Spinus psaltrialesser goldfinch

Geographic Range

Lesser goldfinches (Spinus psaltria) live in both the Nearctic Region and the Neotropical Region. They permanently occupy most areas in Mexico, as well as parts of the southwestern United States, and parts of Latin America. Specifically, Lesser goldfinches are permanent residents in the states of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. In Latin America, they permanently occupy Honduras and Guatemala, as well as some areas of northern South America. During breeding season, lesser goldfinches can be found living in additional areas of the United States, such as certain parts of Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. (Hammerson, 1994; Willoughby, 2007)

Habitat

Lesser goldfinches occupy a large variety of habitats. They can live in temperate, tropical, and terrestrial habitats. In addition, they can occupy areas of deserts, mountains, and forests. Lesser goldfinches live in a wide variety of elevations, ranging from about 30 to 2,100 m. They are most commonly found in places where there is open land and scattered trees. They are often found in agricultural lands as well. Lesser goldfinches can also be found in woodland areas, open parks, farmlands, weedy fields, and residential areas. Lesser goldfinches are social and tend to share their habitat with other similar species, such as American goldfinches (Spinus tristis). (Tweit, 2004; Willoughby, 2007)

  • Range elevation
    30 to 2100 m
    98.43 to 6889.76 ft

Physical Description

Lesser goldfinches are small, stocky birds with short, round beaks and rounded, notched wings. They are mostly black in color, with yellow undersides. Lesser goldfinch masses range from 6.0 to 11.5 g, with an average of about 9.7 g. Heights range from about 9 to 11 cm. Lesser goldfinch wingspans range from 61.2 to 65.1 mm. Due to their wide geographic range, there is some variety in their morphology depending on their environment. In western North America, adult males have a greenish color on their backs, and molt once a year. Males also have smaller beaks on average. In the eastern and southern parts of their range, they have the more traditional black backs, but molt twice a year. In both of these geographic ranges, females tend to be slightly smaller than males but do not differ much in color. (Clement, 2020; Smith, et al., 2017; Willoughby, 2007)

Although it is disputed, some recognize enough phenotypic differences in lesser goldfinches to define subspecies. Spinus psaltria psaltria refers to the green-backed finches found in western areas of the United States, while S. p. mexicanus refers to the black-backed birds found mainly in Mexico. Lastly, S. p. arizonae refers to the subspecies of lesser goldfinches with a slightly larger wingspan and with backs that are intermixed with black and green colors. (Rockey, 2016; Willoughby, 2007)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes alike
  • male larger
  • Range mass
    6 to 11.5 g
    0.21 to 0.41 oz
  • Average mass
    9.7 g
    0.34 oz
  • Range length
    9 to 11 cm
    3.54 to 4.33 in
  • Range wingspan
    61.2 to 65.1 mm
    2.41 to 2.56 in

Reproduction

Lesser goldfinches flock together and travel to breeding grounds. Breeding season occurs from April to September. Usually, pairs form within 10 to 14 days after arriving in their breeding area. When competing for females, males often show aggression towards other males and fighting involving body contact is common. Males fly up with their beaks and feet pointed at each other, hit each other with their wings, and peck each other on the head when fighting. Another way males attract females is by perching themselves at the top of a tree and singing short songs and courtship calls. Once a female is near a perched male, he will continue with his courtship songs and often follow the female in flight. Females usually lead these courtship flights, but occasionally males will place themselves ahead of females. While flying together, males continue their courtship calls, and females are usually silent. Courtship flights then develop into high-speed chases, in which males chase females, usually staying about two meters behind while pairs maneuver in and out of foliage. When these chases finish, pairs perch together to mate. (Coutlee, 1968a)

  • Breeding interval
    1 or 2 broods per season
  • Breeding season
    April through September
  • Range eggs per season
    3 to 6
  • Range time to hatching
    12 to 13 days
  • Range fledging age
    12 to 15 days
  • Average time to independence
    7 days

Pairs of lesser goldfinches choose nesting sites before they lay their eggs. This involves the female in a pair hopping from tree to tree and inspecting each branch until she finds the best place to nest. Her mate follows close behind while continuing to sing courtship songs. Once the female has found a spot to nest, she collects leaves, tall grasses, bark, cocoons, and webs to build her nest. Both the male and female will protect this nesting site by chasing off any other birds that come near.

Once their nests are built, females lay 3 to 5 eggs. Typically, one egg is laid each day. Incubation begins immediately after the first egg is laid. Females almost never leave their nests for a 12 to 13 day period, before eggs hatch. Males invest care in their young by finding food for their mates. Males feed females regurgitated food every hour. Once eggs have hatched, this pattern continues, with males searching for food to feed females, who then give their nestlings a portion of that food.

