Carduelis tristisAmerican goldfinch

Geographic Range

American goldfinches are native to the Nearctic and widespread across most of North America. Their range extends as far north as Saskatchewan, Quebec and southwest Newfoundland during breeding seasons. They live year-round in middle latitudes of the United States, in the Pacific Northwest, Midwest, and eastern United States. They spend the winters in states farther south, from California to Mexico, along the Gulf Coast, and throughout Florida. (Eastman, 1997; McGraw and Middleton, 2009; Mobley, 2009)

Habitat

American goldfinches are widely distributed on the edges of many forests and plains. They prefer weedy fields and floodplains. These habitats include early successional growth areas, cultivated lands, roadsides, orchards, and suburban gardens. They inhabit areas that are overgrown and filled with brush. Areas with high concentrations of thistles, asters, and other deciduous plants often attract them. (Fenimore, 2008; McGraw and Middleton, 2009; Middleton, 1979; Peterson and Peterson, 2008; Semenchuck, 1992)

Physical Description

American goldfinches are small finches distinguished by the bright yellow color of males during the breeding season. They have yellow or gold feathers around their throat, upper back, and belly. Their wings, tails, and the tops of their heads are glossy black. A white spot is usually visible above the males' tail after molting and into their summer plumage. Adult females, juveniles, and males in the winter are colored olive brown above, blending to olive yellow below. Their wing feathers are dull brownish-black. American goldfinches weigh 11 to 20 g and have wingspans of 19 to 22 cm. They have sharp and conical pointy beaks used for eating seeds. (Audubon, 1841; Clement, et al., 2010; McGraw and Middleton, 2009; Middleton, 1979; Mobley, 2009; Peterson and Peterson, 2008; Wilson, 2001)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • sexes colored or patterned differently
  • male more colorful
  • Range mass
    11 to 20 g
    0.39 to 0.70 oz
  • Range length
    11 to 13 cm
    4.33 to 5.12 in
  • Range wingspan
    19 to 22 cm
    7.48 to 8.66 in
  • Average basal metabolic rate
    0.4108 W
    AnAge

Reproduction

Pair formation occurs in winter. Males attract mates using not only their bright plumage, but also by showing off to the female through flight routines. Females choose one male to mate with that will stay close to the nest. They are usually monogamous, but sometimes females will mate with more than one male. American goldfinches mate one time per season, but a few reports of 2 clutches per season have also been documented. (Audubon, 1841; Knight and Temple, 2006; McGraw and Middleton, 2009; Mobley, 2009; Rosen and Tarvin, 2006; Semenchuck, 1992)

American goldfinches generally begin nesting in late June or early July, later than many closely-related species. They build their nests a few feet off the ground from twigs and branches found in nearby trees and shrubs. Females lay 2 to 7 eggs per clutch. Females incubate the eggs for an average of 15 days while males bring food to the nest and feed females via regurgitation. Newborn American goldfinches are usually naked or have hardly any feathers and weigh an average of 1 g. After the chicks hatch, males take on most of the responsibility for looking after the chicks. Females chase intruders away from the nest, forage, and return to feed the chicks through regurgitation. After 8 days, chicks are technically independent. They can fly in an average of 14 days, but this can be as few as 11 or as many as 17. Even after leaving the nest, chicks tend to return and are dependent on their parents for roughly 3 or 4 additional weeks. They are sexually mature at 11 months. (McGraw and Middleton, 2009; Mobley, 2009; Soffer, 1997)

  • Breeding interval
    American goldfinches generally breed once a year, but can breed up to 3 times.
  • Breeding season
    Their breeding season is usually in late June and early July but can be as late as August or September.
  • Range eggs per season
    2 to 7
  • Average eggs per season
    5
    AnAge
  • Average time to hatching
    15 days
  • Average time to hatching
    13 days
    AnAge
  • Range fledging age
    11 to 17 days
  • Range time to independence
    1 (low) weeks
  • Average time to independence
    6 weeks
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    11 days
  • Average age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    11 days

Females lay the eggs and incubate them for 2 weeks until hatching. Once the chicks hatch, females leave the nest more frequently and males take care of feeding the chicks. Males defend the territory of their mates by singing different types of defense calls. (McGraw and Middleton, 2009; Rosen and Tarvin, 2006)

  • Parental Investment
  • altricial
  • male parental care
  • female parental care
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-weaning/fledging
    • provisioning
      • male
      • female
    • protecting
      • male
      • female
  • pre-independence
    • provisioning
      • male
    • protecting
      • male
      • female

