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Help develop a Bird ID tool!

Lesser Goldfinch

Spinus psaltria ORDER: PASSERIFORMES FAMILY: FRINGILLIDAE

IUCN Conservation Status: Least Concern

Jabbering clouds of yellow, green, and black Lesser Goldfinches gather in scrubby oak, cottonwood, and willow habitats of the western U.S., or visit suburban yards for seeds and water. These finches primarily eat seeds of plants in the sunflower family, and they occur all the way south to the Peruvian Andes. Listen closely to their wheezy songs, which often include snippets from the songs of other birds.

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Keys to identification Help

Finches
Finches
Typical Voice
  • Size & Shape

    Lesser Goldfinches are tiny, stub-billed songbirds with long, pointed wings, and short, notched tails.

  • Color Pattern

    Males are bright yellow below with a glossy black cap and white patches in the wings; their backs can be glossy black or dull green (particularly on the West Coast). They have a black tail with large, white corners. Females and immatures have olive backs, dull yellow underparts, and black wings marked by two whitish wingbars.

  • Behavior

    Lesser Goldfinches gather in groups of up to several hundred at a time. They feed on seeds and grains, both in weedy fields and at bird feeders. Their flocks mix with other seed-eating songbirds, especially at bird feeding stations.

  • Habitat

    Lesser Goldfinches feed in weedy fields, budding treetops, and the brush of open areas and edges. Depending on food availability, they may concentrate in mountain canyons and desert oases, but they are also fairly common in suburbs.

Range Map Help

Lesser Goldfinch Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Field MarksHelp

  • Adult male "Texas form"

    Lesser Goldfinch

    Adult male "Texas form"
    • Small and stocky songbird
    • Black cap
    • Texas males show solid black back
    • Bright yellow underparts
    • © Greg Page, South Llano River State Park, Texas, July 2010
  • Adult male "Texas form"

    Lesser Goldfinch

    Adult male "Texas form"
    • Small and stocky with stubby, pointed bill and short tail
    • Yellow undertail
    • Black crown and white patches on wings
    • Some black-backed males can be found in Colorado, but mostly in Texas
    • © Darin Ziegler, Colorado Springs, Colorado, June 2011
  • Adult male "Western form"

    Lesser Goldfinch

    Adult male "Western form"
    • Small and compact songbird
    • Short, pointy gray bill
    • Lemon-yellow underparts contrast with black and white patterned wings
    • Black crown with olive back
    • © Collins Cochran, Southern, Arizona, June 2008
  • Adult male "Western form"

    Lesser Goldfinch

    Adult male "Western form"
    • Very small and stocky songbird
    • Short-tailed
    • Black crown contrasts with olive nape and back
    • Lemon-yellow underparts
    • © Joan Gellatly, Tucson, Arizona, January 2010
  • Immature male "Western form"

    Lesser Goldfinch

    Immature male "Western form"
    • Small, stocky and short-tailed
    • Bright lemon yellow below, including undertail
    • Stocky, pointed black bill
    • Immature males show developing black cap
    • © Jim Farley, Wildlands Conservancy, Oak Glen, California, October 2011
  • Adult female

    Lesser Goldfinch

    Adult female
    • Very small and compact songbird with short, pointed gray bill
    • Pale olive-yellow overall with yellow undertail
    • Short tail
    • Faint, pale yellow wing-bars
    • © Cameron Rognan, Fort Irwin, California, October 2007
  • Adult female

    Lesser Goldfinch

    Adult female
    • Small and compact with short tail
    • Females vary from dull olive to brighter yellow overall
    • Pale wing-bars
    • © Joan Gellatly, Winterhaven, Tucson, Arizona, February 2011

Similar Species

  • Breeding adult male

    American Goldfinch

    Breeding adult male
    • Slightly larger than Lesser Goldfinch
    • Bright yellow above and below
    • Boldly patterned black and white wings
    • White undertail
    • © Robin Arnold, Ohio, April 2008
  • Adult Nonbreeding

    American Goldfinch

    Adult Nonbreeding
    • Slightly larger than Lesser Goldfinch
    • Wings more boldly patterned with black and white
    • White undertail
    • © Bill Thompson, Hadley, Massachusetts, January 2012
  • Adult male

    Lawrence's Goldfinch

    Adult male
    • More elongated and longer-tailed than Lesser Goldfinch
    • Silver/gray overall with bright yellow wings
    • Black cap and face
    • Yellow wash on upper breast
    • © Jean Halford, March 2007
  • Adult female

    Lawrence's Goldfinch

    Adult female
    • More elongated and longer-tailed than Lesser Goldfinch
    • Mostly dull gray overall
    • Bright yellow wing bars
    • © Brian E. Small, June 2000

Similar Species

Lesser Goldfinches are only slightly smaller than American Goldfinches. Males can be easily separated by the Lesser’s completely black cap and green or black back. Females are harder to distinguish; look for the Lesser’s dark-tipped tail and dark bill. Female American Goldfinches have much more white in the tail and pink bills. Lawrence’s Goldfinch of California and the Southwest is gray-bodied with much more yellow in the wings; males have black faces, and both sexes have a yellow patch on the chest. Pine Siskins are much less yellow and heavily streaked all over with brown. Evening Grosbeaks are nearly twice the size of Lesser Goldfinches, with a much thicker, pale bill.

Regional Differences

Adult males from the eastern edge of the range in the U.S. (and south into Central America) have black backs; those in the southwest and west are green-backed. Females are similar in appearance throughout the range.

Backyard Tips

Lesser Goldfinches readily come to feeders along with other finches such as American Goldfinches and Pine Siskins. These small finches eat many kinds of seeds from the sunflower family, including the thin-hulled seeds of nyjer thistle.

Find This Bird

Look for Lesser Goldfinches among large flocks of birds at feeder stations, and near the tops of taller trees in scrubby habitats. The all-black cap on the Lesser is a good clue to distinguishing among mixed goldfinch groups. Also keep an eye out for bright yellow birds in weedy fields clinging to the top of thistle plants that have gone to seed.

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