About five days after eggs have hatched, females leave their nests more often, and begin searching for food with their mates. Parents return to the nest and feed their young together. Young remain in their nests for about 12 to 15 days before fledging. The first few days after fledging, young stay very close to their nests. When they are hungry they hop and flutter their wings while calling to their parents. After about one week, young will go with their parents to forage for food. These families of birds do not return to the same nesting sites, but they do stay together until their flocks migrate again. (Coutlee, 1968a)

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

Lifespan/Longevity

In 1960, the longest known lifespan for an individual lesser goldfinch in the wild was recorded to be just over 5 years old. However, in 2015 a bird that had been labelled an adult in 2009 was recaptured, making it at least 7 years old. Lesser goldfinches are expected to live for about 5 years, but many do not make it past the first year, due to certain survival challenges young birds face. These challenges include learning to fly and learning how to forage for food for themselves. Lesser goldfinches are not commonly kept in captivity, so not much information is available regarding lifespan in captivity. (Saha, 2015)

  • Range lifespan
    Status: wild
    7 (high) years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    1 to 5 years

Behavior

Lesser goldfinches are highly social. They are often seen in flocks of about 4 to 6 members. These flocks fly together and forage for food together. Lesser goldfinches are also often seen interacting with other species of birds - particularly other species of goldfinch such as Lawrence's goldfinches (Spinus lawrencei). Since these species live in dry areas, water can be limited so they have to share water for drinking and bathing. When migrating for breeding season, lesser goldfinches form flocks of 20 to 30 birds. These flocks may contain only lesser goldfinches, but there may also be multiple species of goldfinch. An interesting aspect about these flocks is that lesser goldfinches seem to be dominant, and will show aggression to other species by chasing them out of trees or away from food. Although lesser goldfinches are highly social, they are known to be somewhat aggressive when it comes to protecting their nests. Males usually fight off any predators or intruders trying to steal their nesting sites, while females perch and watch. Occasionally, females will join in aggressive behavior, and usually focus their aggression on female intruders, if possible. (Coutlee, 1968b)

Home Range

Lesser goldfinches do not have specific territories beyond the tree or bush in which they decide to raise their young. Both males and females fight to defend their nesting area, although males contribute more to defensive behaviors. (Coutlee, 1968a)

Communication and Perception

Lesser goldfinches use a series of chirps and tweets to communicate with others. Each vocalization corresponds to a different signal. They have a contact call that is given while foraging with their flocks and also when flying together. There is a threat cry that they give when they become aggressive towards other goldfinches, or during chasing flights. This cry is slightly different from their alarm/warning cry, which is used when potential predators are approaching their nests. Lesser goldfinch alarm calls are characterized by three different call sections, each of increasing intensity. The first sounds like "dee-ree", the second "bay-bee", and the third "bee-ee."

In addition to these alarm calls, lesser goldfinches have courtship calls that help them choose mates. Males will call out to females with a sound described as "tee-yer." Females return this call with a pre-copulatory call, and pairs continue to call to each other until they mate. In addition, females have feeding calls and will call out to their mates while incubating eggs as a demand for food. Nestlings also have begging calls to tell the parents when they are hungry. Lastly, males are often seen singing on perches, not just during breeding season, but year-round. Their songs have multiple meanings, depending on the situation. If a female is approaching, males use songs to attract them. They also sing while flying in circles over their nests, as a way to show other birds that that the area is occupied and others should not come near. The songs of lesser goldfinches are surprisingly complex. One song that was analyzed consisted of 54 notes in 16.2 seconds. (Coutlee, 1968a; Watt and Willoughby, 2014)

Food Habits

Lesser goldfinches have tapered beaks - more tapered than other species of goldfinch. These tapered beaks make it much easier for them to get at seeds trapped in chaff or alder cones. However, their diet is not restricted to these seeds. They can use their beaks to manipulate a wider variety of seeds. Lesser goldfinches also differ from other goldfinch species in how they forage. Lesser goldfinches tend to fly around while searching for food, not staying in one place for too long. Other goldfinch species are usually seen spending a lot of time in one single place when feeding. This behavior allows lesser goldfinches to feed in areas not normally visited by other birds, allowing them to avoid some competition for food. In addition, lesser goldfinches often eat foods that contain carotenoids, or chemical substances created by plants that reflect yellow, orange, and red light. The more carotenoids they eat and absorb into their blood, the brighter and more vibrant their plumage color. Plumage color is a key factor in attracting a mate, so plant sources that contain carotenoids are a staple in the diets of lesser goldfinches. These plant sources include nuts, seeds, buds, fruits, and flowers. Lesser goldfinches will also eat insects such as plant lice. (Coutlee, 1968b; Frincke-Craig, et al., 2015; Kaufman, 2019; Watt and Willoughby, 2014)

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

Predation

Predators of lesser goldfinches include other species of birds, such as sharp-shinned hawks (Accipiter striatus), northern pygmy-owls (Glaucidium gnoma), and American kestrels (Falco sparverius). Scrub jays (Aphelocoma coerulescens) have been seen destroying lesser goldfinch nests, and brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) and gray squirrels (Sciurus griseus) have also been seen invading nests. Lesser goldfinches often fight back by chasing predators off while using alarm calls. Lesser goldfinches may also try to distract predators. Females have been seen distracting predators by fluttering to the ground and slanting their bodies while spreading their tail feathers. Other nest predators include Brewer's blackbirds (Euphagus cyanocephalus), loggerhead shrikes (Lanius ludovicianus), and Argentine ants (Linepithema humile), which invade lesser goldfinch nests and have been observed to cause them to desert their eggs. (Watt and Willoughby, 2014)

