American Goldfinches

American goldfinch © USFWS
American goldfinch © USFWS

Called sometimes the “wild canary” of the Americas, the American goldfinch’s distinctive sunshine-yellow plumage (feathers) fades in winter to an understated palette of gray, brown, and buff. These diminutive finches are common visitors to bird feeders across the state, and so the well-prepared birder should be familiar with their varied plumages.

Identification

Regardless of season, several traits about goldfinches remain constant. American goldfinches are small (5”) seed-eating birds with short, pointed, conical bills and wings that are noticeably darker than their bodies.

In spring and summer, the male is canary-yellow with coal black wings, tail, and cap. The female lacks the cap and is colored in more subdued shades of butter yellow and olive.

In winter, the male retains some yellow around the face, throat, and shoulder, but both sexes are primarily grayish-brown. Identify them by their size, shape, and dark wings, which often show one or two clear “wing-bars.”

Behavior

Goldfinches often travel in flocks, and they have a recognizable “bouncing” style of flight, resulting from their tendency to hold their wings tight against their body for a second or two between bouts of flapping.

Particularly during winter, multiple males and females often feed together at a single feeder. American Goldfinches are particularly fond of thistle seed (also called “black nyjer”).

The song of the American goldfinch is a variable sweet warble, and the species has a distinctive four-note flight call given as they “bounce” through the air: po-ta-to chip, po-ta-to chip.

Status

American goldfinches are nearly ubiquitous in the Commonwealth, and are stable or increasing in all seasons. Learn more in the Breeding Bird Atlas 2.