FINCHES Fringillidae The True Finches, or Fringillids, are a large group of specialized seedeaters found throughout the world. There are some lovely birds among them, including the three goldfinches of North America, of which the Lawrence's Goldfinch (left) is a prize. Until I did some research for this web page, I admit to being confused between these fringillid finches, and other types of birds called "finches." I could never remember, for example, whether Galapagos finches were fringillids or something else (they are actually more closely related to cardinals & grosbeaks, and some even place them in their own family Geospizinae). The word "finch" is also used for some estrilids (waxbill family), some Hawaiian honeycreepers, and for a variety of emberizids and related birds. Likewise, some fringillids are termed "grosbeaks" or "seedeaters," but are not closely related to traditional grosbeaks or the widespread Neotropical seedeaters. All "finches," of whatever family, are seed eaters, but what sets the Fringillids apart  are their special adaptations for dealing with seeds. Fringillids have stout conical bills, strong skulls, large jaw muscles, and powerful gizzards. All have modified beaks for holding and shelling seeds. The seed is wedged in a special groove at the side of the palate and crushed by raising the lower jaw onto it, as the Chaffinch (below right) is doing. The husk is then peeled off with the aid of the tongue, releasing the kernel which is swallowed.


They also have minute outer primaries, entirely concealed by the wing coverts (except for Przewalski's Rosefinch Urocynchramus pylzowi which has 10 well-developed primaries), and differ from emberizid finches by having mandible edges that fit closely together throughout the length of the beak. Some have very large bills for dealing with large seeds (like the Evening Grosbeak Coccothraustes vespertinus and Hawfinch C. coccothrastes), while others have bills adapted for dealing with conifer seeds (like the various crossbills Loxia sp.). The Fringillids are divided into two subgroups: the chaffinches (only three species, including the Chaffinch, right) and the rest are the 'cardueline' finches, which include goldfinches, siskins, bullfinches, rosefinches, citrils, serins, and canaries. These birds find seeds in a huge variety of habitats.


Extreme examples range from bare stony desert in the Middle East, habitat of the Trumpeter Finch (left), to alpine snowfields above treeline on mountaintops in the upper Great Basin of North America, habitat of the Black Rosy-Finch (below).

Many fringillid finches show pronounced sexual dimorphism ranging from extreme differences, such as in the Carpodacus finches like the House Finch of North America (below left; female on left, red-colored male at right), to more minor distinctions, as in the Desert Finch of south-central Eurasia (below right; male with dark "mask" through lores, absent in otherwise fairly similar female).

The males of most species are distinctive enough, but identification of females can be treacherous at times, especially when vagrants are involved.

While fringillid finches are surely common enough in the Old and New worlds, often well-known as garden birds in temperate climates, there is certainly a slug of them in Africa  and in central & east Asia (40+ species in each region). I haven't visited China or Siberia yet, but I have tried sorting through African fringillids. A fairly common species in east African highlands is the Streaky Seedeater (left), but various seedeaters and canaries wander in flocks in grasslands and swamps, appearing almost randomly depending on food and weather conditions. Of course, many of the northern species of fringillid finches are migratory, moving well south in winter and sometimes (as do the redpolls) in 'invasion' numbers to more southern climes.

In discussing the relationships of fringillid finches to emberizids and other relatives, particularly the cardueline finches, Clement et al. (1993) cite ornithologist R. A. Paynter who stated that "the limits of the genera and relationships among the species are less understood -- and subject to more controversy -- in the cardulines than in any other group of passerines." This is still true, and there is very little agreement about how to deal with this huge set of birds. Some (e.g., Sibley & Monroe 1990) create a greatly expanded Fringillidae that include all the birds on this page, plus tanagers, Hawaiian honeycreepers, Galapagos finches, and cardueline finches like grosbeaks and cardinals. The tentative family list for the Handbook of the Birds of World project suggests more traditional groupings, which I've used here. This also fits my inclinations better; I like to think of these finches as different families from tanagers and Hawaiian honeycreepers.

Photos: The male Lawrence's Goldfinch Carduelis lawrencei was photographed at a water-drip in Jim & Helen Banks' yard, near King City, Monterey Co., California, on 24 Apr 1999. The female Chaffinch Fringilla coelebs was taken in Dec 1997 on North Island, New Zealand -- where Chaffinch is an introduced species from Europe. The Trumpeter Finch Rhodopechys githaginea was at Sharm-el-sheik, Sinai, Egypt (then occupied by Israel) on 7 Nov 1981. The Black Rosy-Finch Leucosticte atrata was coming to birdseed thrown out on a winter's day in Triumph, Idaho, on 1 Feb 1997. The pair of House Finch Carpodacus mexicanus were also in the Banks' King City yard on 24 Apr 1999, and nesting in a thick hedge. The male Desert Finch Rhodopechys obsoleta was at the ruins of Persepolis, Iran, on 9 Aug 1978. The Streaky Seedeater Serinus striolatus was just outside Mountain Lodge on Mt. Kenya, Kenya, in Nov 1981. All photos D. Roberson.

Bibliographic note

Family book: Rating HHHK
Clement, P., A. Harris, and J. Davis. 1993. Finches and Sparrows: An Identification Guide. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N. J.

This is a well-researched and rather thick contribution to the bird families of the world literature, nicely done by Princeton Univ. Press and better than the "average" recent publication in various other series. The Princeton Press books fall just short of the excellent quality of the Oxford series, in my view. Both of these series use "field guide" style poses for the artwork, but the Oxford series excels in behavioral information and in having the leading experts on a family author the books (thus the reader has the latest research). This is, however, a solid contribution that covers not only the Fringillidae, but the Estrillidae (waxbills and allies) and the Passeridae (Old World sparrows). It does not include the Emberizidae (New World sparrows and buntings). Each species has a fine painting of both sexes (when they differ), details of identification and plumage, a summary of distribution, and brief comments on habitat, migration, measurements, and references. The subtitle "An Identification Guide" seems odd to me, because of necessity the book cannot delve into state-of-the-art details of identification, but rather presents a overview of the family throughout the world. It is actually a "mini-handbook" rather than an i.d. guide. For example, what this book says about separating Cassin's Finch Carpodacus cassinii and Purple Finch C. purpueus is accurate enough as generalizations, but there is insufficient space to detail such things as variation in western Purple Finches which include streaked undertail coverts (usually considered a feature of Cassin's) or to emphasize bill shapes. The European birder visiting America will likely separate the species adequately, but a local birder searching for a vagrant is as apt to be misled by the text as not. For this reason -- and because of the Eurocentric choices for names (e.g., "Trumpeter Finch," unmodified, is a species, but then they use the modified term "Mongolian Trumpeter Finch" for another species) as well as some overly conservative taxonomy (e.g., failure to split the rosy-finches into four species; they lump the three American species with the Old World "Rosy-Finch") -- I slightly downgrade this good book from a "four star" to a "three-and-a-half" star entry.
Other literature cited:
Sibley, C. G., and B. L. Monroe, Jr. 1990. Distribution and Taxonomy of Birds of the World. Yale Univ. Press, New Haven, CT.