American Goldfinch

Carduelis tristis

American Goldfinch

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 and a favorite member of the Fringillidae bird family. 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, and there are many more fun facts to learn about this golden beauty.

Fast Facts

  • Scientific Name: Carduelis tristis
  • Common Name: American Goldfinch, Goldfinch, Wild Canary
  • Lifespan: 3-6 years
  • Size: 5 inches
  • Weight: .45-.5 ounces
  • Wingspan: 8-9 inches
  • Conservation Status: Least concern

American Goldfinch Identification

The bright yellow plumage of the American goldfinch may seem easy to identify, but because many warblers, female orioles, and even other finches can be yellow as well, it is important that birders recognize the key field marks that distinguish this bird. The thick, conically-shaped bill is sharply pointed, and is pale pink or peach in summer but turns a darker gray-black in winter. Male American goldfinches have a black cap on the forehead and crown, with a bright lemon yellow back, abdomen, chest, and sides. The 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 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 or tan than creamy white, and they may show sparse, bushy eyebrows when they are very young.

The American goldfinch can be very vocal at 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.

American Goldfinch Habitat and Distribution

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.

Migration Pattern

Populations of American goldfinches 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 this bird's winter range dips into northern and eastern Mexico.

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. Their flight pattern is bouncy and undulating, and they often call loudly as they fly.

Diet and Feeding

These finches are granivorous and eat grain and seeds, including many weed seeds. This dietary preference makes them excellent helpers in the garden, where their voracious appetites can eliminate the need for herbicides or other dangerous chemicals. 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.

Nesting

American goldfinches form monogamous pairs that will raise 1-2 broods per year. The cup-shaped nest, built by the female, is made with roots, weeds, grasses, and plant down and is positioned in a tree or bush, often with spider silk to bind the outer layer together with both strength and flexibility.

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.

Eggs and Young

An American goldfinch nest will contain 4-6 pale blue, oval-shaped eggs in each brood.The female bird does the majority of the 10-12 days of incubation, but both parents feed their offspring during the first 11-17 days of their 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.

American Goldfinch 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.

Tips for Backyard Birders

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

How to Find This Bird

These brightly colored finches are easy to find in rural and agricultural areas in weedy pastures or along roadsides where wildflowers bloom. Watch for their bright plumage as they flit about clinging to flowers, or listen for their distinctive calls to locate where American goldfinches are present.

American Goldfinches in Culture

The American goldfinch is the officially designated state bird of three states: Iowa, New Jersey, and Washington. It was adopted in Iowa in 1933 for its widespread use to farmers in controlling weeds, in New Jersey in 1935 because of its widespread familiarity, and in Washington in 1951 to replace the western meadowlark, which was already recognized in several other states. In each state, these birds are common and familiar to birders and non-birders alike, and they always bring a ray of golden sunshine to anyone who sees them.

Explore More Species in This Family

The Fringillidae bird family is a diverse one, including than 220 species of finches, siskins, serins, linnets, crossbills, seedeaters, canaries, grosbeaks, bullfinches, and other birds. Popular relatives of the American goldfinch include:

Be sure to check out our other wild bird fact sheets to learn more about all your favorite species!