in the northeastern and upper midwestern United States, across Canada from the Maritime Provinces to the Pacific Coast, north to northern British Columbia and northern Alberta, and south through California (Figure 1). Highest densities are found in Nova Scotia and along the Pacific Coast, especially in western Washington State.

Conservation Concern:
Conservation Status Score 9

Continental Concern Score of 9/20 by Partners in Flight; designated a Species in Greatest Conservation Need by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Life History

Short-distance migrant that over-winters throughout the eastern, southeastern, and midwestern United States and southern regions of Nova Scotia, Quebec, and Ontario in Canada.


Omnivorous, including buds, seeds, fruits, and insects from trees, shrubs, and on the ground.


Cup-nest on a branch of a coniferous tree or a shrub.

Purple Finch Purple Finch. Haemorhous purpureus
© David Brislance
Figure 1.

Breeding distribution and relative abundance of the Purple Finch in North America based on the federal Breeding Bird Survey from 2011 to 2015 (Sauer et al. 2017).

Minnesota Breeding Bird Distribution*

Historically identified as “a common summer resident in the evergreen forests of the state as far south as northern Isanti and Pine counties and as far west as Itasca Park” (Roberts 1932). Roberts reported nesting activity in Aitkin (young just out of the nest), Cass (two nests, each with one egg), Cook (feeding young), Isanti (feeding young in the nest), Itasca (feeding young out of nest), and Pine (feeding young) Counties as well as the Mille Lacs area (nest with no eggs). As noted, most of his breeding observations were of a nest or of young being fed by the adults. All of the observations reported were from early on in the twentieth century (1903 to 1930).

Green and Janssen (1975) reported a similar breeding distribution to that described by Roberts, primarily in northeastern and north-central Minnesota. They identified confirmed and inferred nesting from 15 counties primarily in the northern and northeastern counties, south to Isanti County, southwest to northeastern Stearns County, and west to Clearwater County. They also identified several summer observations from the Twin Cities area, but no nesting evidence was reported. Janssen (1987) also reinforced the species’ breeding distribution in Minnesota, but he extended it farther south with a confirmed nesting in northern Anoka County and northwest to Marshall County. He included a total of 9 counties with confirmed nesting since 1970. Hertzel and Janssen (1998) further expanded the confirmed nesting of the Purple Finch since 1970 to include Becker, Lake of the Woods, and Pennington Counties.

The Minnesota Biological Survey (MBS) (Minnesota Department of Natural Resources 2016) included 438 breeding season locations and indicated high concentrations in the northeastern counties. Observers also recorded extensive breeding observation locations throughout the north-central and northwestern counties of Aitkin, Becker, Beltrami, Clearwater, Itasca, and Wadena. Scattered breeding season locations also included Douglas, Otter Tail, and Todd Counties in west-central Minnesota.

The MNBBA recorded 979 breeding records that indicated a strong association of the Purple Finch with the Laurentian Mixed Forest Ecological Province (Figure 2). Several observations were scattered in the Tallgrass Aspen Parklands Ecological Province and in the northern and central areas of the Eastern Broadleaf Forest Ecological Province. Confirmed nesting in the latter province was noted in Anoka and Washington Counties; the latter was the first confirmed nest in Washington County.

A total of 693 blocks (14.6%) recorded confirmed, probable, or possible nesting activity (Figure 3; Table 1). Nesting was confirmed in 59 blocks, with new confirmed nesting in Carlton, Kittson, Morrison, Roseau, and Todd Counties, in addition to the one in Washington County. Probable nesting also was reported from Koochiching, Otter Tail, and Wadena Counties.

The breeding distribution of the Purple Finch in Minnesota as described by Roberts (1932) has not changed much since the late 1800s and early 1900s. However, increased efforts by bird watchers and counts such as by the MBS have clarified more details about its breeding range in the state. Breeding populations have likely existed in the western and northwestern regions of Becker, Kittson, Marshall, and Otter Tail Counties where suitable forested areas exist. The Purple Finch is known to sing earlier in the spring, such as in late April or in May, when few breeding bird counts have been initiated. Therefore, breeding activity is probably underestimated in many locations because song activity declines by June. The extensive search efforts that resulted in many confirmed nesting records during the MNBBA in the Brainerd and Duluth areas (Figure 2) reinforces that breeding activity is underestimated when nest searching is at a minimum or when breeding bird counts are concentrated in June.

