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Lesser Goldfinch Life History


Open WoodlandsThe 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. Back to top


SeedsThe 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. Back to top


Nest Placement

TreeLesser 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.

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.

Nesting Facts

Clutch Size:3-6 eggs
Number of Broods:1 brood
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.
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Foliage GleanerThe 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. Back to top


Low Concern

Lesser Goldfinch populations appeared to be stable between 1966 and 2019, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population at 15 million and rates them 7 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Score, indicating a species of low conservation concern. Human expansion, such as clearing that created weedy fields and suburban development, has 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.

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Dunne, P. (2006). Pete Dunne's essential field guide companion. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, USA.

Lutmerding, J. A. and A. S. Love. (2020). Longevity records of North American birds. Version 2020. Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Bird Banding Laboratory 2020.

Partners in Flight. (2020). Avian Conservation Assessment Database, version 2020.

Sauer, J. R., D. K. Niven, J. E. Hines, D. J. Ziolkowski Jr., K. L. Pardieck, J. E. Fallon, and W. A. Link (2019). The North American Breeding Bird Survey, Results and Analysis 1966–2019. Version 2.07.2019. USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, MD, USA.

Sibley, D. A. (2014). The Sibley Guide to Birds, second edition. Alfred A. Knopf, New York, NY, USA.

Watt, Doris J. and Ernest J. Willoughby. (2014). Lesser Goldfinch (Spinus psaltria), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

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Learn more at Birds of the World