Ecosystem Roles

Lesser goldfinch impact the ecosystems they inhabit by spreading nuts and seeds. Throughout forests and other agricultural ecosystems, they help disperse seeds to new areas, which allows for plants to proliferate throughout the area. These plants then provide food and habitats for other organisms. Lesser goldfinches are also a host for some parasites such as fly maggots (Protocalliphora azurea) and a genus of biting flies, Ornithoica vicina. A species of quill mites (Aulobia cardueli) is often found in the quill feathers of lesser goldfinches. Brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) are also nest parasites of lesser goldfinches. (Watt and Willoughby, 2014)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • disperses seeds
Commensal/Parasitic Species

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

Since lesser goldfinches are a common bird in the backyards of people throughout the western United States and Mexico, they have contributed positively to bird watching. They are often seen at bird feeders set up by humans. They are also somewhat commonly kept as pets, and have contributed to the pet trade. (Watt and Willoughby, 2014)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known negative economic impacts of lesser goldfinches. (Watt and Willoughby, 2014)

Conservation Status

There is not much concern over the conservation of the lesser goldfinches. Although they are protected by the US Migratory Bird Act, they are of "least concern" on the IUCN Red List. Pet trade has slightly impacted the lesser goldfinch population, but not drastically enough for them to be considered a threatened or endangered species. (Watt and Willoughby, 2014)

Contributors

Emma Szalach (author), Colorado State University, Brooke Berger (editor), Colorado State University, Galen Burrell (editor).

Glossary

Nearctic

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

Neotropical

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

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

agricultural

living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

altricial

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.

aposematic

having coloration that serves a protective function for the animal, usually used to refer to animals with colors that warn predators of their toxicity. For example: animals with bright red or yellow coloration are often toxic or distasteful.

arboreal

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.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

choruses

to jointly display, usually with sounds, at the same time as two or more other individuals of the same or different species

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.

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

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

fertilization

union of egg and spermatozoan

forest

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

granivore

an animal that mainly eats seeds

herbivore

An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.

insectivore

An animal that eats mainly insects or spiders.

iteroparous

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

migratory

makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds

monogamous

Having one mate at a time.

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

mountains

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.

nomadic

generally wanders from place to place, usually within a well-defined range.

oviparous

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.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sexual

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

social

associates with others of its species; forms social groups.

suburban

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

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

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).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

tropical

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

visual

uses sight to communicate

References

Clement, P. 2020. "Lesser Goldfinch (Spinus psaltria)." (On-line). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Accessed February 09, 2020 at https://www.hbw.com/species/lesser-goldfinch-spinus-psaltria.

Coutlee, E. 1968. Comparative Breeding Behavior of Lesser and Lawrence's Goldfinches. Condor, 70: 228-242.

Coutlee, E. 1968. Maintenance Behavior of Lesser and Lawrence's Goldfinches. Condor, 70: 378-384.

Frincke-Craig, M., J. Brown, C. Briggs, M. Collopy, C. Feldman. 2015. Relationships between plumage coloration, diet diversity, and winter body condition in the Lesser Goldfinch.. Journal of Ornithology, 156/1: 143-151.

Hammerson, G. 1994. "Spinus psaltria" (On-line). NatureServe Explorer. Accessed February 09, 2020 at http://explorer.natureserve.org/servlet/NatureServe?searchName=Spinus%20psaltria.

Kaufman, K. 2019. "Lesser Goldfinch" (On-line). National Audubon Society. Accessed February 09, 2020 at https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/lesser-goldfinch.

Rockey, W. 2016. Preformative molt adjustment in phenologically divergent populations of the Lesser Goldfinch ( Spinus psaltria).. Wilson Journal of Ornithology, 128/1: 70-74.

Saha, P. 2015. "Audubon" (On-line). Accessed March 02, 2020 at https://www.audubon.org/news/oldest-known-lesser-goldfinch-caught-starr-ranch.

Smith, E., J. O'Neill, A. Gerson, A. McKechnie, B. Wolf. 2017. Avian thermoregulation in the heat: resting metabolism, evaporative cooling and heat tolerance in Sonoran Desert songbirds.. Journal of Experimental Biology, 220/18: 3290-3300.

Tweit, R. 2004. "Lesser Goldfinch" (On-line). The Texas Breeding Bird Atlas. Accessed February 18, 2020 at https://txtbba.tamu.edu/species-accounts/lesser-goldfinch/.

Watt, D., E. Willoughby. 2014. "Lesser Goldfinch Spinus psaltria" (On-line). The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Neotropical Birds. Accessed February 09, 2020 at https://neotropical.birds.cornell.edu/Species-Account/nb/species/lesgol/overview.

Willoughby, E. 2007. GEOGRAPHIC VARIATION IN COLOR, MEASUREMENTS, AND MOLT OF THE LESSER GOLDFINCH IN NORTH AMERICA DOES NOT SUPPORT SUBSPECIFIC DESIGNATION.. Condor, 109/2: 419-436.