A practical guide to bird watching in Sonoma County, California

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


Common throughout the county except in the most densely forested areas in the extreme northwest and right along the coast. Likes open, brushy areas and lightly wooded edge environments, but common in suburbia. Often visits feeders, becoming more numerous in winter. Easily the single most common bird at my own feeders year round. Often in small groups. May associate with American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis) in the winter, sometimes forming large flocks.

Recognized by its black cap; heavy finch's bill; green-tinged yellow belly, breast, and throat; dark, greenish back; black wings with a distinct stripe of white at the base of the primaries showing at rest. The white at the base of the primaries is conspicuous in flight as a flash of white in the middle of each wing. Undulating flight habit like that of American Goldfinch. Sonoma County birds are of the Western subspecies (Spinus psaltria hesperophilus), which are greener than their counterparts further east, into the southern Rockies, and Texas (Spinus psaltria psaltria), which have a nearly black back. Females and juveniles lack the black cap, but immature males will have some black at the brow. Our birds never seem as bright yellow on their yellow parts as they are sometimes depicted in field guides, usually having a noticeable olive cast.

Likely to be confused only with American Goldfinch: Lawrence's Goldfinch is rare in Sonoma County. Adult Lesser Goldfinch males in summer (breeding plumage) are distinguished from American Goldfinch by their green back (American Goldfinch has a clear yellow nape and back, throat, breast, and belly with a starkly contrasting black cap and black wings with two white wing bars). In winter, Lesser Goldfinch looks much the same as in the summer, whereas American Goldfinch loses its bright yellow color (becoming a brownish putty color) and also loses its black cap in winter plumage. Note that American Goldfinch goes through a rather more complete molt each year than many birds. It is common to see American Goldfinch in various intermediate states between winter and breeding plumage, some of which can be confusing (see photo below). Lesser Goldfinch, however, will always have a greenish back in Sonoma County. Note also that American Goldfinch has a paler, slightly yellowish bill, while that of Lesser Goldfinch is dark, and that American Goldfinch has white under the tail in virtually all plumages, a feature Lesser Goldfinch lacks.

Varied vocal repertoