Carduelis psaltrialesser goldfinch

Geographic Range

The lesser goldfinch Carduelis psaltria is native to western America in a region spanning from southern Washington state south as far as northern Peru in South America. The green-backed sub-species C. p. hesperophila is only commonly found far west in the United States, spanning as far east as Arizona and as far south as northern Mexico. The black-backed sub-species C. p. psaltria can be found southwest inland of the United States through Nevada, Utah and Colorado, and south through Mexico into South America. Black-backed lesser goldfinches found in North America have been reported to be partially migratory, meaning that some may move to the more southern regions or the lower elevations of their geographic range in the winter. However, more recent studies report that an increase in urbanization and birdfeeders have facilitated an expansion of the species’ winter distribution. Though the black-backed lesser goldfinch is still known to migrate short distances to lower elevations for the winter, the subspecies’ most northern populations are found in Nevada, Utah, and Colorado throughout the winter months. (Beedy and Pandolfino, 2013; Clement, 1993; Lockwood, 2007; Prather, et al., 2002; Versaw, 2001; Willoughby, 2007)


The lesser goldfinch is most commonly found in dry chaparrals close to a water source. Individuals have also been observed in riparian habitats, forest clearings, open woodland, farmlands, residential areas, cites, parks, open fields, roadside bush and weed growth, orchards, and even dry open desert land. Further, a stable population was found in Elko, Nevada kilometers away from a water source with few resources for food and shelter. It is common for this species to inhabit residential and urban areas during the winter due to the available food supply. Generally, the lesser goldfinch populates temperate, tropic or subtropic climates. Although flocks have been observed in mountainous areas, elevation range of the species has not been reported in scientific literature. (Beedy and Pandolfino, 2013; Burton and Kress, 2005; Chambers, et al., 2011; Clement, 1993; Coutlee, 1968; Lockwood, 2007; Sterry and Small, 2009; Willoughby, 2007)

Physical Description

The lesser goldfinch is the smallest finch in its taxonomic family with an average mass between 8 and 11.5 grams. It has a stocky body between 9 and 11 centimeters long with short, rounded wings with an average wingspan of 20 centimeters and a short tail, displaying white markings on the wings and tail. This species is sexually dichromatic during the breeding season. Year round, the female is a dull yellow color with a hint of green on her back, wings, and head. The male goldfinch molts once yearly before the breeding season to develop brighter plumage.

There are two forms of lesser goldfinch: western green-backed and eastern black-backed. The green-backed male has a dark green back and wings, bright yellow chest and abdomen, and a black cap on the top of the head. Generally living in more northern climates, the green-backed male molts its feathers once a year before the breeding season. An adult black-backed male has a black back, head cap and wings with a bright yellow chest and abdomen. A juvenile black-backed lesser goldfinch strongly resembles adult green-backed males. Generally living in more temperate climates, the black-backed male molts twice yearly. (Burton and Kress, 2005; Elphick, et al., 2001; Frinke-Craig, et al., 2015; Lockwood, 2007; Watt and Willoughby, 2014; Willoughby, 2007)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • male more colorful
  • Range mass
    8 to 11.5 g
    0.28 to 0.41 oz
  • Range length
    9 to 11 cm
    3.54 to 4.33 in
  • Average wingspan
    20 cm
    7.87 in


The lesser goldfinch is an iteroparous, monogamous species. Every April, large flocks find a breeding area with an available food source and cover from predators and pairs form as males establish mating territories through the use of bird song and flight displays. During this period, males are aggressive and will enter into physical altercations with other males.

Males use attractive flight maneuvers, spreading his tail and wing feathers, and mating calls to attract females. After mating, the male continues to defend its territory.

