The state bird of New Jersey, Iowa, and Washington (5), the American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) is a familiar species across much of its North American range. The distinctive breeding plumage of the male American goldfinch is instantly recognisable, with its bright yellow upperparts, face and throat, black cap and lores, and its pale yellow belly (2) (3) (4). The thighs and rump are white (2) (4), while the tail and wings are mostly black, with white tips on the upper wing-coverts and white patches on the tail (2) (3) (4).
In its non-breeding plumage, the black cap of the male American goldfinch is much smaller and the face becomes paler, although it still retains some yellow or buff colouration in the cheeks and lores (2) (4). The upperparts and crown become olive-green or buff-brown during the non-breeding season, and the white or buff tips of the tail and wings become more extensive (2).
During the breeding season, the plumage of the female American goldfinch is olive-green, tinged with yellow on the upperparts and head, and fading to a pale yellow underside (2) (4). In winter, the plumage of the female becomes much duller and browner, losing most of the yellow colouration of the breeding plumage (2) (4). The flight feathers of the female are black-brown, and the rest of the wings and tail, as in the male, are black with white tips (2) (3) (4).
The legs and feet of the male and female American goldfinch are orange or yellow-brown, and the orange or brown bill is small and sharply pointed, with a dark tip (2) (4). The male is larger than the female, and has a slightly longer bill and wings (3).
The plumage of the juvenile American goldfinch is similar to the winter plumage of the male and female, but much browner, with a darker head (2). The upperparts are buff-brown and the tail is black or dusky-brown with white or grey-white edges (2) (3) (4). The wingbars and rump are yellow-buff and the rest of the underside is pale yellow (2) (3).
The call of the American goldfinch is a soft ‘chi-dup, chi-dee-dup’ or ‘ti-dee-di-di’. A song of musical ‘wee’ or ‘swee’ notes (2) is mostly made during the breeding season by the male (4). A high-pitched ‘ch-ween’ alarm call is made when an individual is in distress (4).
There are four recognised subspecies of American goldfinch, which mostly differ in the colouration and pattern of the plumage, as well as in their range. Carduelis tristis jewetti is the smallest and darkest, and is browner than the other subspecies in its winter plumage. Carduelis tristis pallida is the largest subspecies and is distinguished by its pale colouration. It has larger white areas throughout its plumage (2) (3) (4), and the male has an extensive black cap during the breeding season (4). Both sexes of Carduelis tristis salicamens are browner in their winter plumage than the other subspecies, and the female is browner all year (3) (4).
- Spinus tristis.
- Length: 11.5 - 14 cm (2)
- Wingspan: 19 - 22 cm (3)
- 10 - 20 g (4)
American goldfinch biology
A primarily seed-eating species, the American goldfinch favours the seeds of alder (Alnus spp.), birch (Betula spp.), cedar (Thuja occidentalis) and elm (Ulmus spp.) (3) (4). Grass seeds are also taken, as well as thistles, burdock and dandelions (2) (3), and very occasionally insects (4). This species is able to access the seeds on the inside of thistle heads due to its small, pointed bill. The American goldfinch often forms flocks of varying size while foraging (4).
A gregarious, migratory species, the American goldfinch is usually found in pairs or family parties, although it forms large flocks when migrating for the winter (2) (3). Populations from northern areas of the American goldfinch’s range perform southern migrations between late October and mid-December to winter in warmer areas, while southern populations are generally sedentary (2) (3). Migration to the breeding grounds usually occurs in late spring, between mid-April and early June (3).
The breeding season of the American goldfinch begins in late April and ends in September, with courtship usually including the male chasing, singing to and feeding the female. The nest site is chosen by both the male and female, and the male will guard the female throughout the nesting period against any other potential mates (3) (4).
The nest is built by the female and usually consists of an outer layer of twigs, stuffed inside with rootlets, flowers, cobwebs and plant fibres, and is usually located within shrubs. The female American goldfinch typically lays a single clutch of between 2 and 7 pale blue eggs, which are incubated for 12 to 14 days. The female incubates the eggs alone, while the male forages and feeds the female. After the eggs have hatched, the female also begins to leave the nest for longer periods, and the chicks fledge between 11 and 17 days after hatching. The young remain dependent on the adults for around three more weeks (3) (4).
Pair bonds in the American goldfinch are usually formed for the whole season, although, if the first brood has been successful, the female will occasionally leave its original mate and produce another brood with a new mate (3).
Known predators of the nests of the American goldfinch are the blue jay (Cyanocitta cristata), American kestrel (Falco sparverius), stoat (Mustela erminea) and common garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis) (4).
American goldfinch range
The American goldfinch is widespread throughout the United States, Canada, Saint Pierre and Miquelon, the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands (6). Each subspecies inhabits a different part of this range during the breeding season, but in winter the subspecies overlap around California and northern Mexico (4).
C. t. tristis breeds in central and eastern USA and southeast Canada; C. t. pallida from western Canada to central USA; C. t. jewetti from southwest Canada to northwest USA; and C. t. salicamans from central California to northern Mexico (2) (4).
American goldfinch habitat
The American goldfinch is mostly found in open woodlands, orchards, thickets, parks and suburban gardens (2) (3) (4) (5). Areas with low shrubs and weeds are preferred, such as those with sunflowers (Helianthus annuus), thistles and asters (Aster spp.) (2) (4) (5).
American goldfinch status
The American goldfinch is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).
American goldfinch threats
There are not known to be any major threats to this widespread and common species (6), and the clearance of forests and spread of agriculture may have benefitted its populations (3) However, some American goldfinches are killed by collisions with vehicles, while diseases such as coccidiosis (Isospora gryphoni) and salmonellosis (Salmonella typhimurium) may also pose a threat in some areas (3).
American goldfinch conservation
There are not known to be any specific conservation measures currently in place for the American goldfinch.
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- Flight feathers
- The feathers at the end of the wing, involved in flight.
- The act of incubating eggs, that is, keeping them warm so that development is possible.
- The space between a bird’s bill and eyes.
- Nominate subspecies
- When a species is divided into subspecies, the originally described population is classified as the nominate subspecies. Indicated by the repetition of the species name; for example, Cyclura nubila nubila is the nominate subspecies of the Cayman Islands ground iguana, Cyclura nubila.
- A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
- Small feathers which cover the bases of other larger feathers, helping to smooth airflow over the wings.
IUCN Red List (March, 2012)
Clement, P., Harris, A. and Davis, J. (1993) Finches and Sparrows: An Identification Guide. Christopher Helm, London.
McGraw, K.J. and Middleton, A.L. (2009) American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis). In: Poole, A. (Ed.) The Birds of North America Online. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca. Available at:
del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A. and Christie, D. (2010) Handbook of the Birds of the World. Volume 15: Weavers to New World Warblers. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds - American goldfinch (March, 2012)
BirdLife International (March, 2012)