Goldfinches: An Illustrated Guide to the American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis)

Known as the "wild canary", the resplendent, lemon-yellow males and less colorful females flock to our back yard sanctuary all summer long. These lovely little songbirds entertain us with their feeding frenzy on the Nyjer seeds in our tube feeder and with their acrobatic darting about, hanging upside down, and sudden swooping fly-away in an undulating, roller-coaster pattern.

The American Goldfinch, one of the American backyard bird lover's favorite birds, shows the brightest hues—like most birds—when they are mating (only once a year), which may not be until late summer.

Male goldfinch in mid-May in his full mating- season colors.
Male goldfinch in mid-May in his full mating- season colors. | Source

Good Looks

Male, Female, and Juvenile

The male is brilliant yellow during mating, becomes olive colored like the female when not mating. He has a black cap and black wings with flashy white wing bars, and a white rump. She has no black cap. Juveniles resemble the female.

In the winter, both male and female are duller and grayer. But even in winter American Goldfinches can be identified by their conical-shaped bill—orange during mating season, otherwise pink—notched tail, and wing bars. During molts, goldfinches can look ragged and patchy.

Size

Overall size, smaller than a sparrow or Tufted Titmouse: 4½ - 5" (11-13 cm).

Wingspan: 7½ - 8½ (19-22 cm).

Weight: Approx. ½ oz. (11-20 grams).


Habitat

Their natural habitat is woodland edges, brushy thickets, and weedy grasslands. But they are often found as backyard birds. In winter they gather in flocks and remain in flocks until well past the time other species have formed pairs and are nesting.

American Goldfinch nest near Montreal, Canada.
American Goldfinch nest near Montreal, Canada. | Source
The male American Goldfinch (left) and the female (right) at their brightest.
The male American Goldfinch (left) and the female (right) at their brightest. | Source

Nyjer seed - preferred food of the American Goldfinch

Guizotia abyssinica.  Common name: niger seed,
Guizotia abyssinica. Common name: niger seed, | Source

Nesting

Each year, the female builds a thick and sturdy, well-made nest in a cup-shape of grass, bark, feathers, and plant down (such as thistle and cattail) wedged in the fork of a small sapling or shrub. She lays 4 or 5 pale blue eggs.

Not a bit of help building the nest, the male redeems himself by feeding the female while she incubates the eggs. Both parents tend young birds, who leave the nest in 10 to 16 days.

Because they nest so late, presumably waiting for weed seeds and thistle down to mature, goldfinches are monogamous and usually raise only one brood per year.

Food

Goldfinches preferred food is niger seed, which you will see for sale as Nyjer® seed. Nyjer® is a registered trademark, owned by the Wild Bird Feeding Institute. The name was registered to protect consumers from buying inferior thistle seed which is sometimes confused with niger seed. Niger seed is Imported from India and Ethiopia.

Well adapted to seed eating with their conical shaped bills, goldfinches will also eat other seeds, including sunflower seeds. Generally strict vegetarians, they rarely eat insects but will—of necessity—eat a few insects and berries.


Sounds like "per-chick-o-ree" or "po-ta-to-chip" , followed by call "tee-chi-chi-chi".

Song and Call

Most commonly known for their call "per-chick-o-ree" or "po- ta-to-chip". Other calls: high wiry whistles, and "tee-chi-chi". Other recorded sounds are "peezy-we"," bew-be".

Males sing varying series of twitters and warbles that can be several seconds long. Notes and phrases are also repeated and scrambled randomly. Birds continue to learn new song patters throughout life.

In the spring, American Goldfinches lose the flat, drab colors of their winter plumage, and  begin to grow the brilliant yellow feathers they will wear into breeding season through the  summer.
In the spring, American Goldfinches lose the flat, drab colors of their winter plumage, and begin to grow the brilliant yellow feathers they will wear into breeding season through the summer. | Source

Molting

The American Goldfinch is the only finch that molts its body feathers twice a year, once in late winter and again in late summer. The male molt can start as early as April. Within a couple of weeks, he displays his resplendent lemon-yellow brilliance.

Range and Migration

There are four species of goldfinch, three in North America plus the one in Europe that has not been successfully introduced to America.

Range Seeking temperatures no colder than 0 degrees Fahrenheit, the American Goldfinch ranges from the east coast to Colorado, and from southern Canada and to northern Mexico. In the West is the Lesser Goldfinch (Carduelis psaltria), with a dark back and smaller size, 4½ inches (11 cm).

Migration Partial, moves only far enough south to find food. Moves in small flocks. The range/distribution map (at right) shows the summer range (yellow), the year-round range (green), and the winter range (blue).


Range/distribution map of the American Goldfinch.       YELLOW: Summer-only range; GREEN Year-round range;  BLUE Winter-only.
Range/distribution map of the American Goldfinch. YELLOW: Summer-only range; GREEN Year-round range; BLUE Winter-only. | Source

Longevity

The oldest known American Goldfinch was reported in May 2007 to be 10 years, 5 months old.

State Bird

The American Goldfinch is the official state bird of New Jersey, Iowa, and Washington.

Mark Feldstein & Associates Audubon Singing Bird Clock, 8"
Mark Feldstein & Associates Audubon Singing Bird Clock, 8"

Lovely in any room, often used in the kitchen.

