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Lesser Goldfinch

These small songbirds are a common sight in the southwestern side of the United States.

Lesser Goldfinches can mimic the songs of other birds, and occur in two color forms in different parts of their range. Green-backed Lesser Goldfinches are found in the west, while a black-backed form is found in eastern portions of its range.

One way to recognize a goldfinch in flight is to note its undulating flight, moving up and down rather than in a straight line. While incubating the eggs, the female goldfinch is fed by the male. This food is a mixture of regurgitated seeds, the same diet that young goldfinches are fed.


Description of the Lesser Goldfinch


The Lesser Goldfinch is a small finch with yellow underparts and white-based primaries on blackish wings.  It has a short, thick, dark bill.  Length: 4 in.  Wingspan: 8 in.

Lesser Goldfinch


Females are olive-green above.

Seasonal change in appearance



Juveniles are similar to adult females, while all first-year males have greenish backs.


Lesser Goldfinches are found in brushy areas and open woodlands.


Lesser Goldfinches eat primarily seeds, with some insects.

Lesser Goldfinch

Texas birds have a black back. Photograph © Greg Lavaty.


Lesser Goldfinches forage in trees and on weed stalks, and usually in flocks except during the breeding season.


Lesser Goldfinches occur in the southwestern and western U.S., south to northern South America.  The U.S. population appears to be stable.

Fun Facts

Lesser Goldfinches are vocal mimics, with dozens of other species’ calls having been recorded coming from Lesser Goldfinches over the years.

The Lesser Goldfinch is, as its name implies, the smallest North American goldfinch.


The song is a long series of musical phrases with little repetition, and often including calls from other species


Similar Species

  • American Goldfinches have pink bills during the breeding season, are larger, and have wing-bars that are better defined in shape.


The nest is a cup of grass and plant fibers, usually placed in fork of tree branches and well concealed by leaves.

Number: Usually lay 4-5 eggs.
Color: Pale blue or greenish.

Incubation and fledging:
The young hatch at about 12 days, and leave the nest in another 11 days, though continuing to associate with the adults for some time.


Bent Life History of the Lesser Goldfinch

Published by the Smithsonian Institution between the 1920s and the 1950s, the Bent life history series of monographs provide an often colorful description of the birds of North America. Arthur Cleveland Bent was the lead author for the series. The Bent series is a great resource and often includes quotes from early American Ornithologists, including Audubon, Townsend, Wilson, Sutton and many others.

Bent Life History for the Lesser Goldfinch – the common name and sub-species reflect the nomenclature in use at the time the description was written.




Stephen H. Long’s expedition to the Rocky Mountains in 1819: 20 collected the first known lesser goldfinch on the banks of the Arkansas River between Colorado Springs and Pueblo, Cob., near long. 1050 W. Thomas Say (1823) described it and named it Fringilla psaltria, and for the next 135 years it was known commonly as the Arkansas goldfinch. This was an unfortunate choice, for after the state of that name was established people tended to associate the bird with the state instead of the lesser-known Colorado river from which the name derived. As the bird has never been recorded in Arkansas, which lies well east of the species’ known range, its vernacular name was changed officially to lesser goldfinch in the 5th edition of the A.O.U. Check-List.

In Colorado the lesser goldfinch is a summer resident, arriving usually about mid-June and remaining until September or October. Cooke (1897) reports an early flock seen at Colorado Springs on May 13, 1898. According to Drew (1885) the upper limit of its vertical range in spring is 5,000 feet, in summer 9,500 feet, and in autumn 9,000 feet. It has been found breeding from 5,500 feet to an extreme of 11,500 feet elevation. It nests regularly in the vicinity of Denver (Lincoln, 1920). Hering (1948) found two pairs nesting during a census of a 75-acre tract of yellow pine forest and creek environment. Drew (1881) found the birds in willow bushes along the Rio Animas where he states the birds breed.

In the Panhandle of Oklahoma the lesser goldfinch is a summer resident. Tate (1923) found a nest with three eggs in Cimarron County, Aug. 4,1921. It is a comparatively common summer resident in the western half of Texas. Stevenson (1942) states that it is resident near Amarillo in the central Texas Panhandle where he observed birds in February, May, August, September, and December. At Kerrville in south-central Texas, Lacey (1911) reports the earliest date of arrival as March 29, the next earliest April 18, and the average arrival date as April 28; it leaves about mid-October. J. E. Stillwell writes me of seeing 35 or more lesser goldfinches on a farm-bordered road about 20 miles southeast of Kerrville on May 16, 1956. They were in handsome nuptial plumage, and a number were singing a song resembling certain phrases of the red-eyed vireo, but he heard nothing like the song of the American goldfinch. In that section of the state many of the nests are in pecan and walnut trees, and complete sets of four eggs have been found the first week in June.

