American Goldfinch

Carduelis tristis

American Goldfinch
Photo © Sandy Stewart/Flickr/Used With Permission

With its bright yellow plumage, perky behavior and melodious song, the American goldfinch is one of the most highly sought after backyard birds. Found throughout the United States, this common bird is a welcome guest for many backyard birders. The American goldfinch is also the official state bird of Iowa, New Jersey and Washington.

Common Name: American Goldfinch, Goldfinch, Wild Canary
Scientific Name: Carduelis tristis
Scientific Family: Fringillidae

Appearance:

  • Bill: Thick and conical, sharply pointed, pale pink or peach in summer or gray-black in winter
  • Size: 5 inches long with 8-9-inch wingspan, notched tail
  • Colors: Black, white, bright yellow, olive yellow
  • Markings: Dimorphic species. Male birds have a black cap on the forehead and crown, with a lemon yellow back, abdomen, chest and sides. Black wings have two white wing bars and the black tail is edged with white. Female birds are a paler olive yellow with dull wings and lack the black cap. Both male and female birds have a white rump. In winter plumage males resemble females and have darker bills, and when molting, males will appear splotched and patchy.

    Juvenile American goldfinches also resemble females but with scruffier plumage. Their wing bars and underparts may appear more buff than creamy white.

Foods: Seeds (See: Granivorous)

Habitat and Migration:

American goldfinches are one of the most common and widespread backyard birds in North America and can be found in open fields, scrub forest and suburban habitats.

They are also found in weedy fields and overgrown meadows, as well as in parks and gardens. Populations in southern Canada and the southern United States migrate seasonally but may linger in the winter where food sources are abundant, including where numerous bird feeders are available. The southernmost extent of the winter range dips into northern and eastern Mexico.

Vocalizations:

The American goldfinch can be very vocal at backyard feeders. Calls include a high rapid chirping with an undulating pitch or short buzzes. Longer, warbling songs are common during the breeding season in spring and early summer.

Behavior:

Goldfinches may congregate in small or medium mixed flocks during the fall and winter, often with pine siskins, common redpolls or other finches that share similar dietary needs. These birds are mildly aggressive while feeding and become more territorial during breeding season, occasionally lunging or snapping at nearby birds to defend their feeding area. American goldfinches are acrobatic and can easily feed upside down. These birds are often found clinging to flower seed heads, stiff grasses or specialized feeders as they pluck out individual seeds. Their flight pattern is bouncy and undulating, and they often call loudly as they fly.

Reproduction:

American goldfinches form monogamous pairs that will annually raise 1-2 broods of 4-6 pale blue, oval-shaped eggs each. The cup-shaped nest, built by the female, is made with roots, weeds, grasses and plant down and positioned in a tree or bush, and often uses spider silk to bind the outer layer together.

The American goldfinch nesting season begins later than that of many other species, and goldfinches may not have their first brood until mid- or late summer because of the need for seeds to feed the young birds. The female bird does the majority of the 10-12 day incubation, but both parents feed their offspring during the 11-17 day nestling phase until the young birds can leave the nest. Adults continue to monitor the chicks for several days after they leave the nest as the young birds learn to forage independently.

Attracting American Goldfinches:

American goldfinches are easily attracted to backyard feeders filled with Nyjer seed, though they will also eat black oil sunflower seed. Specialized finch bird feeders may offer a high number of feeding ports to accommodate large finch flocks, and these birds will also happily visit sock-style feeders.

Backyard birders can also plant a bird-friendly garden that contains thistle, dandelion, coneflowers, asters and other seed-bearing flowers that will provide both nesting material and food for American goldfinches.

Conservation:

American goldfinches are not considered threatened or endangered, but they do face a number of grave hazards. Because of their seed-eating preferences, they can be easily poisoned by overuse of herbicides, fertilizers and other outdoor chemicals. Continued development of fields and grasslands is reducing the habitat suitable for American goldfinches. Window collisions and outdoor cats are other problems that these birds face.

Similar Birds:

  • Pine Siskin (Carduelis pinus)
  • Lesser Goldfinch (Carduelis psaltria)
  • Yellow Warbler (Dendroica petechia)
  • Wilson’s Warbler (Wilsonia pusilla)
  • Pine Warbler (Setophaga pinus)