Lesser Goldfinch

Male Lesser Goldfinch © TGrey
Female Lesser Goldfinch © TGrey

The Lesser Goldfinch (Carduelis psaltria) is a small (smaller than a sparrow), social, seed-eating songbird. A permanent Edgewood resident, it is commonly seen during the summer months in weedy fields where it often feeds on thistle seeds. It delays nesting until June or July to ensure a dependable source of insects, thistles and dandelion seeds to feed its young.

The Lesser Goldfinch is a common backyard bird in our area, and it can easily be attracted to feeding stations that offer a supply of niger seed. Unfortunately, goldfinches are easily bullied at feeders by larger sparrows and finches. Only goldfinches and Pine Siskins invert for food, however, so a special finch feeder with openings below the perches is ideal for ensuring a steady stream of these “wild canaries”.

Plumage color differs according to sex. Adult males have a green back. Their forehead and crown are glossy black. Wings are black with white edging and a white patch (most visible in flight) at the base of their primary flight feathers. Male underparts are bright canary yellow. The upperparts of the adult female are uniform olive green, They have white in wings and tail, visible in flight Their underparts are dull yellow. Females on average are smaller than males. Juveniles resemble the adult female, but are greener below.

Lesser Goldfinches are similar in appearance to the American Goldfinch. The adult male American has a yellow back compared to the green of the Lesser. The adult female is most easily confused with the female American, but yellow, not white, undertail feathers, together with white patches at the base of the primary wing feathers clearly distinguishes the Lesser.

Goldfinches are rarely seen on the ground, but generally hops when there. In vegetation, they mostly hop from branch to branch or along branches. They adapt to a wide variety of habitats.

The main food taken by these finches are seeds, flowers, buds and fruits. They usually feed in small flocks moving through patches of weeds, each bird clinging to and feeding from a different plant. They remove seed coats with their bill, shake their head to loosen the husk, and swallow the seed. They perch next to seed heads, often bending stems horizontal and sometimes hang upside down to reach over to seeds. When eating berries, they peck at the fruit on the stem and eat small bites of pulp.

Lesser Goldfinches need a reliable source of water. They drink frequently, probably owing to their seed diet. These birds flock gregariously in all seasons; pairs, groups, and individuals are attracted to other groups of the species, landing and foraging with them. Watering sites attract large numbers.

Males sing from isolated perches in defended areas as winter flocks disintegrate. Song continues throughout pair-bond formation, nest-site selection, nest-building, and into incubation periods. Males often sing while facing female, while performing circular flights over nest territory, and during intense male-male territorial encounters.

Song is a long combination of variable notes and phrases repeated randomly in rambling, intricate melody, interspersed with clear warbles and squeals. These goldfinches incorporate vocalizations of other species such as Purple Finch, Bewick’s Wren and Black Phoebe. Minimum estimates of repertoire size ranges from 70-100 phrases. Listen to some songs and calls here.

Nests built mostly by female, usually accompanied by male, who stays nearby but rarely contributes to nest building. Females collect plant materials (oak leaves, grasses, strips of bark) in their bills, and sometimes hold branches with their feet as they strip off fibers. Nests are often protected from direct sunlight by clumps of leaves or lichens occurring naturally on branches.

Clutch size is usually 4-5 eggs which the female incubates alone for 12-13 days, during which she is fed on the nest by the male. After eggs hatch, the female continues to sit on the nest brooding young nestlings. Male continues to feed the female on the nest. She transfers food to nestlings for the first few days after hatching. Females then join males in foraging, and they both feed nestlings, regurgitating food into young bird’s open mouth.

Watt, D.J. and Willoughby, E.J. 1999. The Birds of North America. No 392.

Learn More…
Lesser Goldfinch at All About Birds. This guide includes a number of sounds.
Lesser Goldfinch in the Audubon Field Guide.

By Lee Franks. This article was originally published in the Edgewood Explorer, December 2006.