At San Antonio, Bexar County, Tex., Attwater (1892) found them breeding in cedar brakes in the same localities chosen by the goldencheeked warblers. Van Tyne and Sutton (1937) found the lesser goldfinch common in Brewster County, southwestern Texas, and collected specimens in May. They saw few at Alpine during February, 1935, and on March 20 they saw a flock of five in the Chisos Mountains at an altitude of 5,100 feet. A female taken May 3 and a male on May 12 were still in their prenuptial molt. Specimens taken after May 16 were in full nuptial plumage.

Bailey (1928) presents many records for New Mexico, where the lesser goldfinch is most common at 6,000 to 7,000 feet elevation. Only a few breeding records have been made there below 5,000 feet. Mitchell (1898) found it nesting as high as 10,000 feet in San Miguel county. In none of the warmer, lower parts of New Mexico is the species common, though it breeds in some of the hottest sections of Mexico. Most of the lesser goldfinches desert New Mexico for the winter, but there are a number of winter records.

The range of this subspecies extends westward in eastern Arizona, where Jenks (1936) found it breeding throughout the Upper Sonoran Zone on the north and east slopes of the White and Blue mountains. He collected two typical examples on July 4, 1935, near Springville, one from a group of 20 birds at 2,000 feet elevation, the other from a flock of 5 at 6,250 feet.

Courtship: The courtship of this race of the lesser goldfinch has not been studied in detail, but presumably it does not differ markedly from that of the western subspecies. Brandt (1940) made an interesting observation in Texas of what he calls the “song circuit.” The courting male flies off for a distance of a half mile or more, circles, and then returns to his mate. Throughout the ffight he undulates in a characteristic wavelike motion and continuously utters his distinctive exuberant nuptial flight song.

Nesting: Although these birds are highly gregarious most of the year, they are not so while nesting. Yet occasionally unusually large numbers may nest in a small area. Jensen (1923) reports that 22 pairs nested on the Indian School campus in northern Santa Fe County, N. Mex., during the summer of 1921. He found fresh eggs from June 15 to October 1.

Like most other goldflnches this subspecies is a late nester. Most nests are not built until June, when the reproductive activities of most other birds are well under way. Active nests reported in September and October are probably second nestings. Mrs. J. Murray Speirs writes (in litt.) of a nest she and her husband observed about 18 feet up in an acacia above a stream near the highway at Lyons, Cob., Sept. 8, 1956. The male parent was feeding the young, at least three in number, which seemed almost ready to leave the nest.

A favorite nesting site is in the cottonwood trees which abound along the streams in much of this form’s breeding range. It has also been reported nesting in walnut, pecan, yellow pine, fig and other trees as well as in grape vines and in shrubs of various kinds.

The nest is a neat cup of compactly woven plant fibers, fine grass stems, weed bark, and fragments of moss. It is lined with vegetable down such as that of the cottonwood tree or thistle, sometimes with cotton, a few feathers, or other soft materials. One nest measured 3 inches in diameter and 13~ inches in depth. In general the nests are similar in structure to those of the green-backed and American goldfinches.

Eggs: This species usually lays 4 or 5 eggs, sometimes as few as 3 or as many as 6. The eggs are ovate with some tendency to roundovate, and have very little lustre, They are very pale bluish-white and unspotted. Occasionally an egg may have a few very small scattered spots of reddish brown.

The measurements of 28 eggs average 15.4 by 12.0 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 16.3 by 12.2, 15.0 by L~.5, 14.5 by 11.6, and 15.0 by 11.0 millimeters.

Food: Though the food of the lesser goldfinch has not been analyzed in detail, it consists, like that of other goldfinches, primarily of seeds of weeds, grasses, shrubs, and trees of various kinds. It is especially fond of the seeds of the wild sunflower and burr thistle which are abundant in many parts of its range. It has also been reported as feeding on the flowers of cottonwood trees. Several observers state it sometimes feeds on the fruits of the creosote bush and on the longwinged carpels of the cliff rose. At favored feeding spots these goldfinches frequently associate with other birds of similar feeding habits such as siskins.

Range: Arizona, Colorado, and Oklahoma to central and southern Mexico.

Breeding range: T he lesser goldfinch breeds, and is largely resident, from central eastern Arizona (Springerville), northern Colorado (Grand Junction, Fort Collins), northwestern Oklahoma (Kenton), and northern and central Texas (Palo Duro Canyon, Kerrville, Austin) south through central, eastern, and southern Mexico to Guerrero (Chilpancingo), Gaxaca (Cerro San Felipe), and central Veracruz (Jalapa).

Winter range: Winters through much of the breeding range, north at least to western and northern Texas (El Paso, Kerrville, Austin).

Casual record: Casual in southern Wyoming (Cheyenne).

Egg dates: Colorado: 1 record, May 10.

Mexico: 1 record, May 30.


(The author’s field work on this and the following species at the Hastings Natural History Reservation was facilitated greatly by the generosity of the late Frances Simes Hastings. For further information on both species see Linsdale (1957).)

The green-backed goldfinch is a common bird in the western states.