Lifespan/Longevity

American goldfinches can live 7 to 10 years in the wild, but typically live 3 to 6 because of predation. The oldest known individual in the wild lived to be 10 years and 5 months old. Males tend to live longer than females. (McGraw and Middleton, 2009; de Magalhaes and Costa, 2009)

  • Average lifespan
    Status: wild
    11 hours
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    3 to 10.4 years

Behavior

American goldfinches are diurnal and social and generally found foraging in small groups. Their main mode of locomotion is flying, but they are also capable of hopping or walking. They exhibit the typical undulating flight of finches. They beat their wings a few times, causing them to ascend, followed by a brief descent on closed wings. This flight causes a flock to have a light, buoyant, dancing appearance. In the presence of other American goldfinches, they will often imitate their calls and fluff their feathers. American goldfinches are nomadic, often settling in areas for short periods of time before moving again. They migrate between summer and winter locations throughout most of their range. (Eastman, 1997; Knight and Temple, 2006; McGraw and Middleton, 2009; Middleton, 1979; Mobley, 2009)

Home Range

Because they are social, American goldfinches are not known to defend a territory. They are more territorial and do nest-guard during the breeding season. (McGraw and Middleton, 2009; Mobley, 2009)

Communication and Perception

American goldfinches primarily communicate with each other by songs and calls. They exhibit 6 different types of calls: contact calls, threat cries, alarm and distress cries, courtship and pre-coition calls, feeding calls, and songs. Contact calls, described as "tsee-tsi-tsi-tsit" or "po-ta-to-chip," are the most common. Their song is also common during the breeding season, and described as "rambling" or "warbling." They make calls both while perched and in flight. After hatching, the adolescent American goldfinches will demonstrate a begging call when they are hungry. When they feel distressed or threatened, they have another distinctive call. They also communicate when attracting mates through their feather coloring and by flying displays. (McGraw and Middleton, 2009; Wilson, 2001)

Food Habits

American goldfinches are granivores, mainly eating seeds, weeds, and sometimes pine cones. They mainly feed on grass seeds, thistle, and other low-growing herbaceous seeds. They often eat seeds while perched on top of a plant but also do so from the ground. In the winter, when naturally growing food is less prevalent, the birds often rely on feeders in parks or backyards. They occasionally eat insects if encountered. (Bonta, 1994; McGraw and Middleton, 2009; Mobley, 2009)

  • Animal Foods
  • insects
  • Plant Foods
  • seeds, grains, and nuts

Predation

Common predators of American goldfinches are blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata), eastern garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis), American kestrels (Falco sparverius), and weasels (Mustela). Domestic and feral cats (Felis catus) also prey on them. They have a defense call, but otherwise are usually non-aggressive towards their predators. (Knight and Temple, 2006; McGraw and Middleton, 2009; Middleton, 1979)

Ecosystem Roles

Because the diet of American goldfinches consists of seeds and nuts, they help in the dispersal of seeds. (Mansfield-Jones, 1995; McGraw and Middleton, 2009; Mobley, 2009)

Brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater) parasitize American goldfinch nests. Parasitism rates of 9.4% were reported in 1979, but no brown-headed cowbirds successfully fledged from American goldfinch nests. Documented internal parasites include avian trichomoniasis (Trichomonas gallinae) and a protozoan parasite (Eimeriidae) reported to cause intestinal coccidiosis. (Mansfield-Jones, 1995; McGraw and Middleton, 2009; Mobley, 2009)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • disperses seeds
Commensal/Parasitic Species
  • brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater)
  • avian trichomoniasis (Trichomonas gallinae)
  • intestinal coccidiosis (Eimeriidae)

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

American goldfinches are enjoyed by birdwatchers at their feeders. (Soffer, 1997)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known adverse effects of American goldfinches on humans. (McGraw and Middleton, 2009)

Conservation Status

The American goldfinch is protected under the Migratory Bird Act, but its populations are considered stable. The IUCN Red List classifies them as "least concern."

Other Comments

American goldfinches are the state bird of Iowa, New Jersey, and Washington.

Contributors

Stephanie Nicholas (author), Radford University, Catherine Kent (author), Special Projects, Karen Powers (editor), Radford University, Kiersten Newtoff (editor), Radford University, Melissa Whistleman (editor), Radford University.

