Today over lunch I heard the warbles of a house finch in the pine tree just outside our dining room window. Those long trills, meandering up and down, as if they could go on forever. Ahhhh! Instantly I felt warmer, even though the outdoor thermometer read 32F. House finches were one of the first birds I identified twenty years ago when I lived in Oakland, CA. Hearing their song takes me back to the Bay Area’s year-round springtime weather. And even though house finches sing all year long, not just in nesting season, here in Colorado their winter songs always sound to me like a trill of spring in the middle of snow.
I looked up, and there he was at the feeder just outside our window, a male all dressed up in his red gear. A real sign of spring! I thought. Except I was mistaken.
Looking up house finches in The Sibley Guide to Bird Life & Behavior, I found that house finches do not molt in springtime into bright breeding colors. Of the finches, only the American goldfinch puts on a mating costume; the rest of the finches do the late-summer molt common to songbirds. If the orange-red of the house finch looks brighter in spring or summer, says Sibley, it’s probably because the feather barbules have worn down over the winter months to expose the more brightly pigmented feather barbs. (The barbs branch out from the central shaft of a feather; the barbules are the tiny hooked system holding the barbs together in a web of parallel lines.)
So nothing about the lunchtime finch said spring is just around the corner. I can still wish for it though, can’t I?
(For more on house finches, see the Cornell Lab of Ornithology All About Birds site.)