Wootton (1996) provided little information in his review of historical changes in the breeding distribution of the Purple Finch in North America. He only comments on the range contractions in northern Illinois and Indiana, as well as in the southern Appalachian Mountains over the past 80 years. Like Roberts (1932), Cutright et al. (2006) provided limited evidence of breeding in southern Wisconsin in the late 1800s. But Brewer et al. (1991) suggested that the species had declined in Michigan since the early 1900s with the clearing of the forests. They also commented that the breeding distribution has changed little since and may even have increased southward with regrowth and forest maturation. Chartier et al. (2013), however, stated it “appears that the distribution of Purple Finch has been consistent for 100 years” in Michigan. This is also supported by Cadman et al. (2007) in Ontario, who stated that “the overall distribution of the Purple Finch in Ontario does not appear to have changed much for as long as records have been kept.” They also commented that “maturation of retired farmland and maturation of conifer plantations” may have helped explain some regional increases in its population.

Cutright et al. (2006) found confirmed nesting of Purple Finches in two southern Wisconsin counties, Sauk and Vernon. Vernon County is adjacent to Houston County in Minnesota, the most southeastern county in the state. These confirmed observations suggest that the species should be looked for in late April and May in suitable habitats of Minnesota’s southeastern counties, such as where mature coniferous trees exist.

*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.

Figure 2.

Breeding distribution of the Purple Finch in Minnesota based on the Breeding Bird Atlas (2009 – 2013).

Print Map
Figure 3.

Summary statistics of observations by breeding status category for the Purple Finch in Minnesota based on all blocks (each 5 km x 5 km) surveyed during the Breeding Bird Atlas (2009-2013).

Breeding statusBlocks (%)Priority Blocks (%)
Confirmed59 (1.2%)37 (1.6%)
Probable164 (3.5%)125 (5.3%)
Possible469 (9.9%)293 (12.5%)
Observed1 (0.0%)0 (0.0%)
Total693 (14.6%)455 (19.5%)
Table 1.

Summary statistics for the Purple Finch observations by breeding status category for all blocks and priority blocks (each 5 km x 5 km) surveyed during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (2009-2013).

Breeding Habitat

The Purple Finch has generally been described as nesting in “moist or cool coniferous forests” and often in mixed coniferous-deciduous forest, conifers in parks, and residential areas (Niemi and Pfannmuller 1979; Wootton 1996) (Figure 4). During the MNBBA point counts the species was widely distributed in many habitat types including bogs, upland coniferous forests, pine forests, pine-oak barrens, lowland coniferous forests, and northern mixed forest types (Figure 5).

The National Forest Bird (NFB) Monitoring Program (Niemi et. al. 2016) also found the species widely distributed in many habitats, including black spruce-tamarack bogs, aspen-spruce-fir, jack pine, towns, and on the edges of open wetlands. It was a frequent and widely distributed inhabitant of white cedar, tamarack, and black spruce forested bogs in the Agassiz Lowland Subsection but usually in low abundance (Bednar et al. 2016).

Figure 4.

Typical breeding habitat of the Purple Finch in Minnesota (© Gerald J. Niemi).

Figure 5.

Habitat profile for the Purple Finch based on habitats within 200 m of point counts where the species was present during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas (2009-2013).

Population Abundance

Partners in Flight (Rosenberg et al. 2016) has recently estimated the total population in North America at 5.9 million breeding adults, with an estimated 80,000 adults in Minnesota (Partners in Flight Science Committee 2013). MNBBA estimates in Minnesota were substantially higher at 374,000 adults (95% confidence interval 292,000 – 504,000). The MNBBA estimate would suggest that Minnesota has about 6% of the global breeding population of the Purple Finch. The higher estimate in Minnesota is likely due to better coverage of the roadless regions in the northern portion of the state. These roadless areas are not covered by the federal Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) that is the database primarily used for estimating populations in North America.

