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The American Goldfinch is not the Same as Other Birds

Updated on March 10, 2015

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For the meanings of bird parts which you do not understand in this Hub, see my bird glossary.

If what you want is not in there, please let me know so that I can add it in the glossary.

Male molting in spring

American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) in transition to breeding plumage - Ash, North Carolina
American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) in transition to breeding plumage - Ash, North Carolina | Source

Interesting facts:

  • The American Goldfinch changes from its winter plumage to breeding plumage by a complete molt of its body feathers. It molts in the fall like all of the other species, but it is the only member of its family to also molt in the spring.

  • Goldfinches support their young on a seed-based diet. Because of this if a Brown-headed Cowbird happens to lay an egg in the goldfinch nest, the cowbird hatchling will usually die since it cannot be fed its regular food.

  • They are one of the latest nesting birds, starting in late June or early July, when most other songbirds are finishing with breeding. Their late timing may be related to the availability of suitable nesting materials and seeds for feeding young.

  • Goldfinches do not join other songbirds when mobbing predators.

Male goldfinch


Female goldfinch

This is an image of a female American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) sitting on top of a red lily.
This is an image of a female American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) sitting on top of a red lily. | Source

Which do you like to look at better, the male or the female?

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American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis)

  • Size:

Being a length of 4.5” - 5”, this bird is the largest of the goldfinch group. Wingspan: When it is in flight the wings spread to 9”. Weight: It definitely weighs more than the other two since it generally weighs 0.46 oz.

  • Male:

The male American Goldfinch is bright yellow on most of its body and the shoulder of its wings. It has a cap, wings and a tail which are black, with wing bars that are white. Viewing from the bottom, it has a rump and underparts which are white. Its bill is pink and conical.

These birds visually show a trace of yellow at any season but of course they are brightest in the spring and early summer.

The male in the winter can have between olive-gray to olive-brown upperparts. The paler parts include the underparts, shoulders and white wing bar. Plus he has a darker bill and also may show black on the forehead plus yellow on the throat and face.

  • Female:

The female has the same black in the wings and the tail, plus the white wing bars, as the male. The rest is duller with an olive back and she lacks the black cap and yellow on the shoulders.

In the winter, she is duller with a buff wing and shoulder bars plus she lacks both black and yellow on the face and head.

  • Juvenile:

The juvenile resembles the winter female but has a yellow wash on the throat and breast.

  • Immature:

The immature resembles the female but is browner above.

Goldfinches feeding

Male and Female American Gold Finches at a feeder
Male and Female American Gold Finches at a feeder | Source


A regular friend at our thistle-seed feeder’s throughout the year, but mostly in the winter, the American Goldfinch lends color and sound wherever it surfaces. It also likes to come to the feeder which has sunflower seeds – the hearts of the seeds for the softness – and it likes to go to the flowers too. It eats tree seeds such as alder, birch, western red cedar and elm. It also likes to dine on goldenrod, lettuce, dandelions and other plants that have gone to seed for its main foods. Milkweed is one of the other items which they feed their young.

Goldfinches are among the most stringent vegetarians in the bird world, picking a totally vegetable diet and only accidentally swallowing a random insect. Berries are also a small part of their diet.

Its lively song and aerial territorial displays make it especially conspicuous in late spring; however, its propensity for using thistledown in its nests makes it one of the latest songbirds to nest.

Vegetarian diets:

Favorite seeds
Some berries
Random insects
A few trees
Very tight eating habits.

Goldfinch making nest


The male and female move around together until they come across a possible site in which to place the nest. The female builds the nest, usually in a shrub or sapling in a fairly open setting in preference to a forest interior. The nest is usually placed near the top of a shrub, where two or three vertical branches join; basically shaded by leaves of clusters of needles from above, but often open and visible from below.

The nest is an open cup which is often woven so tightly that it can hold water. It usually takes the female about 6 days to make the nest.