It is rare for a specific couple to breed more than once. Oftentimes, the female will choose a different mate the following breeding season. (Beedy and Pandolfino, 2013; Burton and Kress, 2005; Coutlee, 1968; Prather, et al., 2002; Watt and Willoughby, 2014)

The breeding season of the lesser goldfinch varies depending on the geographic location of the individual. Populations that live near the western coast of North America breed from April to July and populations that live more inland breed from June to September. Although they hold small territories during the breeding season, flocks of this species are known to build their nests in the same general area.

Compact, cup-shaped nests with an average diameter of 7.5 centimeters are built from grasses, leaves and strips of bark collected within about 100 meters from the nest primarily by the female. The inside of the nest is commonly lined with soft fibers such as cotton, plant down, or animal hair/wool depending on the available resources of the region. They are built 1.5 - 9 meters above the ground in trees or bushes.

After about 4-8 days of nest building, the female lays 2-6 eggs (average = 4), laying one egg per day. She stays on the nest during the entirety of incubation (12-15 days, average 13.3 days) while the male feeds her regularly. Once hatched, nestlings stay in the nest for 11-15 days (average 13.8). After the young have fledged, the lesser goldfinches feed their offspring for several weeks. Offspring reach sexual maturity by their first breeding season, at 7-12 month of age..

If a nesting attempt fails, the pair may attempt to start a second brood before the end of the breeding season. (Beedy and Pandolfino, 2013; Burton and Kress, 2005; Coutlee, 1968; Prather, et al., 2002; Watt and Willoughby, 2014)

  • Breeding interval
    Once per year
  • Breeding season
    Near the western coast of North and Central America: April-July, Inland populations: June-September
  • Range eggs per season
    2 to 6
  • Range time to hatching
    11 to 15 days
  • Average time to hatching
    13.8 days
  • Range fledging age
    12 to 15 days
  • Average fledging age
    13.3 days
  • Average time to independence
    several weeks
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    7 to 12 months
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    7 to 12 months

After laying her eggs, the female incubates them continuously while the male feeds and protects her. After the altricial young have hatched, the female feeds portions of food acquired and fed to her by her mate to their offspring for 5 days. After this time, she leaves the nest and assists the male in defending the territory from similar species and predators.

After the chicks leave the nest, they stay in the breeding territory while their parents feed them. The fledglings observe the pair's behavior and eventually join them to forage with the flock at the end of the breeding season. (Beedy and Pandolfino, 2013; Burton and Kress, 2005; Coutlee, 1968; Prather, et al., 2002; Watt and Willoughby, 2014)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • male parental care
  • female parental care
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • post-independence association with parents


Available information on the lifespan and longevity of the lesser goldfinch is very sparse. The maximum recorded lifespan in the wild is 5 years and 8 months. However, similar species, such as the American goldfinch Carduelis tristis, have an average lifespan range of about 3 to 5 years. (Watt and Willoughby, 2014)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    5.75 (high) years


The lesser goldfinch is a diurnal, arboreal bird that is commonly found perched on the highest branches of trees and bushes. It is a social species that travels and forages in a group with other goldfinch species all year, excluding the breeding season. Its primary method of locomotion is flight. Like other goldfinch species, lesser goldfinches can be observed flying with a short rise followed by a short fall, zig-zagging and bouncing through the air.

Most populations of the lesser goldfinch are sedentary, but studies have found that some individuals migrate either into a more southern region of their range or to a lower elevation during the winter. (Burton and Kress, 2005; Clement, 1993; Lockwood, 2007; Prather, et al., 2002; Sterry and Small, 2009; Willoughby, 2007)

  • Average territory size
    707 m^2

Home Range

The lesser goldfinch only defends a territory during the breeding season. While mating, a male will hold a territory with an average area of 707 square meters. When not breeding, flocks generally do not travel outside of their home range as they forage. However, home range sizes have not been reported. (Coutlee, 1968; Watt and Willoughby, 2014)

Communication and Perception

The lesser goldfinch responds to the visual and auditory cues of other goldfinches and similar species. The use of auditory and visual communication is especially vital during the breeding season.