Glossary

Nearctic

living in the Nearctic biogeographic province, the northern part of the New World. This includes Greenland, the Canadian Arctic islands, and all of the North American as far south as the highlands of central Mexico.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

agricultural

living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

altricial

young are born in a relatively underdeveloped state; they are unable to feed or care for themselves or locomote independently for a period of time after birth/hatching. In birds, naked and helpless after hatching.

arboreal

Referring to an animal that lives in trees; tree-climbing.

bilateral symmetry

having body symmetry such that the animal can be divided in one plane into two mirror-image halves. Animals with bilateral symmetry have dorsal and ventral sides, as well as anterior and posterior ends. Synapomorphy of the Bilateria.

chaparral

Found in coastal areas between 30 and 40 degrees latitude, in areas with a Mediterranean climate. Vegetation is dominated by stands of dense, spiny shrubs with tough (hard or waxy) evergreen leaves. May be maintained by periodic fire. In South America it includes the scrub ecotone between forest and paramo.

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

choruses

to jointly display, usually with sounds, at the same time as two or more other individuals of the same or different species

diurnal
  1. active during the day, 2. lasting for one day.
endothermic

animals that use metabolically generated heat to regulate body temperature independently of ambient temperature. Endothermy is a synapomorphy of the Mammalia, although it may have arisen in a (now extinct) synapsid ancestor; the fossil record does not distinguish these possibilities. Convergent in birds.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

granivore

an animal that mainly eats seeds

herbivore

An animal that eats mainly plants or parts of plants.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

male parental care

parental care is carried out by males

migratory

makes seasonal movements between breeding and wintering grounds

motile

having the capacity to move from one place to another.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

nomadic

generally wanders from place to place, usually within a well-defined range.

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

polygynous

having more than one female as a mate at one time

riparian

Referring to something living or located adjacent to a waterbody (usually, but not always, a river or stream).

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

social

associates with others of its species; forms social groups.

suburban

living in residential areas on the outskirts of large cities or towns.

tactile

uses touch to communicate

temperate

that region of the Earth between 23.5 degrees North and 60 degrees North (between the Tropic of Cancer and the Arctic Circle) and between 23.5 degrees South and 60 degrees South (between the Tropic of Capricorn and the Antarctic Circle).

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.

savanna

A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5? N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.

visual

uses sight to communicate

References

Audubon, J. 1841. The Birds of America. Philadelpia: J.J. Audubon.

Bonta, M. 1994. Appalachian Autumn. United States: University of Pittsburgh Press.

Clement, P., A. Harris, J. Davis. 2010. Finches and Sparrows. London: Christopher helm publishers.

Coutlee, E. 1967. Agonistic behavior in the American goldfinch. The Wilson Bulletin, 79/1: 89.

Eastman, J. 1997. Birds of Forest, Yard & Thicket. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole books.

Fenimore, B. 2008. Backyard Birds of Pennsylvania. Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith.

Forzán, M., R. Vanderstichel, Y. Melekhovets, S. McBurney. 2010. Trichomoniasis in finches from the Canadian Maritime provinces — An emerging disease. the Canadian Veterinary Journal, 51/4: 391-396.

Knight, R., S. Temple. 2006. Nest defense in the American goldfinch. Animal Behavior, 34/3: 887-897.

Mansfield-Jones, J. 1995. Impact of intestinal coccidiosis on the American goldfinch, Carduelis tristis. Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan, Dissertation, 592 pp..

Marsh, R., W. Dawson. 1986. Winter fattening in the American goldfinch and the possible role of temperature in its regulation. Physiological Zoology, 59: 357-368.

McGraw, K., A. Middleton. 2009. "The Birds of North America online" (On-line). Accessed February 24, 2012 at http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/080/articles/introduction.

Middleton, A. 1977. Effect of cowbird parasitism on American goldfinch nesting. The Auk, 94: 304-307.

Middleton, A. 1979. Influence of age and habitat on reproduction by the American goldfinch. Ecology, 60/2: 418-432.

Mobley, J. 2009. Birds of the World. Tarrytown, New York: Marshall Cavendish.

Montgomerie, R., B. Lyon. 1986. Does longevity influence the evolution of delayed plumage maturation in passerine birds?. The American Naturalist, 128/6: 930-936.

Peterson, R., L. Peterson. 2008. Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America. New York: Houghton Mifflin company.

Rosen, R., K. Tarvin. 2006. Sexual signals of the male American goldfinch. Ethology, 112/10: 1008-1019.

Semenchuck, G. 1992. The Atlas of Breeding Birds of Alberta. Alberta: Federation of Alberta Naturalist.

Soffer, R. 1997. Learning about Birds. Moneola, N.Y.: Dover publications inc..

Turcotte, W., D. Watts. 1999. Birds of Mississippi. Mississippi: Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks.

Wilson, J. 2001. Common Birds of North America: An Expanded Guidebook. Minocqua, Wisconsin: Willow Creek Press.

de Magalhaes, J., J. Costa. 2009. A database of vertebrate longevity records and their relation to other life-history traits. Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 22/8: 1770-1774.