Bird in Focus- American Goldfinch
by Chris Showalter

The American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) is a regular visitor to bird feeders where it has a strong affinity for thistles. Indeed, this is one of the more recognizable birds to most bird watchers. Nevertheless, one of the questions we get most often at Fernbank Sceince Center in Fall through early Spring concerns the identification of this bird. Invariably, we get a call from a completely flustered bird watcher who desperately wants to know..."what is this little, drab, yellow-green bird on my bird feeder? I have never seen it before." If you have ever experienced this frustration before, then read on.

The problem lies with understanding a couple of things about bird plumage. First, male and female birds do not always have the same plumage. Second, there are seasonal differences in plumage as birds molt their feathers (replace old feathers with new ones).

Look at the pictures of the American Goldfinch to the left. Notice any differences? In the breeding season (summer) the male (top left) is gaudy yellow with a distinctive black crown, black wings and white wing bars. The female (top right) has a less dramatic olive-yellow coloration and lacks the black crown.


In the non-breeding season (fall and winter) both the male and the female molt out of their breeding colors and have a drab olive coloration (bottom picture). The sexes can be quite difficult to distinguish in the fall, particularly if the bird is in the process of molting. The bird in winter plumage pictured here is a male. Look at the black feathers between the eyes. The feathers have not molted yet. They were part of the black crown the male has in breeding plumage.

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Images obtained from Wikimedia Commons. They have been released to the public domain.