When establishing a territory in a breeding region, the male flies with wings and tail, singing a diverse set of notes to announce his possession. After establishing the breeding territory, the male perches in the upper branch of a tree and repeatedly makes a loud mating call. His mating call sounds much like a tee-yer projecting a higher pitch in the second note.

During incubation, the female makes a chirping sound perceived as begging for the male to feed her. When the male hears this, he responds by taking food to the nest. As he approaches, he makes low chirping noises and mating calls to announce his presence to the female. After they have left the nest, fledglings also use this begging communication calling parents to feed them.

Generally, the lesser goldfinch bird song is made up of two paired noises, with a questioning rising pitch. Nestlings first develop short single-toned chirping sounds used to stimulate a feeding response from their parents and learn to imitate the two-toned calls by the time they fledge. The majority of lesser goldfinch calls are imitated from other birds. Many studies support that this species imitates other bird songs by incorporating them into their own song. Due to the large geographic range of the lesser goldfinch, which species are imitated varies depending on to the local bird community composition. (Burton and Kress, 2005; Clement, 1993; Coutlee, 1968; Elphick, et al., 2001; Remsen, et al., 1982; Sterry and Small, 2009)

  • Other Communication Modes
  • mimicry

Food Habits

The lesser goldfinch primarily eats plant matter such as seeds, buds, flowers and fruit/berries. Although not as common, the lesser goldfinch will also eat small insects such as mites and plant lice. Stomach analyses have reported that about 1.7% of their diet is made up of animal species. An increase in the ingestion of insects and fruit is observed during the breeding season when these resources are readily available.

They are very common at birdfeeders in residential and urban areas. At these feeders, this species primarily feeds on seeds of thistles, pigweed Amaranthus palmeri, and sunflowers Helianthus. (Burton and Kress, 2005; Clement, 1993; Versaw, 2001; Watt and Willoughby, 2014)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • Plant Foods
  • seeds, grains, and nuts
  • fruit


Known predators include Cooper's hawks Accipiter cooperii, western scrub jays Aphelocoma californica, brown-headed cowbirds Molothrus ater western grey squirrels Sciurus griseus, and Brewer's blackbirds Euphagus cyanocephalus. These predators are known to destroy nests, crack eggs, and kill nestlings. When scrub jays, cowbirds or squirrels enter the territory, the parents will chase them away. Nests are built in trees in order to deter terrestrial predators.

Adults can become prey to western diamondback rattlesnakes Crotalus atrox, sharp-shinned hawks Accipiter stiatus, American kestrels Falco sparverius, and northern pygmy-owls Glaucidium gnoma. When a predator approaches a flock of lesser goldfinches, the goldfinches use a defense known as mobbing by surrounding the predator and giving warning calls, sounding like dee-ree, bay-bee, or bee-ee, repeatedly until the predator leaves. (Coutlee, 1968; Prather, et al., 2002; Watt and Willoughby, 2014)

Ecosystem Roles

The major contribution the lesser goldfinch participates in is the dispersion of seeds. Brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) will occasionally parasitize broods of lesser goldfinches. Known external body parasites include blowfly maggots (Protocalliphora azurea), biting fly maggots (Ornithoica vicina), and quill mites (Aulobia cardueli). (Brown, 1994; Watt and Willoughby, 2014)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • disperses seeds
Commensal/Parasitic Species

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

The lesser goldfinch is a common backyard bird that birdwatchers and birdfeeder owners enjoy regularly. Their energetic, bouncy flocks make an entertaining show for humans. Urban populations of the species are commonly seen eating discarded food from the streets and sidewalks, potentially making human habitations cleaner. In Central America, the lesser goldfinch is one of the most popular pet bird species, and many humans profit from the capture and sale of the species. (Burton and Kress, 2005; Versaw, 2001; Watt and Willoughby, 2014)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

Any negative effects to humans of the lesser goldfinch are unknown. (Watt and Willoughby, 2014)

Conservation Status

Although populations in Central America have been adversely affected due to human capture for pets, the lesser goldfinch is registered as a 'least concern' species with the IUCN. The species is covered by the US Migratory Bird Act, meaning there is no "take" of this species in the nation. Take is a broad term and can include killing, capturing, harassing, or selling individuals.

