Lesser Goldfinch

Lesser Goldfinch (Male), Carol's Garden, Palm Canyon Resort, Borrego Springs, California

Scientific Facts

Common NameLesser Goldfinch
Scientific NameSpinus psaltria
LifespanMore than 5 Years
Size3.5 – 4.3 inches
Mass0.28 – 0.41oz.
HabitatOpen woodlands
RangeThe Southwestern United States to Peru and Venezuela

Information & Physical Appearance

Male Lesser GoldfinchImage Source

The Lesser Goldfinch (Spinus Psaltria) belongs to the order Passeriformes, the family Fringillidae, the subfamily Carduelinae.

Other bird species in the family Fringillidae include the pine grosbeak, the evening grosbeak, the black rosy-finch, the gray-crowned rosy-finch, the brown-capped rosy-finch, the purple finch, the house finch, the Cassin’s finch, the hoary redpoll, the common redpoll, the Cassia crossbill, the red crossbill, the pine siskin, the white-winged crossbill, the American goldfinch, and the Lawrence’s goldfinch.

The lesser goldfinch is a petite bird species. Both sexes will reach between 3.5. – 4.3 inches in length, while weighing up to 0.4oz. In fact, the lesser goldfinch is the smallest of all North American finches in the genus Spinus.

Spinus Psaltria is just about the size of an American goldfinch (Spinus tristis), and smaller than a Song sparrow (Melospiza melodia).

This tiny-sized songbird is characterized by a stub bill. The tail is short and forked, and the wings are long and pointed.

The wingspan ranges from 5.9 to up to 7.9 inches.Male Lesser goldfinches possess bright yellow coloring below. They are “equipped” with a glossy black cap. The wings are marked with patches of white.

The bill is short and conically-shaped. The black tail is quite large when compared with the overall body size, and it has white corners.

Depending on the region inhabited by lesser goldfinches, these birds are known to display a dull green (particularly west of the Rockies) or solid, glossy black coloration on their backs.

Female Lesser goldfinches lack the black crown that is typical for males. Sometimes, the crown may be marked with faint dusky streaks.
Females are drabber, with olive backs. The underparts are dull yellow.

On the very edge of their black wings, it is easy to notice a white triangle. Also, the wings are marked by two whitish wing bars.

Female Lesser GoldfinchImage Source

Both male and female immature lesser goldfinches look exactly like adult female lesser finches.

Two forms of the lesser goldfinch are recognized up-to-date, namely the eastern black-backed goldfinch and the western green-backed lesser goldfinch.

1. Green-backed Lesser Goldfinch

The green-backed adult male is characterized by dark green coloration on the back, as well as on the wings. The chest and the abdomen are bright yellows.

On top of the head, there is a black cap.

The green-backed lesser finch males are known to molt their feathers once a year, just before the start of the breeding season, considering that they generally live in more northern climates.

2. Black-backed Lesser Goldfinch

The black-backed adult male is characterized by a black back, just like the name suggests. The wings, as well as the abdomen, are bright yellow, as seen in the green-backed lesser goldfinch.

Interestingly, juvenile black-backed lesser goldfinches strongly resemble the appearance of adult green-backed males.

Taking into account that the black-backed lesser goldfinches generally live in more temperate climates than their green-backed counterparts, males molt twice a year, instead of once.


Image Source

The available information regarding the longevity and lifespan of the lesser goldfinch is still rather sparse up-to-date.

However, as compared with similar species, such as Cadruelis tristis (the American goldfinch), the average lifespan is known to range between 3 – 5 years.

Meanwhile, the oldest recorded wild Lesser Goldfinch was a male. The individual was recaptured and then re-released into the wild back in 2015 during banding operations that took place in California. The specimen was at least 7 years old.

Ecosystem & Habitat

The Lesser Goldfinch occurs in different kinds of patchy open habitats.This bird species is known to frequent weedy fields, scrublands, thickets, forest clearings, woodlands, as well as farmlands throughout its range from South America to the western U.S.

