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American Goldfinch and Lesser Goldfinch Identification

Updated: Jul 10, 2023

The American Goldfinch is iconic across North America, but the similar-looking Lesser Goldfinch might be a confusing sight for birders living in or visiting the West!

A male American Goldfinch sits in a bird feeder (left), and a male American Goldfinch sits on a bird feeder (right).
The challenge of identifying the Lesser Goldfinch (left) from the American Goldfinch (right) might not be the greatest challenge, but a few tips never hurt anyone!

I have written several series on the identification of similar-appearing birds, from Purple and Cassin's Finches to Sharp-shinned and Cooper's Hawks. Make sure to visit the Bird ID category to take a deep dive into all of our ID series. While this identification may not be the challenge as the two mentioned above, it can still be tricky for those new to the West or birding in general. Hopefully, this article can provide the foundation for the quick identification of these two goldfinches!


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Want your own goldfinches visiting your home? Learn about the feeders and food that are best suited to attract Lesser and American Goldfinches!


Lesser Goldfinch and American Goldfinch: Male Identification

A Lesser Goldfinch image (left) with arrows pointing to field marks, and an American Goldfinch image (right) with arrows pointing to its field marks.
These arrows point to the six field marks listed above for the Lesser (left) and American Goldfinches ♂ (right).

When separating the males of these two goldfinch species, we can focus on six core areas for a quick ID. I work from the top down unless the bottom is the most visible part of the bird! I start at the bill, then move to the hind crown, nape, back, and wingbars, and end at the undertail coverts. Any one of these areas can ensure a positive identification of a Lesser or American Goldfinch IF it is clearly visible and provides an obvious field mark. I will break down what to look for in each of these areas below.

  1. Bill

    1. American Goldfinch - The bill of the American Goldfinch is more robust (larger) and usually more vibrant than the Lesser Goldfinch. During the breeding season, the American Goldfinch's bill is pinkish-orange, and during the nonbreeding season can range from orangeish to brown or blackish.

    2. Lesser Goldfinch - The bill of the Lesser Goldfinch is typically smaller, with more curvature than the bill of the American Goldfinch. The bill ranges in color from gray to dark gray or blackish.

  2. Hind crown

    1. American Goldfinch - The hind crown of the male American Goldfinch will either be yellow or brownish, but never black.

    2. Lesser Goldfinch - The hind crown of the male Lesser Goldfinch will be blackish to black, though some might be greenish-black. This is fairly reliable, so if the black extends far back to the hind crown and nape, the bird is likely a Lesser Goldfinch.

  3. Nape

    1. American Goldfinch - The nape of the male American Goldfinch will either be yellow or brownish, but never black.

    2. Lesser Goldfinch - The nape of the male Lesser Goldfinch is either black or green, but never the bright yellow of the male American.

  4. Back

    1. American Goldfinch - Like the nape, the back of the ♂ American Goldfinch will be yellow or brown.

    2. Lesser Goldfinch - The back of the ♂ Lesser Goldfinch is either black, blackish, or green, but never the bright yellow of the American Goldfinch.

  5. Wingbars

    1. American Goldfinch - This species has TWO strong wingbars.

    2. Lesser Goldfinch - The Lesser Goldfinch typically only shows a SINGLE strong wingbar.

  6. Undertail

    1. American Goldfinch - The undertail of the American Goldfinch ♂ is white.

    2. Lesser Goldfinch - The undertail of the Lesser Goldfinch ♂ is yellow.

Size difference is also noticeable when these two species are seen together. The Lesser Goldfinch is closer to Pine Siskin size (smaller) than the size of the American Goldfinch. If these two species are not together, this can be more difficult to judge.

 

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Finches LOVE Nyjer feeders! The Stokes Nyjer Feeder is my favorite:

Stokes mesh Nyjer feeder
 

Male Goldfinch Quiz!

Take this quick quiz to apply the knowledge provided above! The answer is at the bottom of this article. Use the six key field marks listed above, IF they are visible.

An American Goldfinch sits on a branch next to a Lesser Goldfinch on a branch.
Which bird is the Lesser Goldfinch? Which is the American Goldfinch? (Answer at the bottom.)

We can see the undertail of the left bird but not the right. The hind crown, back, and wingbars are visible for both birds. The bills are at slightly different angles, but their characteristics are still quite useful!


Lesser Goldfinch and American Goldfinch: Female Identification

Female Lesser Goldfinch and female American Goldfinch. Both are dull yellow to brownish birds.
Compare these two more 'drab' goldfinches. The females lack as much of the striking contrast colors of their male counterparts.

The females of these two goldfinch species are a greater challenge than the males. As with many species, the females have a more cryptic plumage allowing for greater camouflage. Yet, we can still focus on the same six core areas for quick identification. As with the males, I work from the top down unless the bottom is the most visible part of the bird (which it rarely is)! I start at the bill, then move to the hind crown, nape, back, and wingbars, and end at the undertail coverts. Any one of these areas can ensure a positive identification of a Lesser or American Goldfinch IF it is clearly visible and provides an obvious field mark. See the breakdown of each field mark below.