It breeds from southern Oregon and Utah to southern Lower California, Sonora, and extreme southwestern New Mexico and winters from northern California to Cape San Lucas. It lives on open lands with a sparse tree cover and in brushlands, and occurs through a wide range of climatic conditions. Less plentiful in the humid coastal region, it prefers the dry foothills and the deserts where seeds and buds are abundant. The kinds of food it eats require that water be available nearby. Thickets of bushes or trees close to water are occupied consistently through the dry season. Common foraging places are in patches of weeds along roadsides, in pastures, and on hilly slopes.

In August 1931 a severe fire in Napa and Lake counties, Calif., was disastrous to the bird populations in the region. Eight months after the fire H. W. Clark (1935) went over a part of the burned area. A few black oaks and manzanitas had survived, and along a creek the alders and streamside shrubs were unharmed. Wild flowers had sprung up in profusion, and the burned area was a mass of bloom. Green-backed goldflnches were the most abundant birds, supposedly because of the prevalence of seed-bearing plants.

Courtship: P air formation is usually accompanied by courtship song, courtship flight, song flight, and a canarylike song. Courtship feeding is important in the maintenance of the bond. These elements resemble the ones observed by Stokes (1950) in his study of the American goldfinch. The species studied on the Hastings Reservation in California contrasts in several ways with the calendar of activity exhibited by the species farther east.

In midmorning of Jan. 29, 1945, on a wooded hill a male perched at the tip of the topmost twig of a 40-foot leafless valley oak. Turning first one way, then the other, he uttered an almost continuous song. This was the first singing green-backed goldfinch observed that season. Earlier in the month there had been snatches of song intermingled with a variety of calls.

In early morning on Feb. 7, 1938, a pair stood within 12 inches of each other on a fence in chamisal. After a flight of 50 feet by the female the male caught up and both birds dived over a ridge in a close, twisting flight. In late March a male led a female in flight and he sang on the wing. At this season goldflnches were frequently scattered in pairs over the reservation. One mid-April afternoon several green-backed goldflnches foraged with Lawrence goldflnches in blue oaks and in fiddleneck patches in an open field. The day was partly cloudy, but the air was warmer than it had been for several weeks. Courtship behavior that day included pursuits: apparently of males by males: displays with feathers raised, tail spread and elevated, and wings waving rapidly, and short flights in which the bird moved slowly but with the wings moving much more rapidly and widely than in ordinary flight. Also there was much singing from perches in the trees.

In May many goldflnches were observed courting along a flowing creek. Attracted there by the water, they were mostly in pairs. Some pursuits were noted, and there were some display flights.

Before noon one male flew about slowly, calling, with wings and tail widely spread and revealing the full extent of the white patches. Another male followed two others along the creek in a display flight.

At the end of May 1942, goldflnches were numerous and active among the blue oaks on a hilltop where they nested each year. The males made many flight displays with fully spread wings. Many females were active that day; apparently they were not yet on nests.

On May 24, observations beginning at 8:30 a.m. were made on a nest in the second day of construction. At times a light breeze swayed the nest limb 3 or 4 inches. The sunshine was bright on the nest and the air was warm. Both birds returned at 8:53, the male 5 feet ahead of the female. The male went to the nest tree 10 feet from the nest; the female went to the nest limb 4 feet from the nest, and then to the nest. There was a mating flight at 8:55. The male was in a valley oak southeast of the nest tree, the female in the nest tree. The male was 8 feet above the female. When the male flew down toward the female, she flew up 2 feet toward him, and he mounted. Both birds fell to bushes 3 feet above the ground, the male seemingly always above. They fell 25 feet in 2 seconds. When the birds struck the bushes they separated and the female flew into the bushes. The male, behind by 2 feet, followed the female around through the bushes under the nest tree. When the female flew to an oak 20 feet from the nest tree, the male flew at her twice from 5 feet away, and she flew off to forage or seek nesting material. When she returned to the nest tree, the male followed 10 feet behind her.

The high flights of the males with wings and tails widely spread reveal the contrasting pattern of white and dark markings conspicuously and attract special attention as the males fly out in circles near the perched females. Near noon on June 7 a male flew in circles 35 feet in diameter, 10 feet up, around a female perched on a barbed wire fence; he spread his tail, fluttered in flight, and uttered a continual series of dee-dee notes and snatches of song. The female appeared entirely unmoved by the performance. When she flew off the male followed, singing and calling.

On June 16, the males of five pairs of goldfinches were singing along a creek. One male flew in circles around a female perched on a twig 3 feet from the ground and seemingly oblivious, to her mate’s display. In midmorning the next day a male in a dense stand of live oaks in a canyon perched in a high tree top and flew out four times over the lower trees, circling once each time, and sang the while much more intensely than the light, whistling notes of the ordinary song. After each flight he paused in the tree tops 60 feet above the ground and sang leisurely. One or two birds uttered occasional notes from adjacent trees during this time; then one flew up from the top of a tree over which the male had flown and a chase ensued for 200 feet around a half circle. The second bird, probably a female, disappeared, and the male, calling softly, perched for 20 seconds at the top of a live oak 75 feet from his original perch and then flew off down the canyon.

