American Goldfinch. Photo: Brian Kushner

The Birdist’s Rules of Birding

Birdist Rule #97: Get to Know Your Goldfinches

This is the California Gold Rush they don’t teach you about in history class.

I’ve gotten a bit of grief over the fact that most of my bird-ID columns have focused on Eastern species. Guilty as charged. I have no defense except that I’m an Eastern birder, and these are the birds I know.

But I want to make it up to you, and so today we’re going to look at some birds that, for the most part, you can only find out West. These are birds that many of us long for, from backyard-feeder watchers to a crusty old listers. I’m talking about goldfinches.

Believe it or not, we’ve got three different goldfinch species in this country: the American Goldfinch, Lesser Goldfinch, and Lawrence’s Goldfinch.

“But wait,” fans of random state trivia might be asking, “what about the Willow Goldfinch, the state bird of Washington, or the Eastern Goldfinch, the state bird of Iowa and New Jersey?”  Well, those are still technically the American Goldfinch, but are common names for the Eastern and Pacific Coast subspecies. Got it?

(Can we pause for a moment to appreciate how crummy that NJ state-symbol site is? Good grief. Show some pride, New Jersey!)

But getting back to the basics here: What makes a goldfinch a goldfinch? Two things, as far as I can tell. First, they’re true finches, meaning they’re small birds with conical bills that are perfect for eating seeds. Second, they’ve got some yellow or gold coloring on them. So, they’re goldfinches.

(Sorry, I need to pause again to say that there’s another bird, the Pine Siskin, that’s also a fringillid finch with gold coloring. Siskins are goldfinches in everything but the name, and they’re very cool little birds; but since they’re not called goldfinches, I’m not going to discuss them here. If you’ve got an issue with that, you can take it up with the American Ornithologists’ Union.)

The most common of our American goldfinches is, believe it or not, the American Goldfinch. This species is found coast to coast, only venturing to the deep south in winter and moving north into Canada during the breeding season.

A male American Goldfinch in breeding plumage is a real showstopper. He’s so yellow he’s hard to look at without squinting. His spiffy black cap and wings add a formal air, like he’s dressed for the opera.

Male American Goldfinch in breeding plumage. Photo: Megumi Aita/Audubon Photography Awards

Nonbreeding males and females, on the other hand, don’t look like much at all. They’re sort of a smudgy brown and mustard color, with striped black and white wings. In fact, a lot of the mysterious brown feeder birds I’m asked to ID in winter turn out to be American Goldfinches.

They’re easy to see if you’ve got a feeder stocked with black nyger seed but are harder to spot out in the wild. They’re small, and they often sit at the tops of trees, too far to see.

But they do constantly call while they fly, so go learn the easy per-tee-tee-tee flight song and you’ll always know when they’re around.

In general, I think it’s undignified to name a species a “least” this or a “lesser” that—but Lesser Goldfinches are in fact lesser than American Goldfinches in just about every way. Lessers are about half an inch shorter than Americans, and their range in this country is much smaller. They’re restricted to West Texas, the coast of California, and the Four Corners states in the breeding season, but are common throughout Mexico and dip into South America. (A century ago, bird books called it the "Arkansas Goldfinch," but it was named for the headwaters of the Arkansas River in Colorado, and not for the state of Arkansas, where it would be a rare find.) 

Aesthetically, the Lesser Goldfinch is sort of a toned-down version of the American: the yellow’s a little less bright, and there’s some additional black on the backor greenish black, depending on where you are. Black-backed males are common from Texas to Colorado, while most males farther west are green-backed. Scientists have argued for years about whether the different looks reflected different subspecies or just color morphs.

Male Lesser Goldfinch in breeding plumage. Photo: Alan Schmierer/Flickr (CC0 1.0)

I wish I could come in here with some more super interesting facts that redeem Lesser Goldfinches and reveal them to be a vibrant, unique species but . . . I just don’t know many. They’re gregarious and social, like American Goldfinches, and they eat the mostly the same food. And they have an interesting song that can include imitations of dozens of other birds, from kestrels to robins. That’s cool, right? I hope so, because that’s all I’ve got.

The Lawrence’s Goldfinch, on the other hand, has a style of its own. Gray overall, with a black face and yellow breast and wings, the Lawrence’s Goldfinch is just as smart looking as the American Goldfinch, but without the extra glitz. It’s accepting a Nobel Prize while the American is playing host at a fancy cocktail party. Does that make any sense? Its snazzy looks, comparative rarity, and appealing aloofness make the Lawrence’s Goldfinch a sought-after species for birders. And on top of everything else, it can mimic the songs of other birds as least as well as its Lesser cousin.

Male Lawrence's Goldfinch in breeding plumage. Photo: Alan Schmierer/Flickr (CC0 1.0)

The bird was named by American ornithologist John Cassin after another famous American ornithologist, George Newbold Lawrence (though I don’t think he used my metaphor in his paper). Cassin described a specimen from California, which makes up most of this species’ range. It’s also is found in Baja California and, in the winter, in Arizona.

Lawrence’s Goldfinches favor slightly drier habitats than their cousins; overall, the movements of this species is more nomadic and erratic than the American or Lesser. They can be present in large numbers in an area one year, and completely absent the next. Scientists aren’t exactly sure why. Birders aren't sure either, but that doesn't stop us from enjoying the Lawrence's when they show up. On some Audubon Christmas Bird Counts in Arizona, tallies of this goldfinch can vary from zero to hundreds. 

So there you have it—are you happy now, Californians? You got a new Birdist rule all to yourself. Now grab your pan and your pickaxe and run for the hills . . . there’s gold(finches) to be found!

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