The American Goldfinch Bird (Spinus tristis)

American goldfinch

The American goldfinch (Spinus tristis) is a small American songbird that belongs to the finch family, Fringillidae. It is native to North America and breeds in the northern United States and southern Canada, and winters in the southern half of the US and throughout Central America, Colombia, Venezuela, Trinidad, the Guianas, Paraguay, Suriname, Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador.

This bird has been introduced into New Zealand. The adult male of this species has bright yellow underparts with black streaks on its sides and flanks.

Also known as the thistle bird, the American goldfinch belongs to the family of birds known as finches and was formally classified as Spinus tristis in 1817 by German ornithologist Johann Friedrich Gmelin.

This bird has been introduced to other parts of the world as well including Europe, where it thrives in temperate climates and can be found as far north as Sweden and Finland.


American Goldfinch

Known for its distinctive colors and song, the American goldfinch is found across North America. It feeds mainly on seeds, some fruit, and insects. It typically makes its nest in tree cavities or in nest boxes, also known as birdhouses. The male attracts a female by feeding her while they both feed together.

They will then pair up to build their nests. The nesting process takes about 6-8 weeks from beginning to end. They often have three broods of young during the course of one year, so they can be seen frequently throughout the year near their nesting sites. In urban areas, these birds may make use of artificial nesting structures such as window ledges and gutters.

American goldfinch scientific name

The scientific name of the American goldfinch is Spinus tristis

American goldfinch habitat & distribution

The breeding range of the goldfinch stretches from Newfoundland to the northern coasts of the Gulf of Mexico, south through central Florida, and west along the Appalachians and the Rocky Mountains to southern California.

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In some areas, however, goldfinches are more common during the winter months than in summer. Nesting habitats are well-dispersed throughout this range, with each habitat type providing a different suite of nest structures.

American goldfinch size and weight

American goldfinch birds are small, typically measuring 11 to 14 cm (4.3 to 5.5 inches) long and weighing between 11 and 20 g (0.39 and 0.71 oz). They have a large wingspan and measure between 19 and 22 cm (7.5 and 9.7 inches).

Feathers and plumage

American Goldfinch

Male American goldfinch birds are more brightly colored than females and possess black-and-white bars across their wings, tails, back, and breasts. These bars differ between individual birds but the particular pattern is consistent within a species. The female goldfinch lacks these patterns in its plumage. The male also possesses an orange mustache spot above his beak that the female lacks.

Feathers are important parts of a bird’s body. These feathers have many functions such as providing insulation, flight, and protection from external factors like predators. They also help with their appearance and camouflage to their surroundings.

Plumage is a group of feathers on one part of the body such as a wing or tail that help keep that part warm. The plumage around the throat helps some species to sing.

The American goldfinch has short and long brown feathers around its head, chestnut wings, white tail feathers, black bib (throat), greenish-yellow underparts, pinkish-red breast and shoulders, and black markings near its eye. When they fly they show off these colors which can be used for identification.

A disadvantage of this colorful display is it could attract unwanted attention from predators, but at the same time it may scare away prey.


Typically, the feathers on a bird’s head are shed and replaced with new ones in a process called molting. The feathers on its body are also typically replaced but this is not always the case.

Feathers will often stay until there is no longer any need for them and can eventually fall out after being separated from their follicle. Typically, many different new sets of feathers will be grown at once, which can cause confusion if you aren’t careful. Sometimes the old set of feathers can still show through underneath the new set and must be plucked out before they ruin the newer feathers underneath.

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When they do get ready to molt, they’ll usually try to find someplace quiet where they won’t be disturbed by other birds or predators as it takes a lot of energy to grow these new feathers!

Nesting behavior

American goldfinch birds are active during the day, roosting at night. They sometimes form winter roosts in thorny trees such as hawthorn or serviceberry. In early spring they start nesting in crevices in rock outcroppings, hollow fence posts, or abandoned nests of other birds. American goldfinch males gather material to construct the nest while females build it. The nest is made of many dry grass stems and lined with a few feathers and horsehair, fur, or string.

The nest is built by the female during late summer in the branches of a deciduous shrub or tree. The female typically spends 10-40 minutes working in these intervals, with six days of work typically leading to the completed nest.

Although the male American goldfinch will accompany the female and carry some nesting materials with her, he leaves the construction of the nest to the female. It is composed of twigs, vines, weeds, and bark.

As the rim is reinforced with bark bound with spiderwebs and caterpillar silk, the cup is lined with milkweed, thistle, or cattail. The nest is so tightly woven that it can hold water, and if it is not covered, nestlings can drown in a downpour.

Diet and foraging

American goldfinch subsists on a varied diet, consisting of plant material, especially seeds and fruits, as well as invertebrates and even small lizards or other vertebrates. To break open tough seed coats, these birds rely on their heavy bills and horny edges. They also use their beaks to poke into the ground to get at insects.

They feed in groups and may form flocks with pine siskins and common redpolls during winter. They also congregate in winter near feeders where they can find safflower seeds among the offerings. When not feeding they often roost communally in dense stands of trees; they do not perch in treetops but instead settle on smaller branches near the trunk.

The American Goldfinch Bird (Spinus tristis)

Sounds and vocal behavior

Some vocalizations from male and female American goldfinch are calls that are given in response to predators. The distress call made by males is a shrill, staccato wheet, while the females make a quieter peeping sound.

Other vocalizations, including chirps, scratchy notes, and warbles are used primarily during the breeding season, but both sexes may utter these notes. An interesting behavior shown by these birds is when they will mimic other songbirds that live in their area to attract a mate.


American Goldfinch

The breeding season of the American goldfinch starts later in the year for this bird than for other finches and later than for any native North American bird, except for occasionally the sedge wren. This may be related to the abundance of seeds in late summer, as seeds account for most of their diet.

Typical courtship behavior includes mid-air maneuvering and song from the male who initiates courtship around late July. As the male pursues the female, she flies in evasive zigzagging patterns. If an American goldfinch female is attracted to a particular male, she will take the time to appraise his bill color and plumage.

And once the female goldfinch decides she wants to be his mate, the two will fly in circles and make a noise called warbling throughout the flight.

Once a male has found a mate, he chooses a territory and advertises its borders by singing from one perch to the next. After circling the edges, he performs two flight displays, first with a low, flat flight, then by performing a high-arched and looping flight, bringing his wings as close to his body as possible as he plunges towards the ground. Sometimes two or three individuals may stay together to help keep their territory as if they are being hunted by predators.

It is thought that the eggs are laid during the night and consist of four to six oval-shaped, bluish-white eggs. They measure 16 mm by 12 mm, about the size of a peanut. Eggs are incubated by the female alone, though the male brings her food while nesting, and most mating pairs raise only one brood per year.

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Twelve to fourteen days after incubation starts, the chicks will hatch. Like all passerines, they are born in a very immature state. when first born, a newly hatched duckling is naked, has a reddish body, is covered in pale grey down, and has closed eyes. As it matures, the mother bird feeds it by regurgitating seeds and insects.

Hatchlings grow fast and can see after three days and start developing the olive-brown, juvenile plumage within eleven to fifteen days of hatching. For up to three weeks after fleeing, they are still fed by the male who finds them by listening for their fledging call. Once the chicks are grown and no longer depend on their parents, they will stop giving this call.

American Goldfinch lifespan

In captivity, they can live up to 9 years, but their average lifespan in the wild is 2 to 4 years.