Also, the lesser goldfinch may be even found in desert oases. In addition to that, it is possible to come across lesser goldfinches in gardens and parks located in both urban and suburban settings alike.When it comes to the western U.S. portion of this species’ range, some of the most common habitats include willow, oak, cedar, pinyon-juniper, cottonwood, and nonetheless, pine woodlands and chaparral.

It is in dry chaparrals situated nearby a water source where the lesser goldfinch is most commonly found.

A stable population of lesser goldfinches was found some kilometers away from a suitable water source with few resources for shelter and food in Nevada, in particular, in Elko.

The lesser goldfinch is a common inhabitant of urban and residential areas during the cold winter season because of the easily available supply of food.

In general, lesser goldfinches are known to populate tropic or subtropic, temperate climates.

There are no reports regarding the elevation range of this bird species in the scientific literature; however, flocks have been reported in mountainous areas.

Food & Diet

The Lesser Goldfinch thrives on a diet that is predominantly high in plant-based food. It feeds mostly on seeds, in particular, seeds from the family Compositae or Asteraceae (the sunflower family).

Only occasionally, the lesser goldfinch is to supplement its diet with insects, e.g., plant lice.

In addition to eating seeds from the sunflower family as a primary food source in its diet, the lesser goldfinch will also gladly consume madrone fruits, elderberry fruits, and coffeeberry fruits.

Buds of alders, willows, cottonwoods, oaks, and sycamores are taken, too.

Lesser goldfinches feed in small groups. These groups move together through low weeds and other vegetation in order to get the desired bids, flowers, fruits, and seeds.

The primary food source is none other, but Napa thistle.

It is by using its bill to pry open the outer covering, and then shaking its head for the purpose of loosening the husk, until the seed can be successfully swallowed, how the lesser goldfinch consumes seeds.

Similarly to the way American goldfinches feed, lesser goldfinches will also cling to the seed heads of tall-sized plants, thus, managing to bend the stem down. Once the stem is bent down, the bird will hang upside down, picking the seeds.


The Lesser Goldfinch has a solid reputation is a tiny-sized yet quick bird. It will constantly hover about while jerking its tail during the course of feeding.

This bird species has the same bouncy, dipping flight, which is typical for the American goldfinch.

Similarly to other goldfinches, the lesser goldfinch is gregarious. It forms large flocks at watering holes, as well as at feeding sites.

It is by calling and singing from treetops of tall trees how the male lesser goldfinch establishes his territory during the breeding season. To attract a female into his already established breeding territory, the male is to give courtship calls.

As soon as a female mate is to arrive at the male’s breeding territory, he is to chase her in flight. Both of them are to dart through the foliage, developing impressively high speeds.

Eventually, at some point, the pair-to-be is to perch on the same branch. It is on the branch where they are to make courting displays by stretching necks toward each other in order to touch bills while calling softly.

It is after a few days when the male is to start feeding the female mate by transferring food, which he has managed to carefully gather, into the female’s bill.

Also, the male is to keep feeding the female while she is incubating the eggs by sitting on the nest.


Spinus Psaltria is a monogamous, iteroparous species.

Large flocks of lesser goldfinches will find a suitable breeding area where cover form predators, as well as food sources, are available, every April. It is then when males will establish their mating territories by singing, calling, and nonetheless, thanks to flight displays.

Note that males are known to become aggressive during this particular period. They will not hesitate to enter into physical altercations with other male competitors.

Using attractive, high-speed flight maneuvers, and majestically spreading his wing feathers and tail, accompanied by mating calls, males manage to attract females to mate with.

The defending of the breeding territory continues after mating, with the male being the one in charge of guarding the grounds.

Despite being monogamous during the breeding season, it is extremely rare for a couple to breed more than just once. Instead, it is typically the case that the female will choose another mate the next breeding season.

Depending on the geographic range of the individual, the breeding season of this bird species varies. The populations of lesser goldfinches that love more inland are known to breed from June throughout September. Meanwhile, populations inhabiting the areas located near the western coast of North America are known to breed from April throughout July.

Regardless of holding small breeding territories during the season, flocks of lesser goldfinches will construct their nests in pretty much the same general area.

