Welcome to Superoceras, a blog about science and natural history, slightly biased towards paleontology and zoology, but inclusive of all sciences. Started in October of 2009, my goal is to communicate scientific knowledge (and the occasional piece of nonsense) in an informative and entertaining manner. Feel free to contact me with questions, comments, concerns, or criticism at superoceras(at)gmail(dot)com, and follow me on Twitter @Superoceras for all that and more in 140 characters or less!

Friday, July 01, 2011

Backyard Ornithology: House finch breeding

A while back I left a teaser on the end of a post about house finches (Carpodacus mexicanus), and never got around to telling you all the reason that, despite their non-native status, they are a joy to have around the house.  One word: babies!

A house finch nest, conveniently placed in one of my hanging planters.

Back in the beginning of April, I came home to quite a surprise when I went to water the plants on my front porch.  Some little avian thought the pansies my girlfriend hung would be the perfect place to make a home.  The nest was about 12 cm in diameter, with a 6 cm diameter depression, and was made mostly of twigs and grasses, with a bit of feather and plastic thrown in for good measure.  It held three, 2 cm, white eggs (with a few brown flecks), that I initially worried belonged to the even more non-native house sparrow (Passer domesticus).  I took a quick photo, and ran back inside, waiting at the window to see if mom or dad would stop by so I could get a positive identification.

The female house finch returns to the nest.
It didn't take long for the expecting mother to return.  Though still just a little brown bird, the lack of a band behind the eye, and absence of mottled color on the upper portion of the wing, indicated that I was indeed sharing my property with a female house finch, and not house sparrow.  She vigilantly sat on that nest for about two weeks, incubating the eggs and keeping them safe from predators.  Occasionally, I'd catch the male dropping by to feed her and keep her company.  And then one day, there was no mother on the nest.  Instead, I caught a glimpse of one of the most unattractive babies I'd ever seen.

A hatchling house finch pokes his head above the rim of the nest.
Pink, blind, and only moderately fluffy, these chicks left a lot to be desired in the looks department. But in what seemed like no time at all, they were covered in a layer of down, and their pennaceous feathers began to fill in. I remember getting a text from my girlfriend one day telling me they looked like "little dinosaurs".  Of course, they were just that, as she well knows.  But she noticed a distinct stage of their development where the family resemblance was, at least to her, undeniable.

Five little dinosaurs, in a very small nest.  
The next time I approached the nest, I was happy to find it crowded with five chicks, as opposed to the expected three.  The female had laid a few more eggs between our first seeing her and the chicks hatching.  They didn't have a whole lot of wiggle room, and the fecal sacs that covered the nest were a bit gross, but they all seemed in very good health.  This is entirely because of their outstanding parents.

A male house finch feeding his hungry chicks.

Mr. and Mrs. Finch spent all of their waking hours flying back and forth from the hanging planter to feed their voracious chicks.  They were two of the most dedicated parents I've ever seen, and not once did any chick ever apear to go hungry, and be any less fit than its siblings.  As they continued to grow, the nest got smaller and smaller.  I was amazed at how all five chicks were able to pile onto one another and become virtually invisible  to anyone staring at the nest from a distance.  But about two weeks after they hatched, it became clear that space was becoming an issue.  I sat and watched as one day, five little birds stood up around the edge of the nest and began to stretch their wings.

A fledgling house finch, ready to leave the nest.
My girlfriend and I snuck around the back of the house to watch what we knew was inevitable.  As we got into position, the chicks (now fully feathered and looking quite like their mother with the exception of their pin feather "eyebrows")  began to chirp in response to the calls of their parents, who were singing to them from the branches of a nearby American holly tree.  All of a sudden, they took off in unison, frantically fluttering their wings as if their lives depended on it, to join their parents in the tree.

Yay! They made it.
We watched as the happy family sang to each other, and flew between our American holly and the white oak in the neighboring yard.  It looked like the chicks weren't quite ready to give up the free meals as they closely followed their parents.  My girlfriend and I, similarly, were not quite ready to give up the chicks.  Watching them grow and develop had been a wonderful experience, and we would end up missing them quite a bit.  Mom and dad eventually came back and started building a second nest in a different planter, but abandoned it.  A third was constructed (again, in a different planter) and two eggs were laid, but the nest was abandoned.  So even though there have been plenty of other fledgling birds in the yard over the last several months, we only had the five house sparrows.

Occasionally, when I pull into my driveway after work, I'm greeted by a small flock of little red headed birds.  Maybe I'm just being sentimental, but I believe it to be the five chicks, all male (females are known to lay one sex of egg first), that started their lives on my front porch.  Regardless, I'm confident that I'll have more houses finches next season. Is this problematic on some level?  Yes of course.  They are not a native species, and utilize the resources of birds that should be traditionally found in the area. But new life, no matter what form it takes, is always a joy to have around, so I look forward to their return next season!


  1. I loved your story! We have a finch nest in our hanging plant on our porch. I'm worried about it in a storm.... I want to protect the 4 babies that are in there, but don't want the parents to abandon the nest. Any suggestions?

  2. April and Taylor,

    My goodness, I'm sorry it took me a month to see this comment. I hope that the four chicks weathered the storm, and by this point, have probably left the nest. Had I seen this before, I think my advice would have been to let nature take it's course. House finches commonly nest in planters like that, and I know my brood made it through quite a few April showers. If the chicks had been knocked from the nest, mom and dad probably would have stayed nearby to continue feeding and protecting it. But if you do find and injured or orphaned bird, carefully get it in a cardboard box lined with a soft material, and try and find a local wildlife rehabilitator that can care for it. This website has helped me do that in the past:

    Glad you enjoyed the story! It actually continued this season, and I hope to write about it soon. Please do let me know how yours went as well.

  3. Those finches are so cute to watch, I have these kind of breeding finches in our backyard during my childhood days and I love to watch them everyday until one day they left their nest, it made me sad :(