A seasonally late example of this type of display occurred in early afternoon on July 14, 1939. A male, perched 3 feet above a female 40 feet up in a valley oak, sang for 2 minutes. He then flew in two wide circles over a ravine in front of his mate, flashing his conspicuous white wing patches, and then perched alongside her.

Nesting: Jn central California the normal nesting season extends from the last of March to the last of July, with an exceptionally late nesting (fledged young) on November 18 in Oakland (Mrs. H. K. Trousdale). A nest containing four fresh eggs was found on November 22, 1900, at Parlier, Fresno County, by John M. Miller (19~03). Numerous other records for southern California indicate that this bird nests there regularly from September to November.

On the choice of nesting sites Dawson (1923) writes that it is very great, and continues:

Sycamore trees are an early favorite because of the shelter promised by its generous leaves. And in this connection it may be well to note that most birds, whether ground or tree nesters, see to it that their nest is in shadow through the middle of the day. The burning rays of the sun must be avoided, at least by the tender nestlings. It is this fact, and not presumed escape from observation, which is the controlling factor in most nest-building projects. The cypress is also a favorite with the goldfinch, and whether the nests be placed close to the trunk of the tree, or, preferable, well out toward the tip of a branch, is determined again by the shade offered by some overshadowing twig or branch. Live oaks conceal their myriads also. In this case,, the bird, securely sheltered by a bristling array of sturdy leaves, prefers the tip of a drooping branch, or at least an outside situation. When the timber gives out, the Green-backs take cheerfully to the major weed-patches, or even invade the open sage, to take potluck with Bell Sparrows and Bush-Tits.

Grinnell, Dixon, and Linsdale (1930) write that in the fourth week of April 1928, several pairs of green-backed goldfinches were nesting among the blue oaks on the hills 6 miles north of Red Bluff, Calif. An unfinished nest in a shrubby tree at the edge of a small clump was 5 feet up on a limb sloping at a 45-degree angle and near the center of the tree. The female kept up a twittering call as she shaped the nest that was made almost entirely of sheep’s wool. At Point Lobos in 1934: 35 the only nest of green-backed goldfinch found was 8~/~ feet up, at the end of a bough of a 20-foot Monterey pine. The limb was at the south margin of the woods on the north side of a meadow. The site was thus open to the south and west, but pines standing close on the east provided shade in the morning. On April 26 the female was at the nest, which we thought then to be empty, and the male was near it. The male flew, singing in siow flight, to the top of a dead pine 50 feet from the nest. The female was still brooding on May 11.

Van Rossem (1911) writes that at Mecca, at the north end of Salton Sea, several pairs had nests well underway by Mar. 30, 1911. Thread and cotton from the skinning table went into their makeup.

Bancroft (1930) recorded green-backed goldfinches in central Lower California only from San Jgnacio, where the birds were common in the gardens near the reservoir. They began to nest the first week in April, building with plant down and the finest bark. The birds were timid and hid their nests well, by preference in the grapevines, though it was by no means unusual to find them in willow or fig trees.

Nests in California are usually in bushes or trees in fairly dense foliage, from 2 to 30 feet above the ground. They have been reported in the following plants: cottonwood, grapevines, willow, fig, pear, apricot, lemon, live oak, arrowweed, blue oak, walnut, valley oak, box elder, blue gum, and cypress.

On May 11 a female goldfinch flushed from a nest 7 feet up in a 9-foot blue oak halfway up a rocky hillside covered with slender oaks. As the nearest other blue oaks were 10 to 60 feet away, the site was exposed and a cold wind was blowing. The bird stayed within an area 50 feet across, moving from tree to tree and uttering single, loud notes of alarm. The nest’s slight, whitish walls were so thin in places the light showed through the dark lining. It contained four eggs.

On July 2, 1948, a female had completed less than one-fourth of a nest in a hanging cluster of leaves ahout 7 feet up on the west side of a valley oak, and was busily bringing shreds of bark from a willow clump 100 feet away. Ten days later she was incubating. Twice an observer walked within 5 feet of her without flushing her. In the morning on July 17 the nest appeared unattended, but when an observer touched the nest limb, the female leaped out and fluttered to bare ground 12 feet away. She turned, watched for 2 or 3 seconds, and fluttered off, barely clearing the ground and holding her body in flight slanted forward at a 15-degree angle. She seemed to spread her tail as a brake to intensify the effect of the fluttering motion. This bird was the only green-backed goldfinch observed on the reservation that made “injury feigning” displays. At midday on July 23 the nest contained a young bird one or two days old. The female was brooding, and did not leave until a mirror was held over the nest. Then she fluttered off to the tops of some dead grass 14 feet away and fluttered from side to side over a path 3 feet wide for an additional 10 feet. She then flew to a branch 30 feet from the nest and perched, calling a series of slow Iciyah, chee-wee, and chee notes. In 3 or 4 minutes she gradually worked back to a perch 15 feet above the nest where she remained calling for an additional 6 or 8 minutes.