The female is to build a compact, neat nest shaped like a cup after selecting a suitable nesting site. A spot in a fork of branches is strongly preferred. Also, spots that are well-concealed by clusters of leaves, and/or shaded by grapevines or lichens, are highly favored.

The nest measure about 7.5 centimeters in diameter (respectively, 3 inches wide and an inch deep).

Nesting materials include leaves, grasses, catkins, spiderwebs, cocoons, and strips of bark, which are to be collected in the female’s bill. These are collected within approximately 100 meters from the nest’s location and are primarily gathered by the female.

Most commonly, the nest is further lined with soft fibers on the inside, such as plant down, animal wool or hair (such as rabbit fur), and/or cotton, depending on what resources are available in the breeding region.

Nests are positioned at 1.5 and up to 9 meters above the ground, in selected bushes or trees. Typically, nests are built at 4-8 feet off the ground, most commonly on slender twigs that extend several feet out from a stable, main branch.

Despite nesting in a variety of bushes and trees, these birds are known to frequently build their nests in willows and cottonwoods located along rivers.

It takes about 4-8 days for the nest to be created. Even though the female is the one to build the nest, the male is to remain close by, watching her.

Next, the female is to lay between 2-6 eggs. Usually, 4 eggs are laid on an average.

Note that the female lays only one single egg per day. The eggs measure 0.6 inches in length and 0.4 – 0.5 inches in width. They lack markings and are pale blue-white in color.

Once all of the eggs are laid, the female is to stay on the nest for the entire incubation period. Incubation takes 13.3 days on an average, varying between 12-15 days in general.

While the female is incubating the eggs, the male is to regularly feed her. Apart from feeding the female, the male is to also protect her, and their offspring alike.
After hatching, the altricial nestlings will remain in the nest for at least 11 and up to 15 days.They are born naked, blind, and ultimately helpless, relying heavily on their parents’ care in order to survive and develop properly.

The male will keep feeding the female by bringing her food, and the female is to keep feeding portions of the acquired food to her offspring for 5 days.

After this time, the female is about to leave the nest and join the male in order to assist with the defending of the territory from predators and similar species.

Once the young chicks have fledged, the parents will continue feeding their offspring for several weeks. After the chicks have already left the nest, they will remain in the breeding territory where their parents are to keep feeding them.

By the end of the breeding season, the fledglings will join their parents foraging with the rest of the flock, after they have been observing, and successfully learning from the pair’s behavior for a while.

Lesser goldfinches reach sexual maturity once they turn 7 – 12 months of age, by their first breeding season.

Lesser goldfinches produce a single brood per year.

Sometimes, a nesting attempt may fail. In such cases, the mating pair may try to start a second brood, if possible, which must happen before the breeding season has been brought to an end.

Health Risks, Survival Threats & Conservation

Common Health Issues

Like other finch species, the lesser goldfinch can fall victim to various diseases, such as external or internal parasites, avian borne virus, conjunctivitis infection, as well as Salmonella bacteria, being the most common ones to occur.

The spread of these diseases often starts at bird feeding stations. In order to prevent the possible spread of disease, high hygiene at bird feeders must be kept at all times by the bird care and watch enthusiasts.

Survival Threats

The lesser goldfinch has several well-known predators, including Aphelocoma californica(the western scrub-jay), Sciurus griseus (the western grey squirrel), Molothrus ater (the brown-headed cowbird), Accipiter cooperii (the Cooper’s hawk), and Euphagus cyanocephalus (the Brewer’s blackbird).

All of these predators destroy the lesser goldfinches’ nests. Also, they crack the eggs and kill the nestlings. However, whenever squirrels, cowbirds, and/or scrub jays are to enter the breeding territory, parents will typically manage to chase them away.

The very building of the nests in trees aims to deter terrestrial predators.

Adult lesser finches can become delicious prey to Falco sparverius (the American kestrel), Glaucidium gnoma (the northern pygmy-owl), and Crotalus atrox (the western diamondback rattlesnake).

If a predator is to approach a flock of lesser goldfinches, the birds are known to use a particular defense called “mobbing.”

Lesser goldfinches are to the mob by surrounding the predators first and then giving warning calls repeatedly until the predator chooses to leave. The warning calls sound like “bee-ee,” “bay-bee,” or “dee-ree.”


