• Skip to Content
  • Skip to Main Navigation
  • Skip to Local Navigation
  • Skip to Search
  • Skip to Sitemap
  • Skip to Footer
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.

November 5 to 9Sponsored Ad
eBird, submit your observations

At a GlanceHelp

Measurements
Both Sexes
Relative Size
Smaller than a Song Sparrow; about the size of an American Goldfinch.
Other Names
  • Chardonneret mineur (French)
  • Jilguero dominico (Spanish)

Cool Facts

  • 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.

Habitat


Open Woodland

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.

Food


Seeds

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.

Nesting

Nesting Facts
Clutch Size
3–6 eggs
Number of Broods
1 broods
Egg Length
0.6–0.6 in
1.5–1.6 cm
Egg Width
0.4–0.5 in
1.1–1.3 cm
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.
Nest Description

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.

Nest Placement

Tree

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.

Behavior


Foliage Gleaner

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.

Conservation

status via IUCN

Least Concern

Lesser Goldfinch populations appear to be stable and increased by about 1 percent per year between 1966 and 2010, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 7 million with 53 percent spending some part of the year in the U.S., and 57 percent in Mexico. They rate an 8 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score and are not on the 2012 Watch List. 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.

Credits

Range Map Help

Lesser Goldfinch Range Map
View dynamic map of eBird sightings

Migration

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.

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.

You Might Also Like

eBird Occurrence Maps, Lesser Goldfinch