When her brooding was again disturbed on July 29, she flew off the nest in a long, fluttering glide and landed 40 feet away, but she returned immediately to a tree near the nest to call in alarm.

The female constructs the nest almost entirely alone. However, the male shows interest in the site and in the early stages of some nests. A pair worked at early stages of nest building in a valley oak on the morning of May 23, when the nest had a thin base 2 inches wide by 3 inches long. On one trip when the pair returned the male went to the nest first, carrying material, but did not remain. The female came to the nest and worked 2Y~ minutes while the male perched near the center of the tree with the material in his beak until she left; then he brought it to the nest and worked half a minute. Later in the morning he went to the nest for 30 seconds and wove fiber around twigs. Sometimes he flew directly to the nest, sometimes to a branch near it. Once he appeared to climb up to the nest from below, using his bill in parrotlike fashion.

Most of the material came from nearby trees. The female usually flew directly to the nest from a nearby tree, but if she came from farther away she generally lit in the nest tree and then went to the nest. She generally worked from above or inside the nest, less often from the outside. The male sometimes sang nearby while she worked.

In 160 minutes that morning the male made 5 trips to the nest and the female made 33. In the afternoon the female resumed work on the nest at about 3:50 p.m., and spent longer periods at it. The male made only one trip and was not seen near the nest after 3:43. He had evidently ceased working, though his mate made 29 more trips to the nest in the next 3 hours.

On the second day of nest-building, activity was recorded in four periods totalling 9 hours and 20 minutes. In this time the female made 64 trips to the male’s 4. The average interval between her trips was 13 minutes in the early morning, 5 minutes in the late morning, 25 minutes in the afternoon, and 6.8 minutes in the late evening. This nest was destroyed by scrub jays soon after it was completed.

A female on another nest was alert to everything that went on about her. Whenever a scrub jay called in the vicinity, her head turned sharply in that direction. She seemed aware of the observer’s activity, but she was not unduly excited by it. As she covered the nest, she did so with a rapid, cradlelike, sidewise rocking of her body. Every time she stood up she worked quickly with her bill in the bottom of the nest. When she returned to the nest at midday, she called nine times in the tree before she reached the nest. She moved from perch to perch 10 times in the tree before she reached the nest. When the male came to the nest through the top of the tree, he called continually and fed the female, who appeared to arch her back and flutter her wings as he fed her. After he left she kept up a constant high-pitched, excited chatter, accompanied by a fluttering of the wings.

Eggs: The usual set of four eggs is pale bluish green and unmarked. Hanna (1924b) weighed 27 eggs of the green-backed goldfinch; these ranged from 0.87 to 1.15 grams and averaged 1.05 grams.

The measurements of 50 eggs average 14.7 by 11.2 millimeters; the eggs showing the four extremes measure 16.3 by 12.2, and 12.7 by 9.7 millimeters.

Young: W. Lee Chambers (1915) traced the history of a greenbacked goldfinch’s nest in southern California in April 1915. The nest was started on April 4 in a lemon tree in which the pair had been present for several days and was lined with feathers and nearly completed by April 11. On the 17th at 6:00 a.m. the nest contained a full set of four eggs and by 6:30 a.m. on April 29 all four eggs had hatched. The incubation period, then, is 12 days, which is what Gross (1938) reported as the incubation period for the American goldfinch.

Law (1929) made the following observations on nesting greenbacked and Lawrence’s goldfinches at Altadena, Calif.: “In both, with the approach of the breeding season and during incubation, the male feeds the female by regurgitation. The parents of both species feed their young by regurgitation. The young of both species appear to be raised entirely on seed food, mostly seeds ‘in the milk.’ The nests of each species is * * * kept clean by the parents during the first days after the young emerge from the eggs. By the time the young are half grown, such effort is abandoned, and the rims of the nests become filthy with fecal matter. The feces of the young of both at this stage are without membranous sacs and are, for this reason, less readily eaten or carried off.”

Food: Goldfincbes forage in flocks most of the year. They move through the bushes and trees that provide the major part of their food, and they sometimes concentrat.e on low-growing herbaceous plants. Most of their food is plant material, including buds, leaves, fruits, and seeds. Some animal food is eaten, but the kind and amount are difficult to identify by observation of the living birds. On the Hastings Reservation 55 kinds of plant food have been identified as eaten by the green-backed goldfinch. Prominent among these are chamise, common fiddlleneck, vinegarweed, and Napa thistle.

According to Beal (1910) weed seed is the standard food of this goldfinch, representing over 96 percent of the year’s diet. In January and March nothing else was eaten. Animal food was found in 50 stomachs collected in June, July, August, and September, more than half of them in August. The great bulk of it was plant lice; one stomach was entirely filled with these insects, and in another 300 were counted.

