The ‘Not-so’ Lesser Goldfinch

Cover photo: © Ingrid Taylar, 2017, some rights reserved.

Did you know that lesser goldfinches copy the sounds of other birds in their song? Learn about this and more in post about the lesser goldfinch!

Cover photo: © Ingrid Taylar, 2017, Flickr Photo Album, some rights reserved.

Places to See Lesser Goldfinches

Pearson-Arastradero Circle

Pearson-Arastradero Preserve


Lesser goldfinches are a common California bird.

They can be found in a variety of habitats, ranging from oak and eucalyptus forests to neighborhood backyards. I’m used to seeing them frequently flitting between shrubs around my neighborhood or perched on tall grass in open habitats.

Their range in the United States extends across the southwest, and down into Mexico and Central America.

Lesser goldfinches look a lot like their close relatives, American goldfinches.

Lesser goldfinches are the smallest goldfinch species in the U.S. at 3.5 – 4.7 inches. They have black wings, tails, and crowns, with yellow underparts (the area encompassing the breast, belly, and beneath the tail).

Lesser goldfinches look very similar to their close relatives, the American goldfinch. Two distinguishing characteristics between lesser and American goldfinches are their bills and the presence or absence of a white patch on their wings. Lesser goldfinches have black bills, whereas American goldfinches have orange bills. Lesser goldfinches also have a prominent white patch on their primary wing feathers (the longest feathers on their wings), whereas this feature is absent in American goldfinches.

Female lesser goldfinches look very similar to the males, but are lacking the black cap.

Lesser Goldfinch
Photo © 2018 Matthew Buynoski. Male lesser goldfinch at Pearson-Arastradero Preserve in Palo Alto, Ca.

Lesser goldfinches eat mostly seeds, but will also snack on small insects.

Their short, thick bills make these finches perfect for eating seeds. They will also eat small insects such as aphids. They are commonly found associated with thistle, eating the seeds both at feeders and on the plant itself.

These bright birds frequent my feeder at home as well! From my observations, they to tend prefer black oil sunflower and nyjer seeds.

Both the male and female lesser goldfinch will raise young.

Lesser goldfinches build cup nests (nests that are shaped like a bowl), and breed starting around April. They build their nests in trees or shrubs above the ground, laying 4-5 eggs which hatch after 12 days of incubation. Both parents will take turns feeding the young, which will leave the nest after 12 – 15 days.

Lesser goldfinches that live in California don’t usually migrate.

While many species of bird migrate south for the winter to escape cold temperatures, lesser goldfinches that live in California don’t usually migrate. Populations that live farther north will sometimes migrate short distances in the winter.

Cool facts about lesser goldfinches:

  • Just like pet parrots will mimic (copy) the sounds around their homes, lesser goldfinches are known to copy the sounds of other birds in their song.
  • Lesser goldfinches are one of three goldfinch species in the United States: the lesser goldfinch, the American goldfinch, and Lawrence’s goldfinch. All three species can be found in California (but Lawrence’s only when they’re breeding!).

Resources to learn more:

Author: Taylor Crisologo

Taylor studied biology at Cornell University, where she worked with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology on projects ranging from breeding herring gulls off the coast of Maine to dancing lyrebirds in Australia’s Blue Mountains. When she’s not researching great places to experience Bay Area nature, you can find her birding or reading a book at home with her husband and their two indoor cats (Max and Penelope).

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