European goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis) are some of the most beautiful birds that we are lucky enough to get in our gardens in the UK.
If you love these birds, you'll already know that telling the females and the males apart can be challenging. So, today, we're looking at the female goldfinch to help you identify them in your garden or in the field.
The main visual difference between a female and male goldfinch is the red mask around the face. The female's red mask doesn't extend as far behind the eyes as the males. However, there are some crossovers, so it's difficult to use the face mask as a way of sexing goldfinches.
Female goldfinches always make the nest during the breeding season, and this is the best way of telling the sexes apart. If you see a goldfinch with nest material in its mouth, it is very likely to be a female goldfinch.
Male (right) and female (left) goldfinches perched in a tree
Female goldfinches look very similar to males, which is why it's very tricky to tell the sexes apart. They have red masks, white cheeks, a black hat and golden and black wing feathers with a spot of brown on their backs.
A keen eye will notice that the female's red mask is a bit smaller than the males, though. Both sexes have red face feathers that look a bit like a mask. However, the male's mask extends past their eyes and almost to the back of their head. The female's mask, though, barely goes past their eyes.
You would think, then, that spotting female goldfinches would be quite easy if only nature made things that simple. There have been many males found with red masks that are extremely similar to the female's mask. So, while generally speaking, the red masks on the sexes can be used to identify the sexes, it isn't an exact science.
Close up of a female goldfinch
Behavioural differences are one of the best ways of identifying female goldfinches. During the breeding season, the female goldfinch builds the nest. So if you see a goldfinch with twigs, grass, moss or hair in its beak, it is very likely to be female.
Male goldfinches also sing far more than females. This is because the males are trying to attract the females. So, if you have a noisy goldfinch in your garden, it is most likely to be a male, especially just before the breeding season, between February to March. Once the breeding season is in full swing, late April, you will see fewer female goldfinches around too. This is because they are protecting the eggs, and the males will bring them food during this time. So, most goldfinches you see during late April and early May will be male.
A female goldfinch gathering nesting material
The male goldfinch sings a lot more than the female. Their songs are both very similar, but the male uses his song to attract females. So, while you can't identify the sex of a goldfinch from its songs and calls alone, there is a higher chance that the finch is male if it is singing a lot.
From early February until about April, male goldfinches are flirting with any females they can find. Interesting, though, goldfinches are monogamous for the most part. Some males may have a few females in different nests, but most are strictly a one bird type of guy.
European Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis)
The female goldfinch builds the nest for the eggs alone. However, both parents tend to scout out good locations. Finches like to nest in shrubs and hedgerows. They like a dense environment to hide their eggs but in an open place. So, they don't often nest in forests, for example, but will happily nest in gardens with good cover.
The females build the nest out of lichen, moss, grass and small twigs and then line it with wool and hair. Very occasionally, the female goldfinch will also take the time to decorate the nest with flowers. Likely because the male couldn't find the nest after a night out, so the flowers are arrows pointing him in the right direction.
The females will also sit on the eggs until they hatch. This takes about two weeks. It is the male's job to feed her while she protects the eggs. After they have hatched, both adults feed the chicks until they leave the nest about two weeks later. The parents will continue to look after the chicks for a further two-three weeks after they leave the nest, though.
Female goldfinches incubate the eggs on their own
If a male goldfinch was to leave the female to fend for herself, it would be a challenge for her to raise the young chicks by herself. During the early stages of the brooding period, the male feeds the female as she sits on the eggs. Without the male, this part of the brooding season would be very difficult.
We can't say that it's impossible for female goldfinches to raise their young alone because it has likely happened in the millions of years these birds have existed. However, we can say that the female goldfinch would really struggle.
Laying the eggs and keeping them warm and safe is their biggest priority at this stage of the breeding season. Laying the eggs takes a lot of energy, so they are exhausted for a few days after this. If they don't have the strength to fly, it would be impossible for them to eat.
If the male was to leave after this stage of the breeding season, though, there is a very good chance that the female could raise the young by herself. Once the chicks have hatched, both parents feed them. If the female had a small brood of 1-3 chicks to look after, she could certainly manage.
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