Moab Happenings Archive
Return to Home Page

NATURE HAPPENINGS - March 2003

Hollywood Red
by Damian Fagan

Our yard is full of Fringillids and Turdidae. These are not some mythical creatures from Middle Earth or deposits made by neighborhood dogs. No, these are the common backyard birds that come to our feeders and nest in our trees - Finches and Robins.

Though the robins have yet to launch into their splendid spring singing - Cheerup Cherio - the finches are all over the chart. The house finches, or Linnets as some birders call them, have a distinctive interruption to their warbling song. The whistled notes terminate with a descending, slurred “veeerrr” that betrays their identification.

Of course, the brilliant coloration of the males also helps in determining the species’ identity. The males have a brilliant orange-red crown and reddish throat, chest and rump; colors that separate them from the other Fringillids that hover around the feeders - pine siskins and American goldfinches. Both the males and females, who are much duller in color, have stout sparrowlike bills. I like to watch these birds work the unshelled sunflower seeds at the feeder with a speed and dexterity that would make any Major League sunflower-seed-cracking ballplayer jealous.

Common to the clan, these finches don’t show up in ones and twos, especially now in late winter. They descend like a small cloud of insects, constantly moving from feeder to safety and back again. Occasionally, some lookout will feel too nervous and the whole lot of them disappear into the surrounding hedges like phantoms.

As winter fades to spring, these birds will become less gregarious and more territorial. Like their namesake, these finches are comfortable nesting in and around human habitations. They prefer nest sites with overhead cover and rarely nest in broad-leaved trees, so look for them in your conifers, roof overhangs, or beneath the covers of street lamps. Outside of town, these birds tend to occur in riparian areas or near cliff faces where they nest in deep crevices in the trees or on canyon walls.

So how do these finches get their coloration? They are what they eat. House finches derive their coloration from carotenoids, naturally occurring pigments that also give carrots, tomatoes and autumn leaves their color. The finches, who will easily bypass any helping of tomatoes, probably obtain these pigments from fruit or flower petals. Don’t expect to see a house finch scarfing down an apricot or peach; their fruit preferences are wild berries or the fruits of certain ornamental plants.

Interestingly, feather color is determined by a bird’s diet only when it is molting and growing new feathers. Their diets tend to increase in carotenoids when the birds are molting and the amount of carotenoid intake doesn’t matter during the rest of the year - they don’t get much redder than red.. Deficiencies in their diets accounts for the yellow or orange plumage associated with some adults.

Because of their striking color, back in the 1940s this reddish coloration made these birds a prize in the caged-bird trade. With a western distribution, birds were illegally imported to the East Coast. Marketed as “Hollywood finches,” agents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service halted the trafficking, but not before some birds were released on Long Island and elsewhere in the metropolitan area. These isolated populations survived and a reverse expansion was under way. Today, the distribution for these finches is across most of the lower 48 states, northern Mexico and southern Canada making Hollywood Red top billing in the bird-feeding backyards across America.

Return to Archive Index
  Return to Home Page

info@moabhappenings.com