The federal Breeding Bird Survey (BBS) trends for Minnesota revealed a significant decline in population of 1.70% per year from 1967 to 2015 (Figure 6). Significantly negative trends were also found in Ontario (2.69% per year), in the Boreal Hardwood transition region (1.87%), and survey-wide (1.23%) over the same period, but trends were insignificant in Michigan and Wisconsin. Negative trends for the Purple Finch were widespread across the species’ range, including large portions of the northeastern United States (Figure 7). Partners in Flight (Rosenberg et al. 2016) suggested a 47% decline in the species’ population from 1970 to 2014. Detailed analyses from the NFB monitoring program indicated a stable regional breeding population in the Chippewa and Superior National Forests from 1995 to 2016; however, the recent trend from 2004 to 2016 is declining and returning to population levels observed in the mid-1990s (Figure 8). Christmas Bird Counts summarized in Minnesota reveal an insignificant change from 1959 to 1988 (Sauer et al. 1996).

Breeding bird population estimates for the Purple Finch are rare for Minnesota because of its early nesting and the few quantitative counts that are completed during spring. Counts in June by the NFB program indicate mean population densities in the Chippewa National Forest are similar to those in the Superior National Forests, ranging from 0.5 to 0.6 pairs per 40 ha (Niemi et al. 2016). Mean BBS counts in Minnesota were generally < 1 detection per route per year in central and western Minnesota and from 1 to 3 detections per route in northeastern Minnesota (Figure 1).

Figure 6.

Breeding population trend for the Purple Finch in Minnesota from 1967–2015 based on the federal Breeding Bird Survey (Sauer et al. 2017).

Figure 7.

Population trend map for the Purple Finch in North America from 1966–2015 based on the federal Breeding Bird Survey (Sauer et al. 2017).

Figure 8.

Breeding population trends of the Purple Finch in the Chippewa and Superior National Forests and the combined regional trend, 1995–2016 (Bednar et al. 2016).


Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (2015) designated the Purple Finch as a Species in Greatest Conservation Need on the basis of the documentation of the significant decline in population recorded by the BBS in Minnesota and across the species’ range in North America. Wootton (1996) provided little evidence on threats to the species, except that it has been reported to collide with motor vehicles, windows, and other stationary objects. Loss et al. (2014) stated the Purple Finch was the most vulnerable species around residential homes, with a collision risk 257 times greater than the average species. This would suggest the species’ use of bird feeders is likely associated with some of this increased risk. However, Bracey (2011) never recorded it among the 108 fatalities during a study over five migration seasons at Minnesota Point in Duluth.

Interspecific competition with the House Finch has also been suggested as a cause of conservation concern. Declines of Purple Finch populations in the eastern United States have been associated with invasions of House Finches (Wootton 1996). House Finches also dominate Purple Finches at feeders when they overlap during winter. However, in Minnesota, the species’ breeding ranges have minimal overlap and House Finches are largely confined to urbanized areas.

Cadman et al. (2007) suggested that the recent decline in spruce budworm populations in Ontario since Ontario’s first atlas (1981–1985) may be a factor in the decline recorded during its second atlas (2001–2005). Typical factors during the early spring associated with nest productivity may also affect the species, such as nest predation and variable weather.

During its review of North American bird species susceptible to climate change, Langham et al. (2015) and the National Audubon Society (2015) has designated the Purple Finch as “climate threatened.” The society predicted that only 11% of the Purple Finch’s summer breeding area and 41% of its wintering areas will remain stable by 2080. The species may have future opportunities for expansion into suitable climate space in Alaska, where it is not currently found.

  • Bednar, Josh D., Edmund J. Zlonis, Hannah G. Panci, Ron Moen, and Gerald J. Niemi. 2016. Development of Habitat Models and Habitat Maps for Breeding Bird Species in the Agassiz Lowlands Subsection, Minnesota, USA. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Report T-39-R-1/F12AF00328. Natural Resources Research Institute Technical Report NRRI/TR-2015-32.

  • Bednar, Joshua D., Nicholas G. Walton, Alexis R. Grinde, and Gerald J. Niemi. 2016. Summary of Breeding Bird Trends in the Chippewa and Superior National Forests of Minnesota – 1995–2016. Natural Resources Research Institute Technical Report NRRI/TR-2016/36.

  • Bracey, Annie M. 2011. “Window Related Avian Mortality at a Migration Corridor.” MS thesis, University of Minnesota Duluth.

  • Brewer, Richard, Gail A. McPeek, and Raymond J. Adams Jr. 1991. The Atlas of Breeding Birds of Michigan. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press.

