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finch

Introduction

finch, common name for members of the Fringillidae, the largest family of birds (including over half the known species), found in most parts of the world except Australia. The true finches are characterized by their stout, conical bills, used to crack open the seeds that form the bulk of their diet. They are valued as destroyers of weed seeds; many also eat harmful insects. Since seeds, unlike insects, are not influenced by weather, many finches are year-round residents in colder areas.

The finches, which are considered the most highly developed of the birds, are widely diversified; they are classified into three groups: those with small, triangular bills, such as the canary, sparrow, bunting, towhee, junco, and those birds specifically named finch (e.g., chaffinch, bullfinch, and goldfinch); those with thick, rounded bills, as the grosbeak and cardinal; and the crossbills, rose-colored northern birds whose mandibles, as their name implies, cross over at the tips—an adaptation suited to their diet of conifer seeds.

The sparrows, genus Passer, which are field and hedge birds, are inconspicuously colored in dull grays and browns, but among the other, tree-perching finches, the male is often brightly plumaged (although the female is usually duller and sparrowlike). Most finches (except the meticulous goldfinch) build sloppy cup-shaped nests for their four to six speckled eggs.

Other species commonly called finches, especially many species kept as pets, are also found in other bird families. Estrildidae includes the grass, zebra, and parrot finches, waxbills, and munias, and Ploceidae includes the weaverbirds and whydahs.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Vertebrate Zoology


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