The brightly colored male American goldfinch is especially recognizable. The American regularly visits seed feeders, particularly in the east. It is often very gregarious, especially during the nonbreeding season, when it flocks to roadsides and brushy fields to feed on thistle and sunflowers. It is often heard in flight, giving distinct flight calls. Polytypic (4 named ssp.; differences slight). Length 5".
A relatively large carduelid. Breeding male: unmistakable. Body entirely bright lemon yellow with white undertail coverts. Jet black cap. Black wings with yellow lesser coverts and narrow white tips to greater coverts, forming 2 white wing bars along with white edging to the tertials. White inner webs to most of the tail feathers. Pink, conical bill. Breeding female: very different from male. Underparts very yellow with white undertail coverts, while upperparts, including head, olive green. Lower wing bar buffy and quite wide. Tail feathers with white tips and inner webs. Bill pinkish. Winter male: cinnamon brown above and on breast and flanks, with white lower belly and undertail coverts, yellowish wash on throat and face, and muted black on forehead. Wings more boldly patterned. Yellow lesser coverts. Wide, whitish lower wing bar. Bill darker than in breeding season. Winter female: mostly drab gray body with black wings and 2 bold buffy wing bars. White undertail coverts and edging to tail feathers. Dark bill. Immature male: black on forehead reduced or lacking. Lesser coverts duller. Juvenile: resembles adult female. Unstreaked.
The male is unlike any other finch in North America; the Wilson’s warbler is the only other bright yellow species with a black cap, but it does not have the finchlike bill or the bold wing pattern of the American. All other plumages can be separated from the lesser goldfinch by their bolder wing pattern and white undertail coverts. The female Lawrence’s goldfinch is gray like a nonbreeding adult female American, but note the American’s wider, buffier wing bars and different pattern of white in tail. The call notes of the American are very distinct from those of the Lesser and the Lawrence’s.
Call: various, including per-chik-o-ree or a descending ti-di-di-di; given mainly in flight. Song: a long series of musical phrases, often repeated randomly; similar to the lesser. Not known to mimic other species.
Status and Distribution
Common throughout much of United States and southern Canada. Breeding: a variety of habitats, from weedy fields to open second growth woodland, and along riparian corridors, particularly in the West. Does not breed over much of southern third of United States. Winter: populations from northern third of breeding range migrate to southern United States and Mexico, augmenting resident populations throughout middle section of the United States.
—From the National Geographic book Complete Birds of North America, 2006