Studies have found that urbanization has increased the size of many goldfinch populations. This could be because the species is known to feed from bird feeders and eat food humans have left behind.

This species is not listed on any other international, national, or state lists. (Beedy and Pandolfino, 2013; Versaw, 2001; Watt and Willoughby, 2014)


Erin Dudley (author), Radford University, Karen Powers (editor), Radford University, April Tingle (editor), Radford University, Emily Clark (editor), Radford University, Cari Mcgregor (editor), Radford University, Jacob Vaught (editor), Radford University, Tanya Dewey (editor), University of Michigan-Ann Arbor.



living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map


living in the southern part of the New World. In other words, Central and South America.

World Map


uses sound to communicate


living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.


young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.


Referring to an animal that lives in trees; tree-climbing.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.


an animal that mainly eats meat


Found in coastal areas between 30 and 40 degrees latitude, in areas with a Mediterranean climate. Vegetation is dominated by stands of dense, spiny shrubs with tough (hard or waxy) evergreen leaves. May be maintained by periodic fire. In South America it includes the scrub ecotone between forest and paramo.


uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

desert or dunes

in deserts low (less than 30 cm per year) and unpredictable rainfall results in landscapes dominated by plants and animals adapted to aridity. Vegetation is typically sparse, though spectacular blooms may occur following rain. Deserts can be cold or warm and daily temperates typically fluctuate. In dune areas vegetation is also sparse and conditions are dry. This is because sand does not hold water well so little is available to plants. In dunes near seas and oceans this is compounded by the influence of salt in the air and soil. Salt limits the ability of plants to take up water through their roots.

  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females


union of egg and spermatozoan


forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.


an animal that mainly eats fruit


an animal that mainly eats seeds


An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.


An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.


offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

male parental care

parental care is carried out by males


marshes are wetland areas often dominated by grasses and reeds.


imitates a communication signal or appearance of another kind of organism


Having one mate at a time.


having the capacity to move from one place to another.


This terrestrial biome includes summits of high mountains, either without vegetation or covered by low, tundra-like vegetation.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.


an animal that mainly eats all kinds of things, including plants and animals


reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

pet trade

the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.


"many forms." A species is polymorphic if its individuals can be divided into two or more easily recognized groups, based on structure, color, or other similar characteristics. The term only applies when the distinct groups can be found in the same area; graded or clinal variation throughout the range of a species (e.g. a north-to-south decrease in size) is not polymorphism. Polymorphic characteristics may be inherited because the differences have a genetic basis, or they may be the result of environmental influences. We do not consider sexual differences (i.e. sexual dimorphism), seasonal changes (e.g. change in fur color), or age-related changes to be polymorphic. Polymorphism in a local population can be an adaptation to prevent density-dependent predation, where predators preferentially prey on the most common morph.


Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season


remains in the same area


reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female


associates with others of its species; forms social groups.


living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.


uses touch to communicate


that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).


Living on the ground.


defends an area within the home range, occupied by a single animals or group of animals of the same species and held through overt defense, display, or advertisement


the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.


A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.


living in cities and large towns, landscapes dominated by human structures and activity.


uses sight to communicate


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Versaw, A. 2001. Winter range expansion and identification of the lesser goldfinch (Carduelis psaltria). Great Basin Birds, 4/1: 6-11.

Watt, D., E. Willoughby. 2014. "The Birds of North America Online" (On-line). Accessed January 30, 2015 at

Willoughby, E. 2007. Geographic variation in color, measurements, and molt of the lesser goldfinch in North America does not support subspecific designation. The Condor, 109/2: 419-436.