A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

(Unless otherwise indicated, all phone numbers are in the 707 area code)


American Goldfinch is a year-round resident. Common throughout the county, except in the most densely forested areas in the extreme northwest. Likes open, brushy areas and lightly wooded edge environments, but common in suburbia as well, becoming more numerous in winter. Often visits feeders. Often seen in small groups. May associate with Lesser Goldfinch (Spinus psaltria) in the winter, sometimes forming mixed flocks. Winter flocks break up as mating pairs begin to seek nest sites in the spring. Mainly a seed eater. Especially fond of thistle seed and teasel.

Males are readily identified in breeding plumage by a black cap and bright yellow back and underparts with contrasting black wings with white wing bars. Pinkish bill and legs. White at the vent. Black tail. In winter plumage (above), males lose the black cap and the yellow areas take on a warm putty color. American Goldfinches seem to be perpetually molting, however, and blotchy birds in intermediate stages are common in the spring and fall. Females are duller than males, lack the black cap in all plumages and have a brownish rather than bright yellow back in breeding plumage. Has a characteristic, deeply undulating flight habit. 

Older books assign Lesser Goldfinch, American Goldfinch, Lawrence's Goldfinch (Carduelis Lawrencei), and Pine Siskin (Carduelis pinus) all to the genus Carduelis. Looking at the some of the field guides I own, the Peterson Field Guide to Birds of Western North America (4th ed., 2010), assigns Lawrence's Goldfinch to Carduelis, the other three birds to Spinus. The National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America (6th ed., 2011), assigns all four species to Spinus. However, Stokes (2010) and the American Museum of Natural History guide (2011) both have all four birds still in Carduelis despite being fairly recent publications.

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 126

Brinkley, National Wildlife Federation Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2007, p. 447

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 181

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 5th ed., 2006, p. 460

Dunn and Alderfer, eds., National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 6th ed., 2011, p. 522

Ehrlich, Dobkin, and Wheye, The Birder's Handbook, paperback edition, 1988, p. 636

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 364

Kaufman, Field Guide to Birds of North America, 2000, p. 370

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, pp. 83, 125

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, p. 279, 280-281

Parmeter and Wight, Birds of Sonoma County California, Update (2000-2010), 2012, p. 74

Peterson, Birds of Eastern and Central North America, 5th ed., 2002, pg. 290

Peterson, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America, 4th ed., 2010, pg. 364

Peterson, Western Birds, 3rd ed., 1990,  pg. 344

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, pg. 453

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 757

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 335

Voice: Cornell Lab of Ornithology: All About Birds--American Goldfinch



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013

Unless noted, all photos by the author. If you would like to use one of my images, please ask for permission for non-commercial use with proper credit or commercial use with proper compensation.


American Goldfinch, winter plumage, Tolay Lake Regional Park, Petaluma, January 13, 2013

American Goldfinch

Spinus tristis

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated June 5, 2013

EBird reported  occurrence in Sonoma County