posted July 25th, 2012; last edited August 20th, 2012 –– David Sibley

A Yellow Purple Finch in Ontario

Thanks to reader Skip Pothier for sending in these photos. They show a Purple Finch with yellow color instead of red. My first thought was to call it a male that didn’t develop the full red pigment (a similar variant due to poor diet and/or poor health is fairly common in male House Finches) but the answer here may not be so simple.

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Yellowish Purple Finch, Port Perry, ON. 11 July 2012. Photos copyright Skip Pothier.

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Yellowish Purple Finch, Port Perry, ON. 11 July 2012. Photos copyright Skip Pothier.

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Yellowish Purple Finch, Port Perry, ON. 11 July 2012. Photos copyright Skip Pothier.

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Yellowish Purple Finch, Port Perry, ON. 11 July 2012. Photos copyright Skip Pothier.

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Yellowish Purple Finch (left) with normal male Purple Finch, Port Perry, ON. 11 July 2012. Photos copyright Skip Pothier.

Yellowish Purple Finch, Port Perry, ON. 11 July 2012. Photos copyright Skip Pothier.Yellowish Purple Finch, Port Perry, ON. 11 July 2012. Photos copyright Skip Pothier.Yellowish Purple Finch, Port Perry, ON. 11 July 2012. Photos copyright Skip Pothier.Yellowish Purple Finch, Port Perry, ON. 11 July 2012. Photos copyright Skip Pothier.Yellowish Purple Finch (left) with normal male Purple Finch, Port Perry, ON. 11 July 2012. Photos copyright Skip Pothier.

Birds get red and yellow pigments from carotenoid compounds in their food, so a diet that doesn’t include enough carotenoids will lead to a bird with weaker color. The same carotenoid chemicals are also important for immune system function, so a sick bird can also show weaker color. Even if it gets lots of carotenoids in its diet, it will use them to fight disease and won’t have enough left to color the feathers.

On this bird, however, the explanation may not be that simple. On closer study I notice that it shows some thin streaking on the sides of the breast. This is more than a male would usually have, but far less than a typical female. This kind of variation in streaking (which involves melanin pigments) is usually controlled hormonally – adult males with lots of testosterone would grow breast feathers with no streaks, all other birds (females and immature males) grow feathers with broad brown streaks.

If this bird is hormonally intermediate, that could also conceivably explain the yellow color. It could be a male that was not producing enough testosterone as the new feathers grew during its last molt, or it could be a female producing a lot of testosterone. The existence of “male-like females” is known in waterfowl, and those are generally assumed to be older birds that grow feathers with some male-like colors and patterns. I’m not sure how we could distinguish a male from a female in these photos, given that the bird is abnormal.

As mentioned above, yellow color is fairly common in male House Finches, with birds showing a full range of color variation from red, to orange, to yellow, but no obvious differences in plumage pattern, suggesting it involves only carotenoids and is all diet-related. In Purple Finch yellow color is very rare, and often comes along with abnormal streaking, which may mean that it is hormonal.

Why don’t male Purple Finches show a simple “carotenoid-limited” yellowish color more often? Are Purple Finches healthier than House Finches? Do they have an easier time getting the necessary carotenoids in their diets? Or is there a fundamental difference in the mechanism of red coloration in the two species?

Some other examples of yellow Purple Finches from around the web

Below is one photo apparently an Eastern bird in Jan 2010 – photo copyright Stanley York; here alongside a typical female showing the difference in extent of streaking on the breast. Click to see the full size photo on Flickr.

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Below is an Eastern bird from NS in May 2010; photo copyright Maxine Quinton. Click to see the original photo and more examples on Flickr.

Purple Finch (Fringillidae:Carpodacus purpurpeus) male, rare yellow variant

http://www.redhawksquest.com/?p=1472 – apparently a Western bird in Feb 2009 (click the link then scroll down for photos). This looks more like a male that has simply reduced the normal red color to orange.

Thanks to Skip Pothier for sending the photos and for help with web research.

11 comments to A Yellow Purple Finch in Ontario

  • I have been trying to identify a bird that is very similar to the above, I have had at the feeders in VT. Thanks for the article and clarification. Very interesting.
    I have several photos and can send links (i don’t want to leave a link in a comment)
    Dan

  • FWIW, in some breeds of poultry, females will take on male characteristics if there are no males present in their general area. I always thought this an old wive’s tale, but one year I actually heard an older hen crowing. She was in a pen with no males, and they had been without one for over six months. So I would not be surprised to see a female finch showing some male characteristics.