The nest is made of strands from weeds (one of them which is milkweed) and vines, downy filaments from wind-dispersed seeds, such as thistles, bound with caterpillar webbing, placed in a shrub or a small tree 4’ – 20’ above the ground. It is lashed to the platform branches by using spider silk. Since the birds main food is seeds, nesting does not start until mid-summer or late summer, when weed seeds are obtainable. Thus, American Goldfinches remain in flocks until well past the time when other species have paired and nested.

The Cowbird parasite:

The American Goldfinch is regularly parasitized by the Brown-headed Cowbird. The diet of the A. Goldfinch was mentioned above. The goldfinch parents feed their nestlings seeds, and it is because of this that the cowbirds do not survive.

The Brown-headed Cowbird adults would not feed their young a steady diet of seeds which the goldfinch eats. The cowbird adults eat seeds from grasses and weeds with crop grains and also eat insects. One other thing is that their eggs usually hatch before the others so their nestlings get food first, but it does not help them in this situation.

You see, Brown-headed Cowbirds always have 'foster' parents because the eggs are always laid in other birds' nests. The mother lays 'extra' eggs.

Egg laying and hatching:

Eggs: They lay a cluster of 3 – 7 eggs which are a bluish-white.

Incubation: The eggs are watched over for 12 – 14 days.

Fledging: After the eggs hatch, the young are in the nest and cared for 11 – 15 more days, due to the birds being altricial.

Brood: 1 – 2. Due to their late nesting, only a single brood is raised each season.


Their habitats can be in thick groves, dense ranges, marshy areas, weedy grasslands and suburban parks, yards or gardens. They can also be found in floodplains, roadsides, orchards and asters.

Range map

American (or Eastern) Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis). In keeping with WikiProject: Birds guidelines, yellow indicates the summer-only range, blue indicates the winter-only range, and green indicates the year-round range.
American (or Eastern) Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis). In keeping with WikiProject: Birds guidelines, yellow indicates the summer-only range, blue indicates the winter-only range, and green indicates the year-round range. | Source


It breeds from southern British Columbia and northern Alberta to Newfoundland, south to southern California, Utah, southern Colorado, Nebraska, central Oklahoma, Arkansas and The Carolina's.

The bird normally spends its winters throughout most of its breeding range south to northern Mexico.

Their range is fairly large. It can be found in Canada, the Bahamas, Mexico and the United States.

Male A. Goldfinch singing


They have two songs: 1) a long canary-like song, this song is a jumble of long, high and sweet, twittering notes. 2) and a short forceful warble.

Calls include ’swee-yeet’ or ‘tee-yee’ for courtship; ‘beer-bee’ or ‘bay-bee’ if they are threatened; and the well-known ‘per-chick-o-ree’ (or the well-known ’potato-chips’) which is a flight call. There is also a plaintive ’chi-ree’.

Do you want to help save the birds?

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Diseases which affect the A. Goldfinch and what we can do:

1) The first one which we will mention is conjunctivitis. Some might say, "Conjunctivitis?!, but that is a House Finch disease." It has always been related to the House Finch, but that is not the only bird which it affects. There are quite a few other birds on the list and the American Goldinch is one of them.

The full name is Mycoplasmal conjunctivitis which became discovered in 1944. The effects of this disease are obvious and a lot of us have seen it. We have seen the House Finch (or even the Purple Finch) with a large, red, puffy eye. This is because the effects that it causes are when an eye becomes red and gets fat. Finally it gets runny and dries up to become brittle on the outside. Sometimes it can reach the highest level and the eye becomes swollen shut and then the poor bird only has one only eye to see with.

How it is passed on: When the infected eye comes into contact with the feeder, it leaves traces of the disease for another bird to pick up. That way another bird may become infected.

Even though the disease was discovered in 1944, the first time that it was seen on H. Finches was not until 1994. I believe that domestic turkeys and chickens had it first. Other birds to be concerned about are the American Goldfinch, Purple Finch - and Evening Grosbeak (which is also a finch).

