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American goldfinch

Carduelis tristis

What do they look like?

American goldfinches are small songbirds that eat seeds with their sharp beaks. They are best known for the bright yellow feathers on males during the summer breeding season. They have yellow or gold feathers on their throat, upper back, and belly. Their wings, tails, and the tops of their heads have glossy black feathers. Adult females, juveniles, and males in the wintertime are not as brightly colored. They are olive brown on top and olive yellow below. Their wings are a dull brownish-black color. American goldfinches weigh 11 to 20 g and have wingspans that are 19 to 22 cm long. (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

Where do they live?

American goldfinches live all across North America. The farthest north they live is in the Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan, Quebec, and southwest Newfoundland. In the central United States from coast to coast, they live year-round. They spend the winter in southern states and down into Mexico. (Eastman, 1997; McGraw and Middleton, 2009; Mobley, 2009)

What kind of habitat do they need?

American goldfinches live at the edges of forests and plains. They like weedy fields and floodplains, farms, roadsides, orchards, and gardens in the suburbs. They live in areas overgrown with small shrubs. They especially like areas that have plants such as thistles and asters. (Fenimore, 2008; McGraw and Middleton, 2009; Middleton, 1979; Peterson and Peterson, 2008; Semenchuck, 1992)

How do they reproduce?

In the winter, males and females form mating pairs. Males use their bright feathers to attract mates. They also show off to females with different flight routines. Females usually choose one male to mate with, but sometimes mate with one or more others afterwards. American goldfinches usually mate once in a season, but sometimes lay two sets of eggs in the same season. (Audubon, 1841; Knight and Temple, 2006; Marsh and Dawson, 1986; Mobley, 2009; Rosen and Tarvin, 2006; Semenchuck, 1992)

American goldfinches usually start building nests in late June or early July, which is later than many birds that are closely related to them. They build nests a few feet off the ground from twigs and branches found nearby. Females lay 2 to 7 eggs, which they keep warm for 15 days until they hatch. While females are sitting on the nest, males bring them food they have eaten but not yet digested. When the chicks are born, they are usually naked or have just a few feathers. They weigh only 1 g on average. After the chicks hatch, males take on most of the responsibility for looking after the chicks. Females chase intruders away from the nest, forage for food, and return to feed the chicks through spitting up undigested food. After 8 days, chicks are able to be independent, but they stay close to their parents. They can fly in 11 to 17 days, usually about 14. Even after they leave the nest, they rely on their parents for 3 to 4 more weeks. When they are 11 months old, they are able to breed and raise their own young. (McGraw and Middleton, 2009; Mobley, 2009; Soffer, 1997)

  • How often does reproduction occur?
    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 keep them warm for 2 weeks until they hatch. After the chicks hatch, females are able to leave the nest more often because males help take care of feeding the chicks. Males also defend the pair's territory using different 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

How long do they live?

American goldfinches can live 7 to 10 years in the wild, but they usually live only 3 to 6 because of predators. The longest recorded life of an American goldfinch in the wild was 10 years and 5 months. Males usually 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

How do they behave?

American goldfinches are social and generally found looking for food in small groups. They are active during the daytime. They mostly fly but can also hop and walk. When flying, they alternate flying upwards and swooping down lightly, which makes it look like they are bouncing or dancing as they fly. When they are around other American goldfinches, they copy their calls and fluff up their feathers. They are nomadic, meaning that they move around a lot within the same area. Most of them migrate between different summer and winter locations, depending on now far north they live. (Eastman, 1997; Knight and Temple, 2006; McGraw and Middleton, 2009; Middleton, 1979; Mobley, 2009)

Home Range

American goldfinches are social and don't defend a territory, except to guard their nests. (McGraw and Middleton, 2009; Mobley, 2009)

How do they communicate with each other?

American goldfinches communicate with each other mostly by songs and calls. They have 6 different types of calls, which are named: contact calls, threat cries, alarm and distress cries, courtship calls, feeding calls, and songs. Contact calls are the most common and sound like "tsee-tsi-tsi-tsit" or "po-ta-to-chip." Their song is common during the summertime, and sounds like "rambling" or "warbling." They can communicate just as easily while flying as they can while perched on branches. When they feel distressed or threatened, they have a different call. Young American goldfinches make a begging call when they are hungry. Adult males also communicate visually to attract mates, using both the colors of their feathers and special flight patterns. (McGraw and Middleton, 2009)

What do they eat?

American goldfinches mostly eat seeds as well as weeds and sometimes pine cones. They like to eat seeds from grass, thistles, and other low-growing plants that don't have woody stems. They prefer to eat seeds while perched on top of a plant but also eat seeds from the ground. In the winter, there is less food available, so they get a lot of their food from feeders in parks and backyards. They will also eat insects if they happen upon them. (Bonta, 1994; McGraw and Middleton, 2009; Mobley, 2009)

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

What eats them and how do they avoid being eaten?

American goldfinches are preyed upon by blue jays, eastern garter snakes, American kestrels, and weasels, and also by domestic and wild cats. They make a defense call, but are not aggressive towards their predators. (Knight and Temple, 2006; McGraw and Middleton, 2009; Middleton, 1979)

What roles do they have in the ecosystem?

American goldfinches help in the dispersal of seeds because seeds are their main food source. (Mansfield-Jones, 1995; McGraw and Middleton, 2009; Mobley, 2009)

Brown-headed cowbirds are parasite birds that lay eggs in the nests of other birds, including American goldfinches. This happened in 9.4% of American goldfinch nests in 1979, but no brown-headed cowbirds actually lived to fly out of American goldfinch nests. American goldfinches also get some internal parasites, which are avian trichomoniasis and a protozoan parasite that causes an intestinal infection known as coccidiosis. (Mansfield-Jones, 1995; McGraw and Middleton, 2009; Mobley, 2009)

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • disperses seeds
Commensal or parasitic species (or larger taxonomic groups) that use this species as a host
  • brown-headed cowbirds (Molothrus ater)
  • avian trichomoniasis (Trichomonas gallinae)
  • intestinal coccidiosis (Eimeriidae)

Do they cause problems?

American goldfinches aren't known to cause harm to humans. (McGraw and Middleton, 2009)

How do they interact with us?

Birdwatchers enjoy seeing American goldfinches at their feeders. (Soffer, 1997)

Are they endangered?

American goldfinches have stable populations. The IUCN Red List classifies them as "least concern." They are protected under the Migratory Bird Act.

Some more information...

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.

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.

 
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Nicholas, S. and C. Kent 2012. "Carduelis tristis" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed September 22, 2014 at http://www.biokids.umich.edu/accounts/Carduelis_tristis/

BioKIDS is sponsored in part by the Interagency Education Research Initiative. It is a partnership of the University of Michigan School of Education, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, and the Detroit Public Schools. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant DRL-0628151.
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