Female American Goldfinches (Identification Guide)

The American goldfinch (Spinus tristis) is a common backyard bird. They are widespread throughout North America and have year-round territories in the Northeast, Midwest, and Pacific Northwest regions of the United States. Their breeding grounds reach Canada, while their wintering range covers the southern US and parts of Mexico.

Needless to say, these birds are widely known. The bright yellow males are hard to miss during the spring and summer as they forage and sing their tee-yee courtship song. Female goldfinches draw less attention with their darker olive coloring, which helps them blend in better with their surroundings.

At certain times of the year, particularly in winter, it can be more difficult to differentiate between males and females. Perhaps you have stood at your window watching goldfinches as they forage in your yard, trying to pick out subtle differences. We will discuss these differences, both in appearance and behavior, in the following article!

Female American goldfinch perched on a branch

Female American goldfinch perched on a branch

How can you tell if an American goldfinch is male or female?

Male and female goldfinches are easy to tell apart in the spring and summer. Adult males are a bright lemon yellow with a jet black forehead. Their wings are also jet black, tipped with white and their tails are black with white patches on the upper and underside. Females are a duller yellow, with olive-colored backs and muted-yellow abdomens. Female goldfinches also have orange bills, but they are less bright than males.

Both males and females are drab in the winter. Their coats are brownish-yellow and their wings are dull black with two off-white wing bars. The best way to differentiate is by the color on their throats. Males have a brighter yellow showing here than females. Males also have slightly brighter yellow lesser wing coverts.

Juvenile American goldfinches are tawny brown to buff above and pale yellow underneath. Their wings are dark but not black and are marked by two buff-colored wing bars. Males and females look similar, except females are generally lighter in color. Upper wing feathers are pale and the female has more brownish-gray coloring overall.

American goldfinch male winter plumage

Male American goldfinch in winter plumage

Female american goldfinch winter moult

Female American goldfinch during moult do breeding plumage

What does a female American goldfinch look like?

An adult female American goldfinch is slightly smaller than a male. She has olive coloring on her back, buff sides, and a greenish-yellow forehead, throat, and underside. Her wings and tail are a dull black with white wing bars; her legs and feet are a light brown and her bill is dull orange.

In winter, a female goldfinch has more dull olive coloring overall and her wing bars darken to buff.

Close up of a female American goldfinch

Close up of a female American goldfinch

Are female American goldfinches bigger than males?

Female American goldfinches are not bigger than males. The males are always slightly larger and are heavier during the non-breeding season. On average the goldfinch has a body mass of 11-13 grams in the summer and 13.5-20 grams in the winter.

Behavior Differences

Female and male American goldfinches exhibit several behavioral differences in their calls, nesting habits, and seasonal dominance. These are discussed in further detail below.

Singing and calls

The vocalizations of goldfinches are separated into six different groups: song, contact call, male courtship call, female courtship call, threat call, and alarm call. Females do not sing. This is generally a behavior exhibited by males during the breeding season. Song and the male courtship call are used to attract a female.

Female goldfinches have their own courtship call. It is usually vocalized as a series of short, high-pitched whistles. Although, it is sometimes slowed down or given as a rapid trill. Females use this call throughout the breeding season - while choosing a mate, building the nest, and while on the nest.

Female goldfinches will also utilize threat and alarm calls. A female on the nest will give a loud bay-bee call if she feels threatened.

Female (left) and out of focus male (right) American goldfinches perched on a branch

Female (left) and out of focus male (right) American goldfinches perched on a branch

Nesting

A mated pair of goldfinches will visit various suitable nesting sites. Males often pick up nesting materials, seemingly offering them to the female, but these items do not get used.

In the end, the site is chosen by the female. Once the prospective site is selected, the female begins building the nest alone. The male will stay nearby to keep watch for predators and other intruders.

Incubation is carried out entirely by the female as well. The incubation period typically lasts 12-14 days. During this time, the male provides the female with all of her meals. She will only leave the nest for short periods to stretch, preen, or bathe.

Female American Goldfinch in duller winter plumage

Female American Goldfinch in duller winter plumage

Feeding

The female watches over the brood closely for the first few days after the eggs hatch, still not leaving the nest. Her role at this stage is vital for the survival of the chicks. The male continues to bring her food to the nest site.

After about four days, the female's broodiness begins to subside. She will spend nights, early mornings, and cold or rainy days with her chicks, but her time spent away from the nest begins to lengthen. At this point, both the male and female are providing food for their young.

After eight or so days have passed, the brooding period comes to an end, and the female’s role in feeding the chicks begins to wane. The male takes over the majority of the feeding responsibilities from this point until the young have left the nest.

Female goldfinch perched on a branch

Female goldfinch perched on a branch

Dominance and Aggression

When male or female goldfinches exhibit dominance or aggression varies with the seasons. Males appear to be more dominant in the winter months as these birds group together in larger flocks for foraging.

Females, perhaps not surprisingly, are more dominant and aggressive during the breeding season. They will attempt to protect their young from perceived intruders.

Can female American goldfinches raise young alone?

Female American goldfinches are unlikely to raise a successful brood alone. The female's role during the incubation period and, at least, the first four days after the eggs have hatched, is crucial to the survival of the chicks.

She hardly leaves the nests and depends on the male to bring her food. Her survival would be impossible without her partner and if she were to leave the nest long enough to forage, her young would likely not survive.

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