2) Then there is Salmonellosis which is not always obvious. Salmonellosis' genus is Salmonella. One of the day to day causes of this disease is mortality in birds which eat at feeders. The reason that the symptoms may not be obvious is because birds may be fat or thin, their eyelids may be swollen or they simply might be fluffed up. These seem like normal conditions; but not if these conditions continue unknown for 24/7. Sometimes the birds can be lethargic and easy to approach, so you have to be aware whether this is a normal condition for that particular bird. Some birds may be carriers waiting to spread the disease without showing any symptoms on the outside. These birds are hardest to notice.

The disease is, for the most part, passed on by fecal contamination of food & water from sick birds, but also by bird-to-bird contact. A few of the birds included in onsets of the disease are the American Goldfinch, Pine Siskin and the Common Redpoll.

What we can do to help the birds -

There are more diseases out there, these are only a couple, but we can begin to help by washing our feeders on a regular basis. Make a schedule, say that you clean them every month, and perhaps each time that you see a new bird come to the feeders. If we get a lot of birds then the second part may seem too often. Everyone will not be doing this and some diseases are passed on in other ways, but every little bit helps.

We should also be active in watching our seeds. By that I mean that if they have been sitting in the feeder for too long without any birds coming, then the seeds would probably be getting stale and also collecting insects and germs which would help to contaminate the seeds. When this happens, throw the seeds out and fill the feeders only about a quarter full until you see some bird activity. Then keep an eye on the feeders and only fill them as fast as the seeds go down. (This would also help to save you money.)

Conservation status:

At the moment that this was written this bird was at ‘Least Concern’, in 2000 it was ‘Lower Risk’. The American Goldfinch is not involved with meeting instant decrease.

At the moment the populations appear to be stable.

I personally see the range covering a large area and I do not see why this bird should be in danger, but I have not taken a survey on it.

Other facts:

Our only other bright-yellow bird with a black cap and wings is the much larger Evening Grosbeak (which is also a finch).

During breeding, the male goldfinch does deep a loop flight, which is an exaggeration of the normal looping flight of goldfinches, with the ‘perchickoree’ call. This is often done while circling his territory.

The female builds the first nest and may start second nest, while fledging young in the first nest are fed by the male.

In winter, they are found in flocks that wander in search of food. This familiar and common species is often called the “wild canary”. After all, one of their songs sounds like a canary.

They also fly like a roller-coaster.

It is also the state bird of Iowa, New Jersey and Washington. In the first two (Eastern states it is called the "eastern goldfinch" and in the third one it is called the "willow goldfinch". In Wash., schoolchildren chose it in 1951.

© 2013 The Examiner-1


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    • The Examiner-1 profile imageAUTHOR

      The Examiner-1 

      4 years ago

      I am happy for you Mary. I thank you for reading the Hub and I am glad that you seemed to enjoy it. :-) They are fun to watch. I remember when I used to watch them in my first bird garden in NJ. I was amazed by them.


    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 

      4 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      When I get back to the cottage this summer, I will closely observe the goldfinches that frequent our feeders. They do like sunflowers and they have given us so much entertainment all these years.

    • The Examiner-1 profile imageAUTHOR

      The Examiner-1 

      4 years ago

      Thank you Barbara (that is a cute dog/puppy). It is not just the kittens, I have full-sized cats climbing trees which are not mine! You should get a goldfinch sock, keep the dogs inside at a certain time and go out to fill the feeder. Then you can watch the birds in your yard.

      I appreciate your vote(s).


    • Solaras profile image


      4 years ago

      Great post; very informative. I love birds too; unfortunately my dogs seem to chase them away; which is good since the kitties like to eat little birds. So I have to go on long walks to see them. Thumbs up and voted Interesting and Beautiful!

    • The Examiner-1 profile imageAUTHOR

      The Examiner-1 

      5 years ago

      Well I really appreciate that Au fait. I used to have a nice garden with various feeders and flowers too. I had birds and squirrels but no raccoons and 'possums. I had Red-tailed Hawk once! It sat on my garage roof while I watched the birds eat.

