BACKGROUND: With its plumage color dimorphism and unique history in North America, including a recent population expansion and an epizootic of Mycoplasma gallisepticum (MG), the house finch (Haemorhous mexicanus) is a model species for studying sexual selection, plumage coloration and host-parasite interactions. As part of our ongoing efforts to make available genomic resources for this species, here we report a transcriptome assembly derived from genes expressed in spleen. RESULTS: We characterize transcriptomes from two populations with different histories of demography and disease exposure: a recently founded population in the eastern US that has been exposed to MG for over a decade and a native population from the western range that has never been exposed to MG. We utilize this resource to quantify conservation in gene expression in passerine birds over approximately 50 MY by comparing splenic expression profiles for 9,646 house finch transcripts and those from zebra finch and find that less than half of all genes expressed in spleen in either species are expressed in both species. Comparative gene annotations from several vertebrate species suggest that the house finch transcriptomes contain ~15 genes not yet found in previously sequenced vertebrate genomes. The house finch transcriptomes harbour ~85,000 SNPs, ~20,000 of which are non-synonymous. Although not yet validated by biological or technical replication, we identify a set of genes exhibiting differences between populations in gene expression (n = 182; 2% of all transcripts), allele frequencies (76 FST ouliers) and alternative splicing as well as genes with several fixed non-synonymous substitutions; this set includes genes with functions related to double-strand break repair and immune response. CONCLUSIONS: The two house finch spleen transcriptome profiles will add to the increasing data on genome and transcriptome sequence information from natural populations. Differences in splenic expression between house finch and zebra finch imply either significant evolutionary turnover of splenic expression patterns or different physiological states of the individuals examined. The transcriptome resource will enhance the potential to annotate an eventual house finch genome, and the set of gene-based high-quality SNPs will help clarify the genetic underpinnings of host-pathogen interactions and sexual selection.