With the onset of December, most folks assume it is time for cold temperatures, snow, ice and frequent Arctic fronts blasting out of the Gulf of Alaska and Canada.
Instead here we sit this week in 50-degree weather, a bit of wind and very wet fronts blasting up out of the south-central Pacific.
There are many wildlife species that are very happy with this aberrant weather pattern that is in place. One of these is a native bird that once was found only in the West — the house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus). This 6-inch long passerine (all perching song birds are passerines) is very common in most towns and cities across the United States.
In the early 1940s this western native was introduced to the Eastern Seaboard by folks who greatly enjoyed this bird’s bubbly, cheerful spring song. Since then house finch populations have expanded to the point where there is now only one population that covers all of the lower 48 states.
House finches are spectacular in so many ways. They have different dialects of their song from region to region. The adult male’s chest and head color varies from bright saffron yellow to pink, flaming red and dark strawberry red. These colors change as you travel across this country.
Here in Walla Walla County, we have finches that are very red up along the Snake River and those that are yellow in Walla Walla and College Place.
The adult males have the colors; the adult females are a drab milk chocolate brown with streaked chests, flanks and bellies. The bird is in the same family with two other native finches also found here in the county — the Cassin’s finch and the purple finch. The purple finch is very rare here; it is primarily a western Washington species and also has a population native to the eastern United States. The Cassin’s finch, on the other hand, is found throughout the mountains of the interior West.
So let me share with you some of the qualities of the house finch in Walla Walla County. It is a consummate singer starting in late March. It is an outstanding parent and can raise up to three broods a year. I have seen them pull off two broods, one in late March through April and a second in late May into late June.
They fly about in family groups all spring and summer, chirping and singing. Above the eyes, the recently fledged young have feather tufts that look like horns. It is an amazing species in that it switches from eating seeds and plant material in fall and winter to consuming insects in spring and summer.
If you want to see a house finch, place a feeding tray of black oil sunflower seeds in your yard and you will have them on your feeder in hours. These birds husk the sunflower seeds, so place your feeder above an area where you do not mind the sunflower seed hulls falling.
They are protected under Federal wildlife laws, so please place the feeder up out of the reach of mammalian predators. One other very important thing in winter bird feeding is fresh clean water in a pan, which also needs to be out of reach of predators.
House finches are subject to avian pox, so be prepared to once in a while see a finch with big bulges around the base of the bill or around the eyes. These birds can look pitiful, but please do not try to catch them or pick them up.
House finches also are an important prey base to several of our native small hawks in this county. This predation is what keeps the house finch populations healthy and vigorous.
Life is good.
Mike Denny is president of the Blue Mountain chapter of the National Audubon Society. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org., or by calling 6-8 p.m. weekdays at 529-0080.