      I had a thistle seed feeder, sunflower seed feeder, mixed seed feeder and a couple others.

      Most birds look more dull in the winter. Thanks again!


    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 

      5 years ago from North Texas

      So much good information! When I had backyard it was an aviary for birds and squirrels, possums, and raccoons came to visit constantly too. Of course the birds were not caged, but all kinds of them hung out and often migrating birds would stop in for refreshments and then go on their way.

      I had a thistle seed feeder just for the goldfinches and it was always covered with as many birds as could fit on it comfortably at one time. Sometimes as many as a dozen birds would be on it. Every once in a while I would see one of them on the sunflower seed feeder.

      Interesting that they molt twice a year. Maybe that's why I didn't notice them much in the winter, their colors were drabbed (my word invention). :) Very informative article!

    • The Examiner-1 profile imageAUTHOR

      The Examiner-1 

      5 years ago

      Thank you very much Beth. I am glad that you liked the Hub so much. I just saw a photo on G+ that someone had taken of a Goldfinch which was really "gold"! Anyway, I am glad that you found my Hub useful. I hope that you have a nice day. :-)


    • bethperry profile image

      Beth Perry 

      5 years ago from Tennesee

      Goldfinches are indeed beautiful birds. Great article and useful info!

    • The Examiner-1 profile imageAUTHOR

      The Examiner-1 

      5 years ago

      American Goldfinches are vegetarians. They eat goldenrod, dandelions and other plants mainly plus a few tree seeds such as alder and birch for a couple. Plus they eat thistle seeds. Berries are a small part of their diet.

      Planting a small vegetable garden, or just saving a small corner of your yard for the dandelions to grow in may be a help.

    • CraftytotheCore profile image


      5 years ago

      Goldfinches are such a beautiful bird. I used to have at least a dozen at a time out here on a tree in the back yard. This year I didn't see one. The only thing I did different this year was I didn't plant a garden because I had been ill. I don't know if that was it or not. Usually I have thistle out for them. We also have other bird seeds and many types of birds. I also have wild berries. Raspberries, blackberries, and wine berries that grow wild. But it was strange. I don't remember any other year at all when I didn't see one goldfinch.

    • The Examiner-1 profile imageAUTHOR

      The Examiner-1 

      6 years ago

      Thank you very much Pearl! I love goldfinches too. When I was in NJ and started bird watching I used too have a group of feeders and one was a hanging feeder for goldfinches. I soon found out that they were not the only ones that used them.

    • grandmapearl profile image

      Connie Smith 

      6 years ago from Southern Tier New York State

      Kevin, I love my little goldfinches! I have been happily watching the newest batch of this season's offspring as they search the goldenrod and joe pye weeds for seeds. Their familiar 'potato-chip' call and undulating flight is distinctive and fun. They regularly visit the sunflower and finch feeders, often in groups of 4 or 5.

      A lovely and fact-filled article which I thoroughly enjoyed, and which I have Voted Up+++ and pinned

      ;) Pearl

    • profile image

      The Examiner-1 

      6 years ago

      Dolores Monet

      Congratulations on watching them at your cone flowers. I used to have a yard with various feeders and one was only for goldfinches. I used to watch them there. They do have a pretty song.

      Thank you for reading and sharing this!

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 

      6 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Goldfinches are among my favorite birds - their pretty song and that beautiful flash of yellow as they fly across the yard! They love to come and nibble on the seeds of my spent cone flowers. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this one (voted up and shared).

    • The Examiner-1 profile imageAUTHOR

      The Examiner-1 

      6 years ago

      Thank you aviannovice for your comment on the A. Goldfinches. I used to see many of them at my food sources in back NJ. I hope that you see young ones appear from the breeding pair.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      6 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Very well done, and accurate. I have a breeding pair that I watch. When the consider someone trustworthy. they are more apt to be out in the open and tend to share their lives a bit. In Maine, they are around constantly and more available, as they depend upon people for many food sources out of season.


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