Back to the BirdIndex
American Goldfinch
Carduelis tristis
Anatomy of a Bird

This handsome little finch, the state bird of New Jersey, Iowa, and Washington, is welcome and common at feeders, where it takes primarily sunflower and nyjer. Goldfinches often flock with Pine Siskins and Common Redpolls. Spring males are brilliant yellow and shiny black with a bit of white. Females and all winter birds are more dull but identifiable by their conical bill; pointed, notched tail; wingbars; and lack of streaking. During molts they look bizarrely patchy.

Range Map My Photos Of This Bird
© 2003 Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Cool Facts Taxonomic Hierarchy Illustration
  • American Goldfinches are the only finch that molts its body feathers twice a year, once in late winter and again in late summer. The brightening yellow of male goldfinches each spring is one welcome mark of approaching warm months.
  • American Goldfinches breed later than most North American birds. They wait to nest until June or July when milkweed, thistle, and other plants have produced their fibrous seeds, which goldfinches incorporate into their nests and also feed their young.
  • Goldfinches are among the strictest vegetarians in the bird world, selecting an entirely vegetable diet and only inadvertently swallowing an occasional insect.
  • When Brown-headed Cowbirds lay eggs in an American Goldfinch nest, the cowbird egg may hatch but the nestling seldom survives longer than three days. The cowbird chick simply can’t survive on the all-seed diet that goldfinches feed their young.
  • Goldfinch’s move south in winter following a pattern that seems to coincide with regions where the minimum January temperature is no colder than 0 degrees Fahrenheit on average.
  • As of May 2007, the oldest known American Goldfinch was 10 years 5 months old.
  • Paired-up goldfinches make virtually identical flight calls; goldfinches may be able to distinguish members of various pairs by these calls.
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
     Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Aves
Order: Passeriformes
Family: Fringillidae
     Subfamily: Carduelinae
Genus: Carduelis
Species: Carduelis tristis
  • Carduelis tristis jewetti
  • Carduelis tristis pallida
  • Carduelis tristis salicamans
  • Carduelis tristis tristis
Photo taken from:
The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America by David Allen Sibley




Adult Description

Size & Shape

A small finch with a short, conical bill and a small, head, long wings, and short, notched tail.

Color Pattern

Adult males in spring and early summer are bright yellow with black forehead, black wings with white markings, and white patches both above and beneath the tail. Adult females are duller yellow beneath, olive above. Winter birds are drab, unstreaked brown, with blackish wings and two pale wingbars.

The American Goldfinch’s most common call is its contact call, often given in flight. It sounds like the bird is quietly saying po-ta-to-chip with a very even cadence.

  • Breeding Location: Lakes, Open landscapes, Grassland with scattered trees, Rivers
  • Breeding Type: Monogamous
  • Breeding Population: Declining slightly
  • Egg Color: Pale blue to white blue
  • Number of Eggs: 4 - 6
  • Incubation Days: 10 - 12
  • Egg Incubator: Female
  • Nest Material: Pliable vegetation lined with plant down.
  • Migration: Migratory
  • Condition at Hatching: Helpless, with wisps of grayish down.
Body Head Flight
  • Length Range: 13 cm (5 in)
  • Weight: 14 g (0.5 oz)
  • Size: Small (5 - 9 in)
  • Color Primary: Black, Yellow
  • Underparts: Yellow with white coverts.
  • Upperparts: Yellow with white rump.
  • Back Pattern: Solid
  • Belly Pattern: Solid
  • Breast Pattern: Solid
  • Bill Shape: Cone
  • Eye Color: Dusky brown; No known change with age or sex.
  • Head Pattern: Capped
  • Crown Color: Black
  • Forehead Color: Black
  • Nape Color: Yellow
  • Throat Color: Yellow
  • Cere color: No Data
  • Flight Pattern: Undulating flight., Several rapid wing beats and then a pause.
  • Wingspan Range: 22-23 cm (8.75-9 in)
  • Wing Shape: Tapered-Wings
  • Tail Shape: Notched Tail
  • Tail Pattern: Solid
  • Upper Tail: Black
  • Under Tail: Black
  • Leg Color: Pink-gray


Food Habitat
American Goldfinches are active, acrobatic finches that balance on the seedheads of thistles, dandelions, and other plants to pluck seeds. They have a bouncy flight during which they frequently make their po-ta-to-chip calls. Although males sing exuberantly during spring, pairs do not nest until mid-summer, when thistles and other weeds have gone to seed. Goldfinches do not join other songbirds mobbing predators. Goldfinches eat seeds almost exclusively. Main types include seeds from composite plants (in the family Asteraceae: sunflowers, thistle, asters, etc.), grasses, and trees such as alder, birch, western red cedar, and elm. At feeders prefers nyjer and sunflower. Weedy fields, open floodplains, and other overgrown areas, particularly with sunflower, aster, and thistle plants for food and some shrubs and trees for nesting. Goldfinches are also common in suburbs, parks, and backyards.
Other Names Similar Species Conservation Status
  • Dominiquito viajero, Dominiquito triste (Spanish)
  • Chardonneret jaune (French)
  • Evening Grosbeaks are about twice the size of a goldfinch, with a huge beak and large wing patches rather than wingbars.
  • Pine Siskins have coarse brown streaks on breast and back, a more slender bill, and yellow only on a small region of the wing.
  • Female Lesser and Lawrence's goldfinches have a solidly dark tip to the tail, whereas female American Goldfinches have white edges to the tail feathers.
  • Lesser Goldfinches have yellow instead of white under the tail.
  • Lawrence's Goldfinches have yellow instead of white wingbars. Many warblers are bright yellow, but they all have thinner bills and a more horizontal posture than goldfinches and are very rarely seen at bird feeders.
Preservation efforts brought populations in the lower 48 states back from near extinction in the mid-20th century. Although the Bald Eagle was proposed for removal from the Endangered species List in 1999, populations in the lower 48 states remain relatively low. Humans are the most important source of mortality.
Video Sources Used To Construct This Page:


  • Middleton, Alex L. 1993. American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online

  • Patuxent Wildlife Research Center Longevity Records

All photos © 2008 Rick Swartzentrover - Free for non-profit use.
Home Family Tree Photos Hiking Photos E-Books Bible E-mail