Peterson (1942) offered salt to birds in a partly wooded pasture on the side of Mount Diablo. The green-backed goldflnches came in flocks and covered the salt-saturated ground, feeding mostly from the earth within a foot of the salt block.

Drinking: These birds apparently need large amounts of water to help digest the seeds they eat. Availability of water is important in the nesting season, and later when it becomes scarce, its distribution determines where the goldflnches live. In the dry seasons they concentrate about streams and springs.

Mrs. Edwards (1925) has described the behavior of goldfinches at a bird bath. A flock of more than 50 birds crowded over a trap and the water below it, chirping cheerily. While the captives were removed from the trap, the rest of the flock remained at and around the far end of the trap, not 2 feet away. E. D. Clabaugh (1930) reported that in his bird banding, green-backed goldflnches were captured only by using water as bait. He used both the warbler and Potter traps, usually with water dripping into the trap in some manner.

On Sept. 6, 1939, the overflow pipe from a well led to a barrel set on a creek bed under a red willow. The water pouring into it filled the barrel and overflowed so that one edge was wet and the other was dry. After a few minutes many goldfinches in the surrounding willows began to come to the barrel to drink, unlike the juncos which drank from the creek bed. The first one lit on the wet edge, followed in a few seconds by two more, and finally eight were lined up drinking before the first ones started to fly off.

The next morning goldfinches in some coast ceanothus were attracted by an overflow of water. As many as 13 stood and drank in the running water within a radius of 1 foot. When frightened they flew into the ceanothus, then went downhill 10 yards, and reassembled at the water to drink again in a compact group. One afternoon when 20 were drinking, something frightened them, and they all flew off into the nearest trees, except one which remained and continued to drink; this doubtless encouraged the immediate return of the others.

At midmorning on Jan. 10, 1954, at the Hastings Reservation, a flock of juncos and goldflnches visited a water trough where the water was covered with ice. The ice melting at one corner formed a small pool where two goldflnches drank. A male goldfinch stood on the ground beneath one corner, ruffled its feathers, and tried to bathe. An hour later when the surface ice had melted the flock returned to the trough and many of the birds drank.

Bathing: At noon in early January nine goldfinches, calling continuously, bathed in shallow water in a creek. Each bird stood in water part way up to its flanks, frequently dipped its head and shook its feathers and body vigorously, making drops of water fly in all directions. Some flew momentarily up into nearby willows to shake their feathers and preen. One female stayed in the water and shook herself about every 3 seconds for 26 seconds. The average time each bird remained in the water was close to 15 seconds. One July morning six goldflnches bathed in a pool 9 X 12 X æ inches. Standing about 2 inches apart, they dipped their breasts and necks in the water, fluttered their wings to throw water over their backs, and fanned their tails. There was no fighting; when one bird was crowded by another, it swiftly moved out of the way.

Roosting: At the Grand Canyon, Ariz., Townsend (1925) saw 24 green-backed goldflnches settle for the night in a cottonwood still in leaf close to his cabin. Comby (1944) writes:

A male Green-backed Goldfinch * * * chose as a sleeping perch a tree tobacco plant (Nicotiana glauca) in my yard, on San Jose Creek, near Whittier, Calif. He was seen to roost there daily throughout moat of January and a part of February, 1944. Each evening he came to the plant early, about an hour and a half before sundown. Here he slept for twenty nights, January 10 to 29, inclusive, but was not to be seen on the 30th or 3 1st. A light shower or drizzle on the 30th may have been a disturbing factor. He returned to the plant on February 1, to remain through the 16th, although toward the end of this period he came later, just before dark. This was the only individual of the species to perch in the shrub or to be seen in the neighborhood at this time except for two or three occasions when another individual alighted momentarily in a near-by tree tobacco. Although the male goldfinch used the same plant for sleeping, he did not always rest on the same branch or face the same direction; his position varied, it is estimated, from 4~ to 5~ feet from the ground. Like many other birds he slept with head tucked “under the wing.”

The first season’s growth of this plant retains its succulent leaves and stems throughout the winter. The yellow-green bird was well camouflaged in the yellowish-green foliage, and careful inspection was necessary to distinguish it; discovery of the roosting place was made as the bird flew into the shrub.

Flocks: Goldfinches wander widely, sometimes alone, more often in pairs or flocks, in search of food, water, and nesting and roosting sites. Flocking becomes pronounced when the birds assemble to forage, drink, or bathe. They like to assemble with others on the same bush. If frightened, which they often are, they fly off together, but they seldom, if ever, land all together. When alighting they scatter like a thrown handful of sand, some flying straight on, others turning right or left; some land on bushes, some on trees. If a bird finds it has landed without companions, it generally flies to a place where other goldfinches are concentrating.