According to the data shared by the North American Breeding Bird Survey, the lesser goldfinch populations have increased by about 1% yearly within the period 1966 – 2015, and appear to be stable.

Meanwhile, Partners in Flight estimates the global breeding population of lesser goldfinches at 7 million. 57% of the birds are known to spend some part of the year in Mexico, and 53% are known to spend some part of the year in the United States.
The lesser goldfinch is not listed on the 2016 State of North America’s Birds’ Watch List.

However, Spinus Psaltria is part of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, even though listed only under the Least Concern category as of now, yet with a decreasing population trend.

According to the IUCN Red List database, there are conservation sited identified over the entire range of this bird species, and the species occurs in at least one protected area, while simultaneously being subjected to a systematic monitoring scheme. Interestingly, it appears that human activities related to human expansion, such as suburban development and clearing already created weedy fields, may have likely benefited this species rather than harming it.

Thanks to the planting of shrubs and trees, as well as irrigation, the lesser goldfinches have been allowed to expand their natural range further near LA, California.

Unfortunately, lesser goldfinches have also lost the riparian habitat they require in order to survive in some arid regions throughout their range.

Additionally, a significant number of lesser goldfinches have been captured for bird trade, as there is a particularly high interest in purchasing these species on the pet market in Central America.Despite the fact that Central American populations have been negatively affected because of being captured for pets by humans, this bird species remains registered as a Least Concern on the IUCN Red List.

On the bright side, the lesser goldfinch is covered by the US Migratory Bird Act. This means that there is no “take” of the lesser goldfinch in the nation, with the rather broad term “take,” denoting the possible killing, harassing, the capturing, as well as selling individuals as part of the pet trade.

Based on studies, the increase noticed in many goldfinch populations is due to urbanization, and more specifically, it is believed to occur because of this bird species gladly feeding on bird feeders, and nonetheless, eating food that has been left behind by humans.

Availability – Where to Get a Lesser Goldfinch

The birdwatch enthusiasts who wish to get a close glimpse of the lesser goldfinch should look for this petite species among large flocks of birds feeding at feeding stations.

Also, it is possible to admire the beauty and curious behavior of the lesser goldfinch in the wild by looking for these feathery fellows near the very tops of taller trees located in habitats characterized by plenty of scrubs.

The best way to distinguish the lesser goldfinch among mixed groups of goldfinches is to stay on the watch for its noticeable all-black cap.

In addition to that, it is good to keep an eye out for the vivid, bright yellow coloration that becomes especially easy visible as these tiny-sized creatures are to cling to the top of thistle plants in weedy fields.Interesting Facts

1. Similarly to other goldfinches, the Lesser Goldfinch is known for its undulating flight. During this flight, the bird is to frequently give a call that is described as a harsh “chig chig chig” sound.
Additionally, these birds have yet another distinctive call. It is described as a drawn-out whistle-like, rather high-pitched “teeeyeee” sound that is often to rise from this level pitch just to fall to another level pitch, which is described as a “teeeyooo” sound.
2. The Lesser Goldfinch’ song is a prolonged twitter or warble. It is more phrased, as compared with the song of the American Goldfinch. Also, the song of Spinus Psaltria often incorporates imitations of other species.
3. It is in Texas and California where lesser goldfinches are most common. Throughout the rest of this bird’s U.S. range, there are pockets of local populations.
4. Although Lesser Goldfinches mostly feed on weed seeds and tree buds, they also feed on soil-like or earthy substances, e.g., chalk and clay, for the purpose of obtaining essential nutrients like phosphorus and sulfur, which are available in the soil.
5. Even though much smaller in size than the Lawrence’s Goldfinch, the Lesser Goldfinch actually dominates over its close relative where the ranges of these two species of birds overlap in the state of California. It is the Lesser Goldfinch to eat first at bird feeding stations, while also successfully chasing away Lawrence’s Goldfinches from nesting sites.
6. The adult male Lesser Goldfinches found along the West coast have greenbacks. The adult male Lesser Goldfinches inhabiting the eastern portions of their U.S. range is known for having black backs.Elsewhere throughout the range, the amount of black coloration varies, for instance, many lesser goldfinches have partly greenbacks. As a comparison, all of the adult males found south of central Mexico is characterized by black backs.
7. It is a common view to come across mixed flocks of Lesser Goldfinches and other birds at feeding sites, including American Goldfinches, House Finches, Lawrence’s Goldfinches, White-crowned Sparrows, Pine Siskins, and also Western Bluebirds.
8. Apart from being the smallest North American finch in the genus Spinus, the Lesser Goldfinch is one of the smallest of all true finches on the planet! However, according to the data shared by various sources, some subtropical Spinus species are only slightly smaller than the Lesser Goldfinch, such as, for instance, the Andean Siskin.

