The Lesser Goldfinch is No Less Amazing

Updated: Feb. 28, 2022

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?

03 Kimsteed2 Bbxmar22, lesser goldfinch, maleCourtesy Kim Steed
Male lesser goldfinch

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.

05 Lisafisher Bbxmar22 (1), lesser goldfinch, femaleCourtesy Lisa Fisher
Female lesser goldfinch

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

juvenile lesser goldfinchCourtesy Rick Rjichmond
Juvenile lesser goldfinch perched on a dahlia stem

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.