The Lesser Goldfinch (Spinus psaltria) is a small songbird native to the western United States, Mexico, and Central America. They are recognizable by their beautiful olive, yellow, and black plumage.
Males and females of this species are sexually dimorphic - meaning their plumage coloration varies, making them easy to differentiate from each other.
Lesser goldfinch females have dull plumage compared to males. They are primarily olive green, with light gray wings rather than glossy black. They also lack the black cap that male lesser goldfinches sport.
The two sexes exhibit behavioral differences, as well, particularly when it comes to vocalizations and caring for their young. In this article, we will delve deeper into what characteristics set the female lesser goldfinch apart. Read on to discover more!
Close up of a female Lesser Goldfinch
Plumage differences are the best way to tell if a lesser goldfinch is male or female. The males are much brighter, with a glossy black cap and canary yellow underparts. Lesser goldfinch females, on the other hand, are more olive-colored and lack the black cap.
Their underparts can also be yellow, but do not appear as bright as the males. Overall, a female's plumage is duller than her partner’s.
Juvenile lesser goldfinches closely resemble adult females, but juveniles appear buffier overall. Their upper parts are more brown than olive and their wings are buffy instead of light gray. The white patches on the wings are also significantly smaller or unnoticeable.
Female Lesser Goldfinch
Male Lesser Goldfinch
The adult female lesser goldfinch is usually a uniform olive green but may have a bright yellow chest and underparts. Her wings are dark to light gray with small white patches on the tips. Sometimes females have faint dusky streaks on their crowns.
Close up of a female Lesser Goldfinch
On average, lesser goldfinch females are smaller than males. Males have slightly longer wing, tail, culmen, and tarsus measurements. They also typically have more mass than females, although the difference can be minuscule.
Time of year also factors into lesser goldfinch mass. Females may ever-so-slightly outweigh males in spring (8.2 vs. 8.0), but males generally weigh more over winter (8.4 vs. 9.6).
Left (female) and right (male) Lesser Goldfinch pair
Male and female lesser goldfinches exhibit several behavioral differences that set them apart. The most notable contrasts are seen in their use of vocalizations and responsibilities regarding nesting and feeding their young.
Like most female songbirds, the female lesser goldfinch does not sing. Song vocalizations are a male-only behavior, used during nesting season to attract a mate. Males often continue to sing periodically through the egg incubation period.
Females may not sing, but they do have a series of calls utilized for communication purposes. These include contact calls, alarm and distress calls, threat cries, precopulatory calls, and feeding calls.
Lesser goldfinches use the contact call to communicate within a flock, typically while foraging. Alarm and distress calls, of course, are used to signal and warn off a potential threat. Threat cries, on the other hand, signify aggression toward another bird, such as an older female chasing a younger female from her territory.
Lastly feeding and precopulatory calls are forms of communication between mates. The latter is only vocalized prior to mating, whereas a female utilizes feeding calls every time the male brings her food while she is in the nest.
Female Lesser Goldfinch perched on an agave plant in southeast Arizona, USA
Lesser goldfinch females take on different nesting and feeding responsibilities from the males, beginning with nest building. Although the male is present, the female chooses the nest site and begins material gathering and construction on her own. Her mate will remain nearby but rarely assists with nest building.
Once the nest is built, and the last eggs are laid, the female lesser goldfinch begins incubation. The male does not contribute to incubation. Instead, he brings the female food at regular intervals, since she cannot leave the nest long enough to forage for herself.
After the eggs hatch, the female remains in the nest for a few more days brooding the chicks. During this period, her mate continues to provide food. However, once the brooding period is over, both parents leave the nest to forage and provide food for their young.
Female Lesser Goldfinch gathering nesting materials
Lesser goldfinch females are unlikely to raise young alone. During incubation and brooding, which lasts nearly three weeks in total, the female hardly leaves the nest. She depends on her mate to provide food during this period.
Leaving the nest unattended would leave their young vulnerable and possibly result in the eggs not hatching.
Female lesser goldfinches are primarily olive green with light gray wings and thin, white wing bars. Females occasionally have dusky markings on their heads. A bright yellow color variation on the chest and belly also occurs.
Male (left) and female (right) Lesser Goldfinches at a bird feeder
The female lesser goldfinch has a call repertoire not that different from a male. Both sexes utilize contact calls, threat cries, and alarm calls. However, precopulatory vocalizations and feeding calls are specific to the female.
Females use these sounds to communicate with their mates during breeding and nesting.
Lesser goldfinch females do not sing. Singing vocalizations are only utilized by males, typically from the start of the breeding season through the incubation period.
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