3 Types of Goldfinches & How to Identify Each

There are three types of goldfinches: the American goldfinch, the lesser goldfinch, and the Lawrence goldfinch. The three goldfinch all have a variation of yellow and black plumage, with the Lawrence goldfinch being predominantly gray in color. The goldfinche ranges overlap in the north-western American states. 

There are quite a few North American birds that share the bright yellow coloring of the goldfinch. Some of those birds, like evening grosbeaks and pine siskin, belong to the finch family. Birds like the yellow warbler belong to different songbird families.

So, how can you tell the three goldfinches apart? And how can you know if the bright yellow birds visiting your feeder are goldfinches at not similar birds? We’ll cover how to tell the three North American goldfinches apart. Then, we’ll answer some common questions about goldfinches and similar birds.

Is a yellow finch the same species as the goldfinch?

A yellow finch is the same bird as a gold finch. While all three goldfinches are sometimes called yellow finch, the name yellow finch is often referring to the American goldfinch specifically. The name yellow finch is widely known to be referring to the goldfinch. While the two names aren’t technically interchangeable, there is no bird called the yellow finch.

Small, yellow songbirds are often mistaken for goldfinches. Evening grosbeaks are a species of finch that look similar to goldfinches. They are much larger than goldfinches and lack wing bars. Sometimes the yellow warbler is confused for a goldfinch. While the yellow warbler is another similarly sized bright yellow songbird, they have reddish streaking on their chest. The Goldfinch does not. The seed-eating goldfinch also has a conical bill. Since the yellow warbler eats mostly insects, it has a thinner, longer beak.

lesser goldfinch
Lessor Goldfinch

How do you tell the difference between an American goldfinch and a lesser goldfinch?

Where their range overlaps in the western United States, you can identify the lesser goldfinch by its gray beak with a black stripe down the nose. American goldfinches have an orange beak. Every American state north of Texas and east of Colorado belongs solely to the American goldfinch’s range. In the western states, lesser goldfinches and American goldfinches often flock together.

During the breeding season, adult male American goldfinches have bright yellow feathers, a black patch on their head, and black wings. Non-breeding, juevnile male American goldfinches have buffy brown feathers, yellow heads, and distinctive white wing bars. Female American goldfinches look similar to non-breeding males, but they are a duller buffy brown color with less yellow.

Adult male lesser goldfinches have a full black cap much bigger than the American goldfinch. Lesser goldfinches also have a white patch on their wing. The patch is most noticeable in flight and below the wing bars when perched. Female lesser goldfinches are more olive than their American goldfinch counterpart. They also have a yellow cast to their underside, while female American goldfinch abdomens are light brown.

Lesser goldfinch males have olive green backs and wings, but males in the eastern portions of their range have black wings. The white wing patch is present throughout the Lesser goldfinch’s range. In places where Lesser goldfinch males have black backs, you can see the two species apart by the black markings on their heads. The lesser goldfinch’s black cap extends to their wings. The American goldfinch has a clear separation between the black patch on its head and its wings.

How do you identify Lawrence’s Goldfinch?

Lawrence’s goldfinch looks very different from the other two goldfinch species, with soft gray color all over, black wing bars, and bright yellow feathers on the tips of their wings. Both male and female goldfinches have similar gray coloring overall, with white under their tail and black wing bars. They also have buff-colored beaks and legs.

lawrence goldfinch
lawrence goldfinch

Female Lawrence’s goldfinches boast a gray head and gray chest. The males have a black face mask and a patch of yellow feathers on their chest.

Despite being the smallest of the three goldfinches, they have no problem chasing other goldfinches away from wild thistles and bird feeders. They are nomadic birds, moving through their limited range to follow food and water supplies.

Do the goldfinch species share the same ranges and habitats?

Yes, all three species of finches flight and migration range are likely to overlap over the north-western portion of America. The American goldfinch lives in the southern border regions of Canada, throughout the continental United States, and Mexico. The lesser goldfinch and the Lawrence’s goldfinch have a more confined North American range.

The lesser goldfinch is found in the western United States, Mexico, and parts of South and Central America. Their range spreads eastward into Utah and Colorado during the breeding season. Lawrence’s goldfinch has the smallest range. They’re located primarily in coastal Southern California and Baja California, Mexico.

Goldfinches prefer open woodland areas, roadside, and weedy fields. Goldfinches predominantly use thistle plant material for food and nesting material. You’re bound to find a goldfinch anywhere in North America where thistles grow. Outside of the breeding season, you can find them in Southern Arizona, Southwestern New Mexico, and Sonora, Mexico.

How can I attract goldfinches to my backyard?

Goldfinches love thistles, so planting or maintaining native thistle plants is a great way to catch a goldfinch’s attention. Bird feeders with black thistle seed hung from or near a tree are another way to attract goldfinches. Make sure to choose a black thistle seed. Goldfinches won’t eat faded seeds that are brown or gray. You can put thistle bird seed in the freezer until it’s ready to use to keep the color dark.

A weatherproof cover for your feeder is important. Goldfinches are picky and will not eat faded seeds. Keeping your backyard bird feeders is always important, but goldfinches are especially fussy about dirty or weathered seeds. Don’t forget fresh water for all your songbirds. Seed eaters especially depend on water for hydration as there is none in their food.

The goldfinch likes birdbaths, but they will drink rain and dew pooled in leaves from shallow streams and garden ponds. Goldfinches aren’t just a beautiful visitor to your backyard bird feeder. Here are some fun facts about goldfinches and the art and media they’ve inspired:

  • One of the most famous paintings of a goldfinch is The Goldfinch. The famous oil painting was created by Golden Age painter Carel Fabritius.
  • The Goldfinch painting inspired a book by the same name. Donna Tartt wrote The Goldfinch 20 years after she first saw the painting.
  • The Goldfinch was later adapted into a movie by director John Crowley.
  • Despite the book being set in New York at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Goldfinch has never been on exhibit there.
  • The American goldfinch is the state bird of Iowa, New Jersey, and Washington state.
  • Goldfinches like to flock with similar birds, like pine siskins.
  • The American Goldfinch’s scientific name used to be Carduelis tristis. As of 2009, the scientific name is Spinus tristis.
  • The American Goldfinch is the only Goldfinch that molts its feathers twice a year.

Tara Summerville

Tara Summerville is a freelance writer that loves her backyard birdfeeders. She enjoys sitting on her deck with a cup of coffee, watching cardinals, blue jays, finches, and chickadees munch away at her backyard offerings. Her fascination with birds began as a child; spending afternoons at her grandma's house watching and identifying birds. She has since carried her love of songbirds into adulthood and ensures no bird in her yard goes hungry!

Recent Posts