Monday, May 11, 2020

What do American Goldfinches look like?

American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) are rather tiny songbirds common in summer in the mid and northern parts of the United States and southern Canada. In winter many of the northern birds migrate southward so that goldfinches can be found at backyard feeders throughout most of the U.S.

American Goldfinches are unique among similar finches in that they molt in both fall and spring into a different plumage for breeding than in winter. Females have a different appearance than males. And immature birds don't look exactly like the adults. So the identification of these wonderful birds is sometimes tricky.

This article discusses how you can identify American Goldfinches. We'll look at size, shape, and plumage coloration at various times of the year. Then we'll discuss their songs, calls, and flight style. And we'll discuss these finch's behavior to help you identify them quickly.

This article is a supplement to the main overview page on attracting American Goldfinches. That page leads to other in-depth articles on range and habitat, courtship and nesting, and diet and what to offer them at your feeder. I'll link to the overview page again at the end of this article.

Photo of male American Goldfinch in breeding plumage on a branch
Male American Goldfinch in breeding plumage
Photo by Greg Gillson

Goldfinch identification, in general

Goldfinches are similar to other finches in that they have plump bodies, a larger head on short neck, short notched tail, and conical bill for eating seeds.

Goldfinches are quite small. They usually travel in small flocks and are quite social. They twitter and sing and call constantly.

When they feed they are acrobatic, clinging and hanging at all angles to find and extract seeds from plants or feeders. They frequently feed on grass seeds and small flowering plants on the ground. But then they fly up onto fence lines or into small trees.

When flying, goldfinches have highly undulating flight. I'll discuss it on more detail below in a subsection under American Goldfinch identification.

There are 177 species in the finch family (Fringillidae). The genus Spinus includes 20 species of goldfinches, siskins, and serins. They are found primarily in North and South America, with some representatives in Europe, Asia, and north Africa. Similar birds include the European goldfinches, linnets, redpolls, and twite.

Photo of female American Goldfinch in breeding plumage on wild rose bush
Female American Goldfinch in breeding plumage
Photo by Greg Gillson

American Goldfinch identification

American Goldfinches are about 5 inches long, bill tip to tail tip. Their wingspan is about 8-3/4 inches. All goldfinches are tiny birds. However, among the goldfinches in North America, these are slightly larger than the other species.


Male American Goldfinches in breeding plumage have bright lemon yellow body plumage, including both the breast, belly, head, and back. Males have a black cap from the base of the bill to the top of the crown. The wings and tail are black edged with white. There are wide white wing bars. The rump and the under tail coverts are white. The bill and legs are pink. The eye is very dark.

Female American Goldfinches in breeding plumage are a bit duller than males, brightest on the throat. The breast and belly tends toward a tan coloration. The back is yellow brown. The wings and tail aren't as jet black as the males.

Photo of male American Goldfinch in non-breeding plumage on a branch
Male American Goldfinch in non-breeding plumage
Photo by Greg Gillson
In winter both genders molt into an even duller non-breeding plumage. The body is tan above, dirty white below, with yellowish throat. The males black cap is not as sharply defined. The wing bars are still wide, but tend to yellow, especially the upper wing bar.

Photo of juvenile American Goldfinch on teasel stalk
Juvenile American Goldfinch
Photo by Greg Gillson
The fall juvenile birds are quite tan, just a hint of yellow on the throat. The black wings are widely edged with tan, or even cinnamon-buff, including the extensive wing bars.

Male American Goldfinches in California aren't as bright as other subspecies in breeding plumage. Many have some brownish feathers on their back, rather than all bright lemon yellow.

Flight Style

In flight, American Goldfinches appear small and round with a short neck. They have rather pointed wings and a short tail with a strong notch or fork.

Goldfinches have a strongly bounding or undulating up-and-down flight. Birds flap with a burst of 4-6 quick wingbeats and then a close-winged pause, repeated over and over. When flapping, their flight path rises sharply. During the pause, they fall. So when flying they have a lively up and down bouncing flight path.

Flocks are rather loose. So it is sometimes hard to locate birds flying overhead against the bright sky, even when they are giving their flight calls.

Here's a short video on identifying American Goldfinches.


What do American Goldfinches sound like? The scientific species name tristis means sad. One of the common calls the bird gives is a plaintive whistle followed by a short rising whistle: dear-me? Birds seem to give this as perhaps a contact call when in a flock. They always seem to be talking to each other with short chip and swee notes.

The flight call is a 4-part chipping. Older references render this call as per-chic-o-ree. However you may hear people refer to it as the potato chip callpo-ta-to-chip! The calls coincide with the flap-bound wing strokes of the undulating flight--one call for each bound.