  • Cadman, Michael D., Donald A. Sutherland, Gregor G. Beck, Denis Lepage, and Andrew R. Couturier, eds. 2007. The Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Ontario, 2001–2005. Toronto: Bird Studies Canada, Environment Canada, Ontario Field Ornithologists, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, and Ontario Nature.

  • Chartier, Allen T., Jennifer J. Baldy, and John M. Brenneman, eds. 2013. Michigan Breeding Bird Atlas II. Kalamazoo, MI: Kalamazoo Nature Center.

  • Cutright, Noel, Bettie R. Harriman, and Robert W. Howe, eds. 2006. Atlas of the Breeding Birds of Wisconsin. Waukesha: Wisconsin Society of Ornithology, Inc.

  • Green, Janet C., and Robert B. Janssen. 1975. Minnesota Birds: Where, When and How Many. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Hertzel, Anthony X., and Robert B. Janssen. 1998. County Nesting Records of Minnesota Birds. Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union Occasional Papers, no 2. Minneapolis: The Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union.

  • Janssen, Robert B. 1987. Birds in Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Langham, Gary M., Justin G. Schuetz, Trisha Distler, Candan U. Soykan, and Chad Wilsey. 2015. “Conservation Status of North American Birds in the Face of Future Climate Change.” PLoS One 10: e0135350. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0135350

  • Loss, Scott R., Tom Will, Sara S. Loss, and Peter P. Marra. 2014. “Bird–Building Collisions in the United States: Estimates of Annual Mortality and Species Vulnerability.” Condor 116: 8–23.

  • Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. 2015. Minnesota’s Wildlife Action Plan 2015–2025. St. Paul: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, Division of Ecological and Water Resources.

  • Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. 2016. “Purple Finch (Haemorhous purpureus).” Minnesota Biological Survey: Breeding Bird Locations.

  • National Audubon Society. 2015. Audubon’s Birds and Climate Change Report: A Primer for Practitioners. Version 1.3. New York: National Audubon Society.

  • Niemi, Gerald J., and Lee A. Pfannmuller. 1979. “Avian Communities: Approaches to Describing Their Habitat Associations.” In Workshop Proceedings of the Symposium on Management of Northcentral and Northeastern Forests and Nongame Birds, edited by Richard M. DeGraaf, 154­–179. U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service General Technical Report NC-51.

  • Niemi, Gerald J., Robert W. Howe, Brian R. Sturtevant, Linda R. Parker, Alexis R. Grinde, Nicholas P. Danz, Mark D. Nelson, Edmund J. Zlonis, Nicholas G. Walton, Erin E. Gnass Giese, and Sue M. Lietz. 2016. Analysis of Long Term Forest Bird Monitoring in National Forests of the Western Great Lakes Region. U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service General Technical Report NRS-159. Newtown Square, PA: USDA Forest Service, Northern Research Station.

  • Partners in Flight Science Committee. 2013. Population Estimates Database. Version 2013.

  • Roberts, Thomas S. 1932. The Birds of Minnesota. 2 vols. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

  • Rosenberg, Kenneth V., Judith A. Kennedy, Randy Dettmers, Robert P. Ford, Debra Reynolds, John D. Alexander, Carol J. Beardmore, Peter J. Blancher, Roxanne E. Bogart, Gregory S. Butcher, Alaine F. Camfield, Andrew Couturier, Dean W. Demarest, Wendy E. Easton, Jim J. Giocomo, Rebecca Hylton Keller, Anne E. Mini, Arvind O. Panjabi, David N. Pashley, Terrell D. Rich, Janet M. Ruth, Henning Stabins, Jessica Stanton, and Tom Will. 2016. Partners in Flight Landbird Conservation Plan: 2016 Revision for Canada and Continental United States. Partners in Flight Science Committee.

  • Sauer, John R., Daniel K. Niven, James E. Hines, David J. Ziolkowski Jr., Keith L. Pardieck, Jane E. Fallon, and William A. Link. 2017. The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2015. Version 12.23.2015. Laurel, MD: U.S. Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.

  • Sauer, John R., S. Schwartz, and B. Hoover. 1996. The Christmas Bird Count Home Page. Version 95.1. Laurel, MD: U.S. Geological Survey Patuxent Wildlife Research Center.

  • Wootton, J. Timothy. 1996. “Purple Finch (Haemorhous purpureus).” The Birds of North America, edited by Paul G. Rodewald. Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Retrieved from the Birds of North America: doi: 10.2173/bna.208