  1. Bill

    1. American Goldfinch - The bill of the American Goldfinch female is again larger, straighter, and usually more vibrant than the Lesser Goldfinch. During the breeding season, the American Goldfinch's bill is pinkish, and during the nonbreeding season can range from pinkish to brownish or blackish.

    2. Lesser Goldfinch - The bill of the female Lesser Goldfinch is typically smaller, with more curvature than the bill of the American Goldfinch. The bill ranges in color from light gray to dark gray or blackish.

  2. Hind crown

    1. American Goldfinch - The hind crown of the female American Goldfinch will either be dull yellow or brownish, but never green.

    2. Lesser Goldfinch - The hind crown of the female Lesser Goldfinch will be yellowish to greenish. It is rarely to never as bright yellow as the ♀ American Goldfinch (during the breeding season).

  3. Nape

    1. American Goldfinch - The nape of the female American Goldfinch will either be dull to bright yellow (breeding) or brown to gray (nonbreeding).

    2. Lesser Goldfinch - The nape of the female Lesser Goldfinch is green but never the bright yellow of the female American.

  4. Back

    1. American Goldfinch - The back of the ♀ American Goldfinch will be dull to bright yellow or brown.

    2. Lesser Goldfinch - The back of the ♀ Lesser Goldfinch is green or VERY dull yellowish, but never the bright yellow of the ♀ American Goldfinch.

  5. Wingbars

    1. American Goldfinch - The American Goldfinch has ONE to TWO strong wingbars.

    2. Lesser Goldfinch - The female Lesser Goldfinch typically only shows a SINGLE strong wingbar, IF at all.

  6. Undertail

    1. American Goldfinch - The undertail of the American Goldfinch ♀ is white.

    2. Lesser Goldfinch - The undertail of the Lesser Goldfinch ♀ is yellow.

A Lesser Goldfinch image (left) with arrows pointing to field marks, and an American Goldfinch image (right) with arrows pointing to its field marks.
These arrows point to the six field marks listed above for the Lesser (left) and American Goldinches (right).
 

Take GREAT photos of finches with the Sony RX10 IV!

Zach holding a Sony RX10 IV with a silly face
 

Female Goldfinch Quiz!

Identify the two female finches below! The answers are at the bottom of the article.

A female Lesser Goldfinch (left) sits on a tree branch and an American Goldfinch (right) female sits on a tree branch.
Which bird is the Lesser Goldfinch ♀? Which is the American Goldfinch ♀? (Answer at the bottom.)

Note the bill color and size. The nape and hind crown are not completely visible, but the back and wingbars are visible. The undertail is clearly visible, and that makes for a guaranteed identification!


American Goldfinch Range Map

American Goldfinch range map
This is the expansive range of the American Goldfinch.

The American Goldfinch is found across much of North America in a variety of habitats. For most of the populated parts of eastern North America, the American Goldfinch is a resident species. Though, their populations may shift during food shortages and harsh seasonal conditions. They are late breeders across their range, timing their egg laying with the emergence of their primary food sources, such as native and non-native thistle. They are primarily granivorous birds (seed eaters), so they are most likely found in habitats with ample small-seeded plants. Use native thistles and larger asters (like sunflowers) to provide natural food sources and supplement a native-plant-packed yard with feeders of Nyjer and sunflower seed.


Lesser Goldfinch Range Map

Range map of the Lesser Goldfinch
The Lesser Goldfinch has a range restricted to mostly western states.

The Lesser Goldfinch is more known in the western states, down into the Desert Southwest. They are also frequently found at feeders, especially those that provide Nyjer or small seed black oil sunflower seed. They breed throughout much of the Rockies, but these finches are also more prone to late breeding than many other migratory birds of the region. They are highly granivorous as well, with over 98% of their diet being comprised of plant matter. Use native thistles and small to medium-sized asters (like basket-flower) to provide natural food sources and supplement a native-plant-packed yard with feeders of Nyjer and sunflower seed.


Final Thoughts on Goldfinch Identification

While this ID is unlikely to keep a birdwatcher awake at night, the tips listed above can help speed up the identification of an unknown goldfinch at a feeder or flower! The undertail coverts are possibly my favorite field mark to look for, but they are often not visible when sitting in or on a feeder. This is why I teach multiple field marks, as birds rarely offer that pristine, modelesque pose.


Have questions or comments? Use the comment section below!

 

Nyjer and finch feeds are the best foods to attract goldfinches at feeders!

 

Goldfinch Quiz Answers

The answer to the quiz for the male goldfinches is American Goldfinch (left) and Lesser Goldfinch (right). The answer to the quiz for the female goldfinches is Lesser Goldfinch (left) and American Goldfinch (right).

Did you get both quizzes correct?

  • Yes

  • No


 

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