The songs of American Goldfinches, given by the male, often from a hidden perch, is prolonged series of sweet chip and swee and ti-ti-ti notes, punctuated occasionally with the plaintive dear-me note. There isn't any obvious pattern to the notes and phrases. They are jumbled together and may last 30 seconds or longer.

Here is 30 seconds of an American Goldfinch singing.

Similar species

There are lots of yellow and black birds. Goldfinches are the smallest and most similar. So we'll discuss those first. Then we'll look at some other yellow and black birds that might be confusing at first.

Other goldfinches

Lesser Goldfinch

In the chaparral and dry oak woodlands of the West lives the Lesser Goldfinch. They are bright yellow below and green or black (Texas, New Mexico, Mexico) on the back. The wings are black with extensive white edges and wing bars. Males have a black forecrown. They are smaller even than American Goldfinches.

Lesser Goldfinches do not molt into a dull colored non-breeding plumage in winter as do American Goldfinches. They stay the same bright yellow year-round. Then, and when flying overhead, look for the bright yellow lower belly and under tail coverts on Lesser Goldfinch. Remember that the undertail coverts of American Goldfinches are white.

Lesser Goldfinches have white wing patches that show in flight.

Their songs and calls are similar to American Goldfinch. They also have undulating flight. So the under tail coverts and wing patches are the two important field marks for separating these two species.

Photo of male Lesser Goldfinch in willows
Male Lesser Goldfinch
Photo by Greg Gillson

Lawrence's Goldfinch

In the chaparral of California lives the gray Lawrence's Goldfinches. They are often found with Lesser Goldfinches. They are often found near streams or water in the dry lands. American Goldfinches like the wetter meadows.

Lawrence's Goldfinches are small and gray including the under tail coverts. They have yellow edges to the wing feathers that show in flight. Males have a black face. Males also have a bright yellow center to the breast. Some females show this, but many are much duller. Females then appear to be a small plain gray-brown bird with some yellow marks in the wing when they fly.

Photo of male Lawrence's Goldfinch on chain link fence
Male Lawrence's Goldfinch
Photo by Greg Gillson

Pine Siskin

The Pine Siskin is a small finch. At 5 inches in length it is the same size as an American Goldfinch. It has the same pudgy body, short neck, and notched tail. The bill is even thinner than the goldfinch, but still thick at the base.

Siskins are streaked brown on tan or pale. They have yellow markings in the wing that reveal a long yellow wing stripe in flight. The base of the tail feathers are also yellow. There is quite a bit of individual variation in how pale or dark the streaking is. Some birds are more yellowish or greenish, but still identifiable.

Photo of Pine Siskin on feeder
Pine Siskin
Photo by Greg Gillson

Other species

There are several yellow and black birds that aren't goldfinches, or even finches at all.

Evening Grosbeak

Evening Grosbeaks are large and stocky finches with huge conical green bills. They have black wings with large white patches. Males are yellow with sooty head and breast and yellow eyebrow. Females are rather gray above and buff below. They are found in conifer forests in West, but descend into lowlands to eat maple and elm buds in spring. In the East are found in mixed woods in southern Canada and adjacent northern States.

Photo of male Evening Grosbeak on bird bath
Male Evening Grosbeak
Photo by Greg Gillson

Wilson's Warbler

There are several yellow warblers, some with black facial markings. Warblers are insect eaters with thin bills. Most glean through the forest canopy as single individuals or mated pairs. They often stay hidden in the foliage. They don't flock together (though might be concentrated in isolated trees during migration). They don't eat seeds at feeders.

The Wilson's Warbler is a bright yellow bird. The wings and tail are slightly gray or olive. They have a short thin bill. A beady black eye sits in the middle of the face. The male Wilsons' Warbler has a black cap. The black cap does not come forward to the base of the bill. The under tail coverts are bright yellow, unlike American Goldfinches.

Photo of male Wilson's Warbler in sapling
Male Wilson's Warbler
Photo by Greg Gillson

These are by no means the only yellow and black birds. I wrote a pictorial guide to such birds some time ago. For additional species similar to American Goldfinches, please see my article What birds are yellow and black?

Return to the overview page on American Goldfinches.

No comments:

Post a Comment

January 2023: Thank you so much for visiting! I am working on a YouTube channel on birds and bird watching. Check it out here:


Legal Disclosure
As an Amazon Associate I earn commissions from qualifying purchases.

Legal disclosure

As an Amazon Associate I earn commissions from qualifying purchases. Thank you for your support.

Featured Post

Best budget birding binoculars: Celestron Nature DX ED

My review: Celestron Nature DX ED binoculars for birding Is the Celestron Nature DX ED 8x42 binocular any good for bird watching? My perso...