- Smaller than a Song Sparrow; about the size of an American Goldfinch.
- Chardonneret mineur (French)
- Jilguero dominico (Spanish)
- Male Lesser Goldfinches in the eastern part of their range in the U.S. tend to have black backs. Along the West Coast, their backs are green, with only a black cap. Elsewhere, the amount of black varies, with many birds having partly green backs. South of central Mexico, all of the males are black-backed.
- Lesser Goldfinches are most common in California and Texas, with pockets of local populations throughout the rest of its U.S. range.
- At feeding sites, Lesser Goldfinches typically mix in with other birds, such as Lawrence’s and American Goldfinches, Pine Siskins, House Finches, Lark Sparrows, White-crowned Sparrows, and Western Bluebirds.
- Where their ranges overlap in California, the Lesser Goldfinch—though smaller—dominates the Lawrence’s Goldfinch. The Lesser Goldfinch eats first at feeding stations and chases Lawrence’s Goldfinches away from nesting sites.
- The oldest known wild Lesser Goldfinch lived in California and was at least 5 years, 8 months old.
The Lesser Goldfinch makes its home in patchy open habitats of many kinds. From the western U.S. to South America, this songbird frequents thickets, weedy fields, woodlands, forest clearings, scrublands, farmlands, and even desert oases. You can also find them in parks and gardens in both suburban and urban settings. Some common habitats in the western U.S. include oak, pinyon-juniper, cottonwood, willow, cedar, and pine woodlands, as well as chaparral.
The Lesser Goldfinch eats mainly seeds from the sunflower family (Asteraceae, or Compositae), although they also eat coffeeberry, elderberry, and madrone fruits, as well as buds of cottonwoods, alders, sycamores, willows, and oaks. They feed in small groups, moving through low weeds and other plants to get to the seeds, buds, flowers or fruits. Napa thistle is a primary food source. To eat seeds, the Lesser Goldfinch uses its bill to pry open the outer covering, shakes its head to loosen the husk, then swallows the seed. Like American Goldfinches, they cling to the seed heads of tall plants, bending the stem down so that it can end up hanging upside down while picking at the seeds. It will occasionally supplement its diet with insects such as plant lice.
- Clutch Size
- 3–6 eggs
- Number of Broods
- 1 broods
- Egg Length
- 0.6–0.6 in
- Egg Width
- 0.4–0.5 in
- Incubation Period
- 12–13 days
- Nestling Period
- 12–14 days
- Egg Description
- Pale blue-white and unmarked.
- Condition at Hatching
- Naked, blind, and totally dependent on parents for food.
The female builds most of the nest over 4 to 8 days, while the male stays nearby and watches. She begins by collecting plant materials such as leaves, bark, catkins, cocoons and spiderwebs in her bill. She weaves these together into a cup and then lines the nest with hair, feathers, wool, rabbit fur, or cottonseed fibers to complete a dense, cup about 3 inches wide and an inch deep.
Lesser Goldfinches often nest in cottonwoods and willows along rivers, though they nest in a variety of trees and bushes. The female Lesser Goldfinch selects the nest site, choosing a spot in a fork of branches. They like spots concealed by clusters of leaves, or shaded by lichens or grapevines. Nests are built 4 to 8 feet or higher off the ground and usually on slender twigs several feet out from a main branch.
The Lesser Goldfinch is a quick little bird, constantly hovering about and jerking its tail while feeding. On the wing, it has the same dipping, bouncy flight of the American Goldfinch. And like other goldfinches, the Lesser is gregarious, forming large flocks at feeding sites and watering holes. During breeding season, the male establishes his territory by calling and singing from atop tall trees, then gives courtship calls to attract a female into his territory. When a mate arrives, he chases her in flight, as the two dart through the foliage at high speeds. Eventually they perch on the same branch, where they make courting displays—stretching their necks toward each other to touch bills and calling softly. After a few days, the male begins feeding the female, transferring food that he gathered into her bill. The male also feeds the female when she’s on the nest during incubation.
Lesser Goldfinch populations appear to be stable overall, with some Breeding Bird Survey decreases noted in Texas and Arizona and increases in California. Human expansion, such as clearing that created weedy fields and suburban development, likely benefited this species. Irrigation and planting of trees and shrubs allowed Lesser Goldfinches to expand their range near Los Angeles, California. In some arid regions, Lesser Goldfinches have lost the riparian habitat they need to survive there. They have been captured for the pet bird market in Central America.
- Watt, D.J., and E.J. Willoughby. 1999. Lesser Goldfinch (Carduelis psaltria). In The Birds of North America, No. 392 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America Online, Ithaca, New York.
- Dunne, P. 2006. Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion. Houghton Mifflin, New York.
- Sibley, D.A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, New York.
- USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center. 2011. Longevity Records of North American Birds.
Resident to short-distance migrant. Lesser Goldfinches at the northern edge of their range disappear in cold winter, but we don’t know where exactly they go. Lesser Goldfinches also move from higher elevations to lower country in winter.
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.