New Hampshire’s Avian Emblem: The Purple Finch

New Hampshire, the 5th smallest US state by area and the 41st most populated is renowned for its multifaceted geographical diversity, encompassing everything from lakes and mountains to coastal areas and woodlands.

This geography is a magnet for a rich diversity of wildlife, including at least 425 recognized bird species.

Among these avian residents, one in particular holds a special place of honor as the official state bird – the Purple finch (Haemorhous purpureus).

The Journey to Official Recognition

In 1957, the charming Purple Finch was declared the official state bird of New Hampshire, following an engaging legislative debate.

The decision wasn’t made without a challenge. The New Hampshire hen, once considered a strong contender for the title, was championed by Rep. Doris M. Spollett of Hampstead. However, her efforts were thwarted by Rep. Robert S. Monahan of Hanover, who introduced a bill proposing the Purple Finch as the state bird. This wasn’t the first time Spollett had proposed the New Hampshire hen; she had previously lost a bid eight years earlier while serving in the Senate.

New Hampshire Red

Monahan’s bill, filed on February 12 – coinciding with Lincoln’s birthday anniversary – garnered significant support.

Among the backers were esteemed organizations such as the Audubon Society of New Hampshire, the State Federation of Women’s Clubs, and the New Hampshire Federation of Garden Clubs. Their influence played a vital role in swaying the vote in favor of the Purple Finch. These groups championed the finch’s cause, lobbying against some legislators who favored the crow or blue jay which were birds that remained in the state all year.

Despite initial resistance, Monahan’s argument that New Hampshire should act swiftly “before some other state beats us to it,” resonated with the lawmakers. The bill proposing the Purple finch as the state bird was brought before the House Committee on Recreation, Resources, and Development on March 27. Following the public hearing, the committee promptly recommended its passage. The House and the Senate swiftly agreed, and Governor Lane Dwinell of Lebanon signed the Purple finch into law on April 25, 1957.

Thus, the Purple finch, backed by influential organizations and supported by effective lobbying, outperformed the New Hampshire hen to become the unique avian symbol of the Granite State. Unlike many states that share state birds, New Hampshire stands alone in its choice, making the Purple Finch a distinctive emblem of this northeastern state.

A Closer Look at the Purple Finch

The Purple finch is a striking bird species that carries a bit of a misnomer.

Despite its name, most of these finches are not actually purple. Their feathers contain hues of red and pink, with males showcasing a head and breast of light pink, contrasted with red, while the females feature no red, sporting brown back feathers with white stomachs.

Female Purple Finch

Some individuals do sport some purple feathers on their wings, which contribute to their intriguing name. Due to their color variations, they are often mistaken for house finches, which carry a dash of yellow in their color combinations.

Both genders measure about 4.7 to 6.3 inches in length. They are relatively light birds, with a median weight range of between 0.60 to 1.1 ounces. They also display an impressive wingspan of 8.7 to 10.2 inches.

Mating Rituals

During the breeding season, Purple finches exhibit a unique type of territorial behavior. They often isolate themselves or stick with their breeding partner, demonstrating a stark contrast to their winter socializing habits. The males of the species are particularly active during this time, singing almost incessantly in an attempt to attract a mate. Their melodious calls, often described as sounding like “pik” or “tek,” fill the air, signaling the start of a new breeding cycle.

The Purple Finch vs The House Finch: A Battle for Territory

The Purple finch shares its habitat with another species – the House finch.

Male House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)

These two species compete fiercely for territory, especially in areas where their habitats overlap.

Despite this competition, the Purple finch has a distinct preference for certain types of habitats. They are more commonly found in orchards, evergreen forests, and parklands, while the House finch is more widespread, inhabiting most parts of the United States, Mexico, and southern Canada.

The Purple finch, commonly found in southern Canada during the breeding season, migrates to the eastern US during the winter months.

They specifically flock to the Great Lakes region and the northeastern US, where their territories intersect with the House finch. However, over the years, there has been a significant decline in the population of the Purple finch in the eastern United States. This decline is largely attributed to the Purple finch’s inability to outcompete the House finch for resources and territory. Today, sightings of the Purple finch are most common in forest areas, a shift from their previous urban settlements.

Winter Socializing: A Rare Sight

Contrary to their solitary behavior during the breeding season, Purple finches adopt a more social lifestyle in the winter. They form flocks during the coldest months, a strategy that improves their chances of finding food and offers better protection against predators.

However, this social phase is short-lived. As the chill of winter gives way to the warmth of spring, the Purple finch reverts to its solitary existence, ready to mate and start a new family.

Nesting Habits and Breeding

When it’s time to start a family, the Purple finch forms couples and builds a nest, then breed chicks. The males of these birds go to great lengths to attract suitable mates.

During mating season, the male of the species performs an elaborate courtship dance for the female he wishes to couple up with. This dance involves hopping, chest-puffing, and tail cocking, with the bird hopping as much as six to 12 inches while singing.

Once the female accepts the male’s advances, he brings her an offering of nest materials. However, she is the one who ultimately chooses the majority of the materials and constructs the nest. She also selects the nesting site, often preferring a conifer tree for the task.

The nest takes on the shallow cup shape common among bird nests and is constructed from rootlets, twigs, string, and grass. The female then lines the nest with soft materials like moss, animal fur, and horsehair.

With their home constructed, the pair copulate. The female lays three to six eggs of light blue-green with dark marks. She incubates the eggs while the male takes care of all the food acquisition. He digests the food first, then regurgitates it for the female to eat.

Incubation takes about 13 days, during which time, the male guards the nest and forages for food. He continues to feed the female and the babies once they hatch.

The newborn chicks can’t leave the nest for the first 14 days of their life, so during these weeks, the father finch hunts and forages to feed up to seven others besides himself.

Purple finches may have one or two broods per season. Members of the finch family live an average of three to four years in the wild.

Dietary Preferences

Purple finches have a discerning palate and prefer certain foods over others. Their favorites include black oil sunflower seeds, white millet, and thistle seeds.

Birdwatchers and nature enthusiasts can attract these birds to their yards by putting out a bird feeder stocked with these items.

These birds typically forage on the ground only in summer, when they feast on insects, including beetles and caterpillars.

During winter, their diet consists solely of tree seeds, such as those from the ash and elm trees. They also enjoy weed seeds and grass seeds. Additionally, finches will dine on tree buds and small fruits and berries.

The Purple Finch: New Hampshire’s Proud Emblem

The Purple finch is a proud emblem of New Hampshire, representing the state’s natural beauty and rich biodiversity. Its vibrant plumage, melodious song, and unique behavioral traits make it a fascinating bird to watch and study. Whether you’re a resident of the Granite State or a visitor, keep an eye out for these delightful birds, and you might just be lucky enough to witness their captivating courtship dance or hear their sweet serenade.

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