Intro: The American goldfinch may be one of the first wild birds you see in your balcony garden. These birds are common and easy to attract, and the males display a beautiful clear and bright yellow color (they are also called the wild canary). Male American goldfinches also have a black cap and black wings with a horizontal white stripe. Although they are a breathtaking yellow in the summer, they turn a dull yellow-brown during the winter months (due to a full molt). Females are a dull yellow-brown all year and have black wings but no black on the head. Both males and females are white on the rump.
The lesser goldfinch is a closely related finch, and it can be distinguished by its darker color. This finch is yellow underneath with white patches on the tail and wings. Like the American goldfinch, the lesser goldfinch has a black cap, but it is olive-brown on the back (the darkness on the back differs geographically), rather than bright yellow. Females are a gray-brown color and can be somewhat yellow underneath. They also have a horizontal white stripe on the wings but no black cap.
Scientific Name: Carduelis tristis (American goldfinch), Carduelis psaltria (lesser goldfinch)
Size: American goldfinches are 4 to 5 inches long; lesser goldfinches are slightly smaller, from 4 to 4.5 inches
Habitat: The American goldfinch ranges from Canada to North Carolina during the breeding season and can be seen from the northern United States to the U.S.-Mexico border in winter. It can be found in residential areas, and its natural habitat is open meadows.
The lesser goldfinch ranges from southwestern Washington to Peru. It is found in flocks in habitats with trees or shrubs. It is a common sight at thistle feeders in gardens in the Southwest United States.
How to Attract: Both the American and lesser goldfinch will come to thistle feeders and feed on nyger seeds. They are attracted to the color yellow, so tie a piece of bright yellow ribbon to your thistle feeder so it can blow in the wind. You can also grow zinnias, cosmos, bee balm or globe thistle in your garden, and the goldfinches may come to eat their seeds. Both species will also feed on dandelions (although most gardeners prefer to keep this weed out of the garden).
Remember that birdfeeders are also a lot of work to maintain. You will have to refill feeders often and sweep up after the birds. Read more about birdfeeder upkeep in the article “Wild Bird Maintenance.”
Courtship and Breeding: The monogamous American goldfinch builds a nest and breeds in late July, producing one brood (four to six eggs) per year. Their eggs hatch in about two weeks, and the fledglings begin practicing their flying two weeks after hatching.
The lesser goldfinch breeds in late summer (in the tropics it breeds year ‘round) lays about three to four eggs in their nests.
Misc. Info: American goldfinches are found in flocks, oftentimes with other finch species. The American goldfinch is the state bird of Iowa, New Jersey and Washington.