The Lesser Goldfinch is No Less Amazing
Why is the lesser goldfinch "lesser?" We have the answer, and we have tips for attracting these bright birds to your yard, too.
When it comes to goldﬁnches, what does “lesser” mean, exactly? Is it a jab that compares the lesser goldﬁnch to the beautiful American goldﬁnch, as some birders joke? Emma Greig, project leader for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch, shares the answer—and it has more to do with size than status or plumage.
Meet all three types of goldfinches in the United States.
What Does a Lesser Goldfinch Look Like?
Simply put, “lesser goldﬁnches are a wee bit smaller than American goldﬁnches,” Emma says. Small in stature, goldﬁnches are songbirds with stubby cone-shaped bills. Their tails are short and notched, and their wings are long and pointed. The lesser goldﬁnch weighs about one-third of an ounce and is about 4 inches long.
Lesser goldﬁnches are known for olive green undertones. Males have yellow bellies and black caps. In the eastern part of their range, from Wyoming to Texas, they have black backs. Farther west, their backs are green. Females sport muted olive above and yellow below. Both sexes have a white patch on their wings.
It’s possible to identify ﬁnches in ﬂight simply by focusing on their ﬂight pattern. “Goldﬁnches undulate when they ﬂy,” Emma says. “They do this thing where they ﬂap their wings and go up a little bit, then close their wings and go down a little bit.” She says this could be a potential energy-saving strategy.
Here’s how to tell the difference between a goldfinch vs a pine siskin.
Lesser Goldfinch Nesting Habits and Diet
In spring, listen for the light twittering from the treetops as lesser goldﬁnches meet their mates. A courting pair looks and chirps at each other before forming a bond and preparing a nest in a scrub oak, cottonwood or willow tree. And they show their appreciation in small, sweet ways. “Males provide food to the females during courtship and also while the females are incubating eggs,” Emma says.
Attract goldﬁnches with Nyjer or black oil sunﬂower seeds. Or plant thistle if you have the space (or grow a whole goldfinch garden!). Goldﬁnches are among the few species that feed seeds to their nestlings, and they’ll do so with planted thistle.
“Lesser goldfinches frequently visit my yard and sit in my pinyon pine tree. I love to watch them from my porch,” says Birds & Blooms reader Lisa Fisher of Carson City, Nevada.
Check out the best finch feeders to serve thistle seed.
Range and Habitat
In the United States, the lesser goldﬁnch is most common in the Southwest, from California to Texas. A few venture as far north as Washington and Wyoming, especially in summer. South of the United States, these adaptable little ﬁnches ﬂutter over tropical habitats in Mexico, Central America and northwestern South America.
While many bird populations are declining, lesser goldfinch numbers have increased over the past 50 years. “They really thrive in habitat that is modified by people, such as scrubby areas, backyards, parks and fields,” says Emma.
Next, don’t miss 20 super pretty pictures of finches.