Usually in winter we hear only their lisping call-note; but if the birds linger late enough in the spring, when their "fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love," a gleeful, canary-like song comes from the naked branches, and we may know by it that the flock will soon disappear for their nesting grounds in the northern forests.
The Greater Redpoll (Acanthis linaria rostrata) may be distinguished from the foregoing species by its slightly larger size, darker upper parts, and shorter, stouter bill. But the notes, habits, and general appearance of both redpolls are so nearly identical that the birds are usually mistaken for each other.
PURPLE FINCH (Carpodacus purpureus) Finch family
Length -- 6 to 6.25 inches. About the same size as the English sparrow. Male -- Until two years old, sparrow-like in appearance like the female, but with olive-yellow on chin and lower back. Afterwards entire body suffused with a bright raspberry-red, deepest on head, lower back, and breast, and other parts only faintly washed with this color. More brown on back; and wings and tail, which are dusky, have some reddish brown feathers. Underneath grayish white. Bill heavy. Tail forked. Female -- Grayish olive brown above; whitish below; finely Streaked everywhere with very dark brown, like a sparrow. Sides of breast have arrow-shaped marks. Wings and tail darkest. Range -- North America, from Columbia River eastward to Atlantic and from Mexico northward to Manitoba. Most common in Middle States and New England. Winters south of Pennsylvania. Migrations -- March. November. Common summer resident. Rarely individuals winter at the north.
In this "much be-sparrowed country" of ours familiarity is apt to breed contempt for any bird that looks sparrowy, in which case one of the most delicious songsters we have might easily be overlooked. It is not until the purple finch reaches maturity in his second year that his plumage takes on the raspberry-red tints that some ornithologists named purple. Oriental purple is our magenta, it is true, but not a raspberry shade. Before maturity, but for the yellow on his lower back and throat, he and his mate alike suggest a song-sparrow; and it is important to note their particularly heavy, rounded bills, with the tufts of feathers at the base, and their forked tails, to name them correctly. But the identification of the purple finch, after all, depends quite as much upon his song as his color. In March, when flocks of these birds come north, he has begun to sing a little; by the beginning of May he is desperately in love, and sudden, joyous peals of music from the elm or evergreen trees on the lawn enliven the garden. How could his little brown lady-love fail to be impressed with a suitor so gayly dressed, so tender and solicitous, so deliciously sweet-voiced? With fuller, richer song than the warbling vireo's, which Nuttall has said it resembles, a perfect ecstasy of love, pours incessantly from his throat during the early summer days. There is a suggestion of the robins love-song in his, but its copiousness, variety, and rapidity give it a character all its own.
In some old, neglected hedge or low tree about the countryplace a flat, grassy nest, lined with horsehair, contains four or five green eggs in June, and the old birds are devotion itself to each other, and soon to their young, sparrowy brood.
But when parental duties are over, the finches leave our lawns and gardens to join flocks of their own kind in more remote orchards or woods, their favorite haunts. Their subdued warble may be heard during October and later, as if the birds were humming to themselves.
Much is said of their fondness for fruit blossoms and tree buds, but the truth is that noxious insects and seeds of grain constitute their food in summer, the berries of evergreens in winter. To a bird so gay of color, charming of voice, social, and trustful of disposition, surely a few blossoms might be spared without grudging.