How to Care for the Lesser Goldfinch

Those who want to take good care of the Lesser Goldfinches can make the best use of bird feeders to attract these colorful visitors, and supply them with the much-needed source of food.

Lesser Goldfinches are known to readily come to bird feeders, typically along with other finches, like Pine Siskins and American Goldfinches, among others.

Lesser Goldfinches will gladly feed on a variety of seeds from the sunflower family. Their favorite food delicacy includes the thin-hulled nyjer thistle seeds.

Unlike other North American bird species, such as the blue grosbeak, which tend to be uncommon backyard birds, the lesser goldfinches are fairly common. They can be enjoyed by both birdwatchers and birdfeeder owners alike on a regular basis.

By filling a suitable bird feeder with fresh seeds, one can be wonderfully entertained by these birds’ bouncy, energetic flocks.Apart from visiting backyards where bird feeders are available to feed at, urban populations of the lesser goldfinch can be commonly seen consuming food that has been discarded from sidewalks and from the streets alike. This potentially makes up for cleaner human habitations.Even if one is tempted to buy a lesser goldfinch from Central America, where this bird species is one of the most popular in bird trade and is widely captured for human profit from the associated sales, remember that the lesser goldfinch is protected under the US Migratory Bird Act.

The most suitable types of bird feeders for attracting Lesser Goldfinches include large and small tube feeders, platform-style feeders, as well as large and small hopper-type feeders.

Apart from nyjer seeds, hulled sunflower seeds and black oil sunflower seeds will be also gladly taken.

Always make sure to clean bird feeders thoroughly, carefully, and regularly, as to prevent the possible spread of diseases among birds. Also, do not forget to only supply high-quality, fresh seeds at all times, as moldy seeds can cause serious health issues in birds.

FAQ Section

What Does a Lesser Goldfinch Sound like?

The breeding male Lesser Goldfinch’song is described as a jumble consisting of clear notes in combination with mixed trills, wheezes, and stutters. The song lasts for up to 10 seconds, and it is often the case that males will incorporate snippets of the songs of various other species, such as the American Kestrel, the Scrub Jay, the Ash-throated Flycatcher, the Curve-billed Thrasher, as well as the Verdin, among many others.

Where Do Lesser Goldfinches Nest?

Most commonly,Lesser Goldfinches are known to nest in willows and cottonwoods situated along rivers, although these birds do nest in a wide variety of bushes and trees. It is the female Lesser Goldfinch’s responsibility to select a suitable nest site and to then build a nest in a well-concealed spot located in a fork of branches.

Do Lesser Goldfinches Migrate?

Lesser Goldfinches are permanent residents throughout a big portion of their natural range. However, Lesser Goldfinches inhabiting the coldest parts of their breeding range may actually migrate southward, moving from higher to lower elevations, yet traveling only short distances, with the winter range of the Lesser Goldfinches that choose to migrate remaining very poorly understood up-to-date.

What Does a Lesser Goldfinch Eat?

The Lesser Goldfinch thrives on seeds from the sunflower family, buds, and wild fruits, as well as a small number of insects. Lesser Goldfinches will gladly come to eat at bird feeders, especially when thin-hulled nyjer seeds are available.

Is the Lesser Goldfinch Endangered?

The Lesser Goldfinch is not considered severely endangered with extinction. However, the population trend is decreasing, and Spinus Psaltria is listed as Least Concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

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