In October an observer watched a flock of more than 60 goldflnches foraging on an open hilltop. When disturbed, the flock flew up, circled, and generally returned to the same spot. The birds frequently alighted first on the deerweed, which, being taller than the grass and vinegarweed, afforded a better view of the surrounding terrain. Early in the morning in late November about 100 goldflnches foraged in an open field and sunned between times in two blue oaks at the edge of a nearby woodland. In late afternoon in early February between 300 and 400 goldfinches perched in tall valley oaks about a barn. Many sang as they sat in the tops of the bare trees while others foraged in the outer branches of a nearby live oak.

In the Colorado Valley near the Needles in early March, Grinnell (1914b) found large flocks “congregated in the central parts of extensive dense mesquite thickets where, perched from three to four feet above the ground, they were certainly safe from marauders; here they sang volubly in chorus until dusk settled.”

Flight: The green-backed goldfinch flies in the undulating manner typical of all its close relatives. A rapid flurry of wings to gain momentum bears the bird upward, followed by a shallow, swooping glide on closed wings, then another climbing burst of wingbeats and another glide. The white patches under the wings usually show conspicuously in flight, and the birds often sing and call on the wing, the characteristic call notes being uttered in the glides between wingbeats. On long trips the birds tend occasionally to stop and rest briefly in a convenient treetop before continuing on their way.

Voice: The green-backed goldfinch starts to sing by the first of March or a little earlier. Its song is a pleasing, rapturous, canarylike burst of bird music, frequently uttered on the wing, although this habit is by no means so characteristic of this species as of the house finch. The bird sings actively all spring; during the summer the song gradually wanes, but snatches of it may sometimes be heard in autumn. As Hoffmann (1927) describes it:

In any weedy border of neglected fields small birds with yellow underpart., and white patches in their wings fly off when disturbed, with a little shivering note like the jarring of a cracked piece of glass. * * * The spring flocks gather in trees near their feeding ground and keep up a concert of twittering song. When a pair are nesting the male utters, either from an upper spray or from the air, a series of sweet twittering notes that suggest the song of a canary. * * * Green-backed goldfinches can always be identified by their calls. These include a plaintive tee-yee, both notes on the same pitch, a tee-ce, the second note higher, and a single plaintive tee and the jarring notes mentioned above. There is more variety in the calls of the Green-backed Goldfinch than in those of the Willow Goldfinch, and a plaintive quality which the latter lacks. Young birds, just before leaving the nest or when following their parents in early summer, utter continually a single sharp tsi.

The song of the male goldfinch heard on the Hastings Reservation was a long disorganized series of faintly melodious notes rising and falling many times, but most often rising. Frequently interspersed throughout the long song were sharply rising slurred notes that gave it a quality characteristic of many finch songs. Other notes commonly given by the species are the light metallic clanking sounds uttered frequently both perched and in flight. Another common sound is a clear, plaintive, descending note, slightly less than a second long, usually heard when the bird is in fairly dense foliage, often when alone, and less frequently in the usual groups of 7 to 12.

Field marks: Grinnell and Storer (1924) distinguish the greenbacked goldfinch as follows:

Half the size of Junco. Sexes different from one another both summer and winter. Male: Body plumage dark greenish above, yellow below; whole top of head, and wings and tail, black; in flight a patch of pure white appears on middle of each wing and another shows at base of tail. * * * Female: Dull brown, green-tinged above, and dull yellowish beneath; white patches, showing on wing and tail in flight, small or obscure. Flight course of both sexes undulating. Voice: Male has a pleasing canary-like song; both sexes have plaintive-toned call notes. * *

The Green-backed Goldfinch is slightly smaller than either the Willow or the Lawrence, and differs * * * in having yellow rather than white at the lower base of its tail * * * The white on the inner webs of the outer tail feathers of the Green-backed Goldfinch extends to the bases of the feathers, hut not to the tips, whereas in the * * * Lawrence Goldfinch the white is confined to the middle of the feathers, reaching neither bases nor tips. * * * the marks on the tail are to be seen satisfactorily only when a bird is in flight. * *

The Green-backed Goldfinch never shows any yellow on the wing, whereas the Lawrence Goldfinch always shows this color in considerable amount. The male Green-backed Goldfinch is quite dark colored above, darker than the males of either of the other two species. * * * The female Green-backed Goldfinch is merely greenish, with the upper surface brown-tinged; and she lacks prominently contrasted markings of any sort.

Enemies: In their varied relationships with numerous kinds of birds on the Hastings Reservation, green-backed goldfinches apparently recognize the danger in getting too near a Cooper’s hawk. In mid-June a male came within three feet of an incubating Cooper’s hawk and called repeatedly a series of musical, canarylike chirps until the hawk tried unsuccessfully to catch it. In early August seven goldfinches perched three inches above a juvenal Cooper hawk uttering food cries near the top of a tree. The finches made no attack, but remained above the hawk as if wary of its presence. Later in the month when a Cooper’s hawk called, a nesting female goldfinch swung about on her nest, stopped singing abruptly and “froze” for 8 minutes before she again flicked her wings.