  • Of note, I have an orange young male Purple Finch along with the “intermediate female” at my feeders, seemingly watched over by an adult male. (posted on my site tonite if interested.) Thanks for the good article

    dan

  • Jim Boasie

    I have always had an interest in the diversity of the colour of bird feathers.
    The thing is I did not know that alot of it is due to melanin pigments to affect colour, the same as in mammals with fur, and our own hair colour as humans, is this correct?.

    On the other hand I once read some literature from a chemical manufacturer of Mica that its colour ranges are due to a property of light reflection and light scatter know as irridescence. These same properties can be found in the tiny structure making up bird feathers as well. So, are both factors contributing to the ultimate colour that we see when observing a bird? I am not sure and need to spend some time to research it when I can, but I wondered if you knew anything about these properties.

  • Maxine Quinton

    David, I’m excited to discover one of my photos of the yellow Purple Finches has been published here…just found out today. Your thoughts on the colour variation are fascinating. In light of what you’ve said, I should add that for a number of years on our island in Mahone Bay Nova Scotia we’ve hosted many of these yellow Purples (always in a flock with conventional raspberry coloured Purple Finches). While occasionally I’ve seen some very ill male (raspberry coloured) and female Purple Finches (eye disease that looked much like the disease that afflicts the House Finch), I’ve yet to see a yellow that looked sick; they’ve all been robust looking. I can say that with some degree of certainty, because I’ve been closely monitoring them for four years and have taken thousands of photographs. Thank you! I look forward to more of your thoughts on the subject.

    • Hi Maxine, Thanks for commenting. That’s fascinating that you have a group of Purple Finches that are consistently yellow – definitely worth more study to figure out what’s causing it.

  • Maxine Quinton

    Hi David,

    The Purple Finches just started arriving for the season…late this year. Again, the flock is mixed with some quite yellow Purples and some very raspberry-coloured Purples. If you’d like photos of this year’s birds, please let me know. I’ll for sure keep track of them as the season progresses.

  • C.A. "Skip" Pothier

    Hi Maxine

    Nice to see that the yellows are still showing up and that you have become part of this blog.
    Looks like a study opportunity is emerging.
    Sort of a full circle thing. My life started in Halifax. My mother was from Mahone Bay.
    I have regular purple finches in my Port Perry yard this year. Still looking for another yellow.
    I am surmising that you have met Christine W. ??
    Skip

  • Maxine Quinton

    Hi Skip

    Sorry for not responding sooner…I check on the blog periodically but didn’t see your reply. Is there a way to be notified of comments as they come in?

    We’ve had far fewer birds on our land this year, due to what I believe was the continuing use of heavy machinery around us during migration. Even so, we do have a good number of Purple Finches and the yellow males seem again to match the raspberry males in number…one of the things I find of interest since they all arrive as a flock and remain together over the season. There are varying individual patterns and amounts of yellow, which I attribute to age. I’d like to post some photos of the different individuals, but I don’t seem to be able to; a couple of years ago I sent a number of photos of the yellows to this blog but they weren’t published. Is there a way to do it? As well as the sheer variety and numbers of the yellows, I have a photo taken during breeding season a few years ago of a very yellow singing Purple Finch with an obvious cloacal protuberance that I believe you might think important, David.

    If there isn’t a way to post photos on here, I’ll add new photos to my flickr account of this year’s yellows.

    Again, thanks for replying, Skip. It’s always good to hear from another Maritimer, especially one who’s also fascinated by birds.

    Maxine

    PS…Christine W?

  • C.A. "Skip" Pothier

    Hi Maxine. Sorry I am way behind. Many things going on. including helping my son and family move into their first house. Part of why blogs can drag on. I know of no way to be notified of additions to specific pages.
    I have this site on my Apple “Top Sites” page which flags whenever there is a change on the site. But that is the whole site.
    As to pics all I can suggest is to get them into flicker and note that you have done so here along with the offer to supply full size pics to David Sibley if he wants them. He has your e-mail to do so.
    D.S. is a very busy person so to expect anything to happen quickly is not likely. This is a huge Blog plus all his other things like the upgrade to the Bird Guide.

    Crhristine W lives in East Chester. We both post pics to http://www.theweathernetwork.com . I suggested she find you as she is turning into a birder as she settles into her latest home. I thought she had done so and advised you of this section of the blog. I take it you did so on your own.

    Another thing keeping me busy is following an Osprey Nest with triplets. The first chick flew this week.
    I post to the weather network as Port Skipper .
    I’ll check out your Flickr Postings. You have me really intrigued.
    Skip

  • Réjean Turgeon

    Hi I have photographed a Purple finch yellow yesterday the 4 april 2014.
    Can I send you pictures of this bird.
    I need an electronic address for that please.
    Thanks
    Réjean Turgeon

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