IDEAS For Us | March 28, 2016

Birdie Sanders: How a Mexican Bird Made it Big In Portland

Bird Analysis

It is always wonderful when animals find their way into national news for a positive reason. Due to the plight of our natural resources from poaching, global climate change, deforestation, anthropogenic disasters, and habitat loss, there is a “bad-news” narrative that turns people off to learning about Nature. With so much bad news out there, IDEAS For Us has always taken the high road by adopting a stance of being the barer of good news. Solutions for all matter and they need more coverage and collective attention if they are going to scale (Check out our Solutions Fund).  

I’ll be the first to say that races for presidential candidacy are usually the last place one should ever look for positive news on Nature, but the race to the White House in 2016 has been refreshingly rich with talk highlighting climate action, the need for renewable energy, and the ending of fossil fuel subsidies in America. The more dialogue the better because that is how you change culture gradually. However, during a campaign speech to 11,500 attendees at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon on March 25th, 2016, a small song-bird took to Senator Bernie Sanders’ podium, bringing Nature onto the T.V. screens and Laptops of millions of people in a very big way.


Bernie Sanders with Bird

Upon seeing the footage (Link Here) of the rally, my mind flooded with thoughts about ecology and humanity’s place within it. The cheers of the crowd and the jovial expression of Senator Sanders certainly reinforced my observation that people love animals and Nature. Animals are symbols to many people and the flood of Memes comparing “Bernie” to everyone from Snow White, to Mother Nature, to the Twitter Bird goes to show that few things inspire the kind of symbolism that Nature does – especially birds.

But what is the real story? Who is this bird? I had to know and started taking screen shots of this “small bird”, as every news source was calling it, from every angle I could find. It dawned on me, that out of all the writers out there writing about this bird, none of them could identify it. I had to do it, if only to fill in the science deficit.


Bird Photos

My next stop was a Portland, Oregon bird list (which I knew had to exist because birders are the steel backbone of Naturalism, along with botanists). I was right. I found a PDF of the Bird List (Link Here) and knew it was a finch or a sparrow based on size, shape, color, and what I know off hand about Spring birds in snowy areas like the Pacific Northwest. With some more googling, I had it narrowed down to three contenders. The Purple Finch (Haemorhous purpureus), The House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus), or a juvenile Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis).


Fourth Image

I slept on it and by morning the Audubon Society of Portland had Tweeted (Link Here) the bird’s true identity as The House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus). Fantastic, I thought. Beyond fantastic, actually, because there is a much deeper story here now and it’s all due to the natural history of this bird. The House Finch is Native to the American Southwest and its binomial scientific name tells me that the holotype individual (the specimen that was used as the standard taxonomic species by biologists) came from Mexico. So how did a Mexican bird wind up in Oregon?

Turns out small birds were the “thing” in the 1920’s and 1930’s and entrepreneurial New York pet shop owners decided to start stocking the birds in stores across the city and eventually the Southeast. House finches were originally sold as “Hollywood finches” and became a trend pet. When Governmental laws cracked down on bird trafficking (it was becoming a huge problem) in the 1940’s, pet store owners simply released hundreds of birds to escape prosecution. Over the next six decades, the birds survived and spread from sea to shining sea as an invasive species. What’s worse is that the birds compete with native species, particularly other finches with similar beaks – which often reflect the kind of food they eat, such as a heavy bill for seeds and a skinny bill for picking out insects from around foliage or bark.

This capable Mexican bird filled a niche that was open and even competes with native species but it is far less ecologically offensive than European birds like the European Starling and House Sparrow. However, scientists estimate the total US House Finch Population to be between 267 million and 1.4 billion strong and the oldest bird on record lived to be 11 years and 7 months old.

It is a shame a native bird couldn’t make an appearance on the podium of the Presidential hopeful, Senator Sanders. A world with thriving native species is “A Future To Believe In” and I believe we can get there. Habitat restoration, invasive species removal, and tree plantings are all ways to increase native biodiversity, even in urban settings like Portland, New York, or Orlando for that matter.


This April, IDEAS For Us is holding the Inaugural Walk For Trees to help bolster support from everyday citizens to plan native trees and help contribute to the goal of increasing Orlando’s Tree Canopy from 27% to 40%. We will be walking around a beautiful lake and giving away free native trees to attendees so they can help give native wildlife and native songbirds the resources they need to keep filling our backyards and hearts with song.

Support the Walk For Trees if you are in Orlando

or Donate to IDEAS For Us and our ecology solutions at

*IDEAS For Us is an apolitical organization, making no endorsement for or against any candidate as it is forbidden by law and such a violation would jeopardize our tax-exempt status. We can only draw attention to issues important to us and our members. This is not an endorsement of any American presidential candidate in 2016.