American Goldfinch Identification

American goldfinch

Danita Delimont / Getty Images

American goldfinches may be one of the most common backyard birds in the United States and southern Canada, but because of their molting cycle they can be challenging to identify in their different plumages. Many birders can be confused by this familiar finch's winter plumage and molting colors, and learning how to identify American goldfinches can help you always enjoy these backyard canaries, no matter what the season.

  • 01 of 04

    American Goldfinch Identification

    American Goldfinch - Breeding Male
    American Goldfinch - Breeding Male Jen Goellnitz

    The male American goldfinch in his bright breeding colors is instantly recognizable and a welcome visitor to many backyards. Learning the field marks of this bird is easy, and is the first step to being able to identify American goldfinches in any season.

    To identify a mature, breeding male American goldfinch look for...

    1. Crown: The bold black crown stands out on the bright plumage and extends from the bill to the top of the head, but not as far as the nape.
    2. Bill: This finch has a sharply pointed bill ideal for manipulating small seeds. In breeding plumage, these birds have pale bills.
    3. Plumage: The overall plumage of a male American goldfinch is a bright lemon yellow on both the upperparts and underparts, with no streaks or mottling.
    4. Wings: The wings are black and are marked with one broad white wing bar. A small amount of white might also be visible at the shoulder, but is hard to see.
    5. Rump: The rump is white and plain, without any color wash or streaking. While it can be seen while the bird is perched, it is more easily seen in flight.
    6. Tail: The tail is black with a shallow notch.
    7. Legs and Feet: This bird's legs and feet are a pale peach color, and they are acrobatic feeders that will cling to vertical surfaces or even hang upside down to feed.
    8. Food and Nesting Material: These finches often pluck at thistle down to line their nests, and they will frequently feed on seed-bearing flowers or visit feeders offering Nyjer or sunflower seeds.

    Photo – Breeding Male American Goldfinch © Jen Goellnitz

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  • 02 of 04

    Female American Goldfinch Identification

    American Goldfinch - Female
    American Goldfinch - Female colleen

    Female American goldfinches are not as bright or as clearly marked as their male counterparts, and they can be confused for dull warblers. To be sure you are looking at a female American goldfinch, look for these clues…

    1. Bill: Females have the same sharply pointed conical bill as males, and during the spring and summer it is also a pale peach color.
    2. Throat: While the female American goldfinch does not have the bright yellow plumage of the male, she does often show a yellow wash on the throat or around the face. A more brightly colored female may show yellow on the breast and flanks as well.
    3. Underparts: The underparts of female American goldfinches can vary from a pale grayish-white to a brighter yellow, though they will not be as bright as males.
    4. Wings: Though hard to see in this photo, female American goldfinches still have black wings and one white wing bar, though the bar is usually less prominent than on males.
    5. Tail: The tail is pale underneath and edged with black, and it is black above. The shallow notch is visible when the bird is perched.

    Photo – Female American Goldfinch © colleen

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  • 03 of 04

    Identifying Winter American Goldfinches

    American Goldfinch - Winter Plumage
    American Goldfinch - Winter Plumage Putneypics

    American goldfinches are most confusing in winter when they are totally without their bright breeding colors. Both males and females look similar in winter, with these field marks…

    1. Head: The head is a warm tan color that may show a yellow or gray wash, though the extent of the color varies widely.
    2. Bill: The bill remains sharply pointed in winter but turns a dull dark gray or black.
    3. Throat: Winter American goldfinches have varying amounts of yellow on their throat, though the color is usually dull and can be hard to see. A brighter finch may have more yellow extending onto the upper breast or to the cheeks.
    4. Wings: In winter, the black wings contrast less with the dull body but still show one wide white wing bar, no matter which gender the bird may be.
    5. Plumage: The overall coloration of winter American goldfinches is a dull tan with a warm brown or yellow wash. The underparts are slightly paler than the upperparts.
    6. Legs and Feet: Even in winter, the legs and feet of these goldfinches remain pale.

    Photo – American Goldfinch in Winter © Putneypics

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  • 04 of 04

    Identify a Molting American Goldfinch

    American Goldfinch - Molting Male
    American Goldfinch - Molting Male dfaulder

    American goldfinches are distinct for their plumage, but their identity can be confusing when that plumage is molting. The change is most apparent in males because of the brightness of their feathers, but both genders can look muddled when molting. Look for…

    1. Head: Field marks on the head are still visible during molting. For males, this means the appearance of the black crown, while females lack that feature.
    2. Bill: The bill shape can still help identify American goldfinches even during molt. The bill is sharply pointed and delicately sized. A pale bill indicates breeding plumage, while a dark bill indicates winter plumage.
    3. Plumage: The most striking feature of molting plumage is the muddled spots or dull patches that contrast with brighter breeding feathers. This can make the bird look dingy, bedraggled or dull, but it is temporary.
    4. Wings: Freshly molted wings are a rich black with stark white edging and a bold wing bar. As the feathers get worn, the edging on the feathers will wear off but the wing bar remains.
    5. Legs and Feet: The legs and feet of American goldfinches always remain pale, even while molting.
    6. Tail: The black tail has white edging like the wings, and those white edges will gradually wear off. The shallow notch can be a distinct feature of the tail if clearly seen.
    7. Food: No matter what an American goldfinch's plumage, the food it eats can help identify it. These granivorous birds prefer small seeds and will eagerly visit Nyjer feeders, and they will also cling to small seed-bearing flowers such as coneflowers and sunflowers.

    The changes an American goldfinch goes through seasonally as its plumage varies can make even this common bird confusing to identify, but knowing its key field marks and understanding the changes it goes through can help you feel confident whenever these small birds are in your field of view.

    Photo – Molting American Goldfinch © dfaulder

Article Sources
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  1. American Goldfinch Identification, Cornell University, The CornellLab, All About Birds
  2. American Goldfinch Identification, Cornell University, The CornellLab, All About Birds