 

Attract and Care for Goldfinches

They will feed from almost any kind of bird feeder, but they will consistently hang around column or tube feeders because so many other, more aggressive birds can't get the seeds out of the tiny holes designed for goldfinches.

Protect all birds including goldfinches by cleaning birdbaths and bird feeders regularly and keeping the ground underneath well raked.

Predators of the goldfinch include squirrels, cats, snakes, weasels, and—by one report—Blue Jays.

References

Macaulay Library, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

www.all-birds.com

www.allaboutbirds.org

The Birdwatcher's Companion to North American Birdlife, Published in collaboration with the American Birding Association, Christopher W. Leahy, Princeton University Press, 2004.

The Armchair Birder, Discovering the Secret Lives of Familiar Birds, John Yow, The University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

Birds in Your Backyard, A Bird Lover's Guide to Creating a Garden Sanctuary, Robert J. Dolezal, The Reader's Digest Association, 2004.

National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Region, John Bull and John Farrand, Jr. , Chanticleer Press, Inc., Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1994.

Field Guide and Audio CDs, Birds of Michigan, Stan Tekiela, Adventure Publications, Inc. 1999.

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Comments 12 comments

JSParker profile image

JSParker 4 years ago from Detroit, Michigan Author

Cathy A, my birding expert finally responded to my question about your question: yes, you were seeing goldfinches. In the winter they are olive with the wing stripes, but in the spring the males turn to gold with black caps. Then they have babies, which are olive with the wing stripes.

I hope this helps.


Cathy A 4 years ago

I live in the upper Northeast corner of Utah, about 5800 ft high. This is the first year I have had feeders. Lots of house finches year round. I had these smaller birds, olive-brown with striped black and white wings all winter. Tried to study what they were. However, I believe they were American Goldfinches the entire time as I suddenly began seeing these bright yellow birds with black caps appear. I still thought the other birds were something else, a flycatcher maybe? Their beaks were seemed different, longer, thinner and darker. It is April 22 and much hotter than normal (85 degrees) today. All of my American Goldfinches have disappeared in one day! Was it too hot, where did they go? I feel lost...thank goodness for my trusty house finches!!! If anyone knows the answer, please respond. Happy birding!!!


JSParker profile image

JSParker 5 years ago from Detroit, Michigan Author

Peggy W - Isn't that interesting, that we are in such different climates (Houston and Detroit), yet we pretty much have the same birds, except you don't see the goldfinch and we don't see the mockingbird in our backyard. I have heard of mockingbirds being here but away from the more populated areas.

We have tons of Robins. They are no longer a harbinger of spring, however, as they remain year round. A sign of global warming.

Thanks for your visit.


Peggy W profile image

Peggy W 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

Such a pretty bird! I haven't seen any goldfinches in our Houston Yard but we commonly have mockingbirds, bluejays, doves, sparrows, robins and cardinals and even a woodpecker that regularly visits our birdbath.


JSParker profile image

JSParker 5 years ago from Detroit, Michigan Author

Danette,

A funny thing happened. We bought a nicer, bigger Nyjer seed tube feeder...and the goldfinches stopped coming! I have no idea why, but I think I'll try a different feeder.

Thank you for your positive feedback. Best wishes.


Danette Watt profile image

Danette Watt 5 years ago from Illinois

What a great shot of the goldfinch! I am not able to get a lot of them to my feeder but I do enjoy seeing them come around. Enjoyed your hub and voted up and useful.


JSParker profile image

JSParker 5 years ago from Detroit, Michigan Author

Yes, aren't they a cheery little bird! Both their color and song. I was just tending my feeder before I saw your comment. Thanks.


Lady_E profile image

Lady_E 5 years ago from London, UK

Very interesting and what an unusual, but lovely colour.

Thanks for sharing.


JSParker profile image

JSParker 5 years ago from Detroit, Michigan Author

savoirefaire - Thanks for your comments and for stopping by my hub! I think you'll enjoy birdwatching for the simple pleasure of it. Now it's part of my daily routine...if I don't see my little yellow feathered friends, something seems amiss. ~JSP

StephanieBCrosby - Good to hear from you! I agree, they are amazingly beautiful birds. Of course, a lot has been written about them, because they are one of America's favorite, but I wanted to provide an "illustrated" guide, hence the pictures, and enough detail without becoming "scholarly". So, thanks for noticing. I really appreciate it. ~JSP

ColibriPhoto - Thank you so very much. I'm thrilled that you thought it excellent. As I writer, I couldn't ask for more. ~JSP


savoirfaire 5 years ago

I liked the article on goldfinches. It was concise and informative. It has also inspired me to get a feeder for goldfinches. I have never been much of a birdwatcher, but I believe I will start now. I am beginning to practice the philosophy of wabi sabi.


StephanieBCrosby profile image

StephanieBCrosby 5 years ago from New Jersey

JSParker, I love all the details and pictures you provide for goldfinches. They truly are a beautiful bird...and I'm not just saying that because it's my state bird :)


ColibriPhoto profile image

ColibriPhoto 5 years ago from Quito, Ecuador

Excellent article.Very informative.

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