ID Challenge: American vs Lesser Goldfinch

Male American Goldfinch in breeding plumage. Photo by Jamie Simo.

When I was a kid, my mom always put up a lot of bird feeders and it was a treat when a certain little yellow bird showed up. We lived in a pretty suburban area so the only little yellow bird we ever saw was the goldfinch. My mom used to call them “wild canaries.” Living in Virginia, our goldfinch was the American Goldfinch, but in Colorado there are 2 types of goldfinch.

American Goldfinches (Spinus tristis) are in Colorado all year long, but in the fall and winter, they molt out of their bright colors and become more drab and brown while the Lesser Goldfinch (Spinus psaltria) is only in Colorado during the breeding season. Since you won’t confuse the two here except in the breeding season, I’ll focus on what they look like then.

The American Goldfinch is widespread across North America, which is probably the reason it received the common name “American.” It tends to be found in riparian areas and suburbs. Breeding males of the American Goldfinch have bright yellow bodies with pinkish or orangeish bills and feet, black caps, and black wings with white bars.

Male Lesser Goldfinch. Photo by Jamie Simo.

Lesser Goldfinch males are fairly easily distinguished from American Goldfinch males. The name “lesser” probably came about because it has less yellow on it than its more widespread relative. While a Lesser Goldfinch’s plumage varies based on location, in Colorado, males tend to have olive green backs and faces, yellow underparts, dusky beaks, and big white wing patches that are highly visible in flight. They are a southwestern bird living in drier, shrubbier habitats typically than American Goldfinches.

Female American Goldfinch in breeding plumage. Photo by Jamie Simo.

During breeding, female American Goldfinches are a little more subdued than the males. Their yellow isn’t quite as bright and they lack the black cap and deep black wings of the male. They also have the pink or orange bill and feet, however.

Female Lesser Goldfinches look somewhat similar to non-breeding female American Goldfinches. They have dusky bills and tend to be a brownish or olive-y yellow. They lack the white wingbars of their American counterpart, but have a white smear on their primaries that’s visible when the bird perches or flies.

Female Lesser Goldfinch. Photo by Jamie Simo.

The 2 species also sound distinctly different. The American Goldfinch has a very sweet, fast song. It also has a distinctive flight call usually rendered as “potato-chip” or “perchickity.” The Lesser Goldfinch is much hoarser with a slower song and a somewhat whiny call.

So, now that you know the difference between the two goldfinches in Colorado, which little yellow goldfinch do you see?

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