Tuesday Tune: Harbinger

photograph and text by Brian Willson

House Finch

This is the week it began. When I first stepped out early yesterday and heard the trill of a northern cardinal, I knew. Then came the loose, lazy warble of a house finch, for good measure. Soon song sparrows will be returning, and—perhaps the surest (and most miraculous) sign of spring, for me—American woodcocks will be twittering overhead in their eerie, thrilling twilight flight displays.

Maybe because of the male’s striking color or their pure, sweet-sounding notes, many of us will recognize the cardinal’s song as it rings above the crocus and the daffodil. But how many know the song of a house finch—arguably a truer a harbinger of spring?

The story of our local house finch is kind of a poignant one: a hardy western species let loose in the wilds of New York sixty or seventy years ago, it’s been competing ever since with our native (very similar) purple finch. Those plain brown-and-reddish birds on your backyard feeder are likely the former, these days; you’re more liable to encounter the latter these days in the woods.

Yep, they’re everywhere, house finches are, singing from the tips of trees. But do you know their song?

It’s hard to describe in words—a fluctuating collection of warbles, slides, and slurs, often with a buzzy component and ending in something like,

zheeer!

The bird’s raspy note has an upward inflection, a little like you might hear from a goldfinch. It also has a boisterous chirp! reminiscent of a house sparrow’s.

They’re called “house” finches for a reason: if you live in even a lightly populated area, chances are you’ve got a few of these birds around. A feeding station will confirm it, as will a pause to listen for their song.