One midday in early October 15 goldfinches dived into a willow when a sharp-shinned hawk flew toward the flock. The hawk singled out and pursued one bird, which twisted in flight to escape, turning sharply each time the hawk was within 6 inches, thereby gaining about two feet. The goldfinch finally dropped to safety into a willow clump and the hawk flew off. During the chase neither bird made a sound. Later that month a sparrow hawk dived at a goldfinch perched in the top of an oak; the goldfinch escaped down inside the crown of the oak, leaving the hawk perched in the top. The evening of June 8 a pigmy owl flew by with a green-backed goldfinch, apparently a juvenile, in its talons which it had caught near a water trough that regularly attracted many goldfinches.

A flock of 50 goldfinches chattering in a live oak at the end of January momentarily became quiet as a screaming scrub jay came by. Early in the morning of May 25 a scrub jay flew to a limb 4 inches from the nest of a green-backed goldfinch. Both male and female goldfinches flew about the jay from different directions, not approaching closer than 8 inches, until the jay left. Having discovered the nest the jay returned later in the morning and repeatedly drove its bill into the side of the nest until it was demolished.

Plath (1919), in his studies on nestling birds at Berkeley in the summer of 1913, found 8 of the 13 goldfinch nests examined infested with maggots of Protocalliphora arurea (Fallen) (Apaulina). In one nest of young green-backed goldfinches all the nestlings died. Compact nests such as goldfinches build showed a greater infestation than loose-textured nests such as those of the brown towhee.

A. W. Anthony (1923) found Argentine ants (Iridomyrmez kumili.s) in San Diego, Calif., swarming over recently abandoned nests of green-backed goldflnches. In the same area he found a goldfinch less than a week old that he thought had been taken from the nest by the Brewer’s blackbird that was vigorously pounding it. In Santa Clara County, W. L. Atkinson (1901) found two green-backed goldfinches that a loggerhead shrike had impaled on a barbed wire fence. Green-backed goldfinches were among the birds destroyed during fumigation of orange trees (A. B. Howell, 1914). Edwards (1919) found newly hatched goldfinches dead under a tree after a wind storm.

Fall: In early August 1939, tbe goldfinches on the Reservation were usually paired or in small groups; evidently some families were still united. Perhaps the adults remained paired after nesting while the young congregated in flocks. On September 1 the goldflnches were not numerous in the morning; only two flocks were observed in half an hour and those contained less than 20 birds each. Formerly, from 50 to 100 birds were in evidence. Two days later groups of 5 to 15 went to a tank overflow, but did not remain long, the early rains having removed the need to remain in its vicinity for long periods. In mid-November of one year 15 green-backed goldflnches perched in the tops of oaks at the edge of chamise at the summit of a hill. There was much singing as the clouds broke, but the birds became silent when a drizzle began.

Winter: On a morning in early December, 30 goldfinches perched in the tops of willows and valley oaks at the edge of a creek. A chorus of almost continuous calls was audible, but the observer had difficulty in seeing all of the birds. During the several minutes he watched them he saw no foraging. Aside from the few individuals occasionally hopping or flitting from one perch to another, they were sunning or preening. On a January morning in 1938 a flock of more than one hundred goldfinches fed on achenes of charnise. The flock moved over the patch, every few minutes flying up to perch in the near-by oaks, and then flying down to another spot in the chaparral. Sometimes eight or more gathered in one small bush, each perched at a cluster of fruits and eating as fast as it could. They seemed completely tolerant of each other and of other species feeding with them. Males and females were present in about equal numbers.

In late afternoon in early February, 200 to 300 goldflnches were in trees beside a barn, many singing their eanarylike song. Toward the end of March, 25 or more green-backed goldflnches foraged with a large flock of Lawrence goldfinches, juncos, lark sparrows, and house finches on the abundant crop of seeds produced by annual plants in a deserted vineyard.

Range: The green-backed goldfinch is resident from southwestern Washington (Vancouver), western Oregon (Portland, Coos County), northeastern California (Modoc County), northern Nevada (Santa Rosa Mountains), and northern Utah (Tooele, Morgan, and Uintah counties) south through California and central Arizona (Flagstaff, Grand Canyon) to southern Baja California (Sierra de Ia Laguna) and southern Sonora (Guirocoba).

Casual east to eastern Oregon (Riverside), south central New Mexico (San Antonio), and northwestern Durango.

Egg dates: Baja California: 16 records, April 23 to August 11; 8 records, May 2 to May 15.

California: 132 records, April 2 to August 3; 66 records, May 12 to June 15.

About the Author

Sam Crowe

Sam is the founder of He has been birding for over 30 years and has a world list of over 2000 species. He has served as treasurer of the Texas Ornithological Society, Sanctuary Chair of Dallas Audubon, Editor of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's "All About Birds" web site and as a contributing editor for Birding Business magazine. Many of his photographs and videos can be found on the site.

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