February weather does nothing toward conjuring up images of cute little pink-skinned cupids and rosy red Valentine hearts. However, there are real live romances going on outside.

The accompanying photo was taken in our backyard in the dead of winter. The posing “lovebirds” shown are house finches.

The courtship season for unattached house finches begins in January and runs through March. As you can see from the photo, the male sports some romantic red. The redder the guy’s feathers, the better his chances with the girls. The coloration and courting time of these little birds makes house finches a perfect symbol of romance for Valentine’s Day.

While humans and their habitat adversely affect many animals, the well-named house finch actually not only survives but thrives amongst us. The definitive source we use for factual background, Birds of North America Online (bna.birds.cornell.edu), points out that these finches are fond of settled areas. More specifically, in the eastern U.S., house finches prefer an environment with buildings, lawns, and small conifers. There are fewer of them in rural areas. And they don’t like the deep forest at all.

Nesting may begin as early as mid-March. Finches will make use of any kind of a platform, from a windowsill to a rock ledge. In southeast Michigan, pine and spruce trees are favorite sites for nests built in March and April; in May you may find them nesting among the ivy growing on buildings.

Although these finches are very common–one estimate is that there are over a billion of them in North America–it is possible that unless you are a birder actively looking for avian species, happen on a nest, or have put out bird feeders, you may not see a lot of them. Unlike similarly sized house sparrows, house finches generally do not show up at sidewalk cafes for whatever crumbs may be dropped.

We do know from our own observations that house finches have a liking for forsythia buds. We recently saw this liking carried to an extreme when a female chased off a male who was gorging himself on our backyard shrubbery. There was room for two on that stem but she was apparently unwilling to share. Guess food comes before romance.

While they eat buds and certain orchard fruits, house finches are mainly seedeaters. We stock our backyard feeders with their favorite black oil sunflower seeds, and enjoy these birds year round. We see fewer of them in winter–populations in southeast Michigan are smallest in November through January, increase by mid-February, and are at a maximum by early April–but there are plenty of them during all seasons to delight the eye.

If hanging out a backyard bird feeder is not practical, look for these birds wherever an appropriate food source may be found. In the winter, this will most likely be someone else’s bird feeder–but keep an eye out for finches in flowering shrubbery where the buds have set.