The three flew off with a flurry of wings and husky “vweet” flight calls. Their flight was bounding. I recognized these birds. They were House Finches. They came regularly to my feeder so long as I provided the seeds they liked.
But I was out of black oil sunflower seeds. A nearby feeder contained the usual wild bird blend. The finches ignored it. The mix of millet, sorghum and striped sunflower seeds left the finches cold. Actually, I think they felt I was abusing them by not offering the smaller black oil seeds.
I imagined their accusations to go something like this: “Once upon a time you called us ‘Hollywood Finches’. We were to live in gilded cages. We were to be fed gourmet birdseed. And now we are treated no better than House Sparrows!”
I wondered “Were House Finches ever called Hollywood Finches?”
It seems that perhaps they were, for a little while, at least. In 1939, an enterprising individual in California shipped some of the little songsters (aka Hollywood Finches) to a pet store in New York City. The idea was to sell them under this glitzy name as caged birds. They were easy to keep in captivity since they thrived on birdseed. And the seller had no trouble obtaining them, because they were all over California.
Male House Finches have attractive red heads and chests. Their song has been described as “bright, rambling and rippling, phrased in triplets with great variation,” and they were known to sing year-round. Even the females sing occasionally. In the 1930s and ’40s there was some talk of crossbreeding the male finches to canaries to improve the canary’s repertoire. House Finches were poised to become the new canaries.
There was just one problem. In 1918, the federal government implemented the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which was designed to protect the native birds of the USA, Canada and Great Britain. All forms of exploitation were prohibited, including capture, killing, possessing, selling, delivering a shipment, etc. In 1936, the act was amended to include the migratory birds of Mexico.
House Finches, whose original range included Mexico as well as the western part of the United States, were covered by this act. It became illegal to possess a House Finch.
Although, under guidance of the law, the relocated House Finches in New York should have been “disposed of,” most owners and dealers just let the captive birds go.
The hardy, adaptable little finches accepted their new environment and carried on. Within a decade, there were colonies on Long Island and later, up and down the East Coast. The finches liked suburbs. More particularly, they liked the conifers planted in most suburban gardens and delighted in the numerous feeding stations provided.
In less than 50 years, House Finches were naturalized in the Eastern half of the United States. Their new range had expanded almost to the edge of its original western range. A small sliver of the Great Plains is still without House Finches.
The expansion of range has not been without setbacks. In the 1990s, many eastern House Finches were observed to have an eye disease. Infected birds had swollen, runny eyes and, frankly, could not see well enough to eat or to avoid predators. A study of this disease’s spread and impact has shown that the expected population of House Finches in the eastern United States has been reduced by half.
To make matters worse, the western population has been hit hard by a virus that causes foot pox. The infected birds hobble about and usually lose toes. This, of course, limits their ability to feed and get away from predators.
Despite all this, the House Finch is still a popular bird in cities and suburbs. The diseases that have devastated the populations to the east and west don’t seem to have hit South Texas. Not yet anyway.
So if you have House Finches brightening your yard and feeders, by all means, get some black oil sunflower seeds We all enjoy their songs, their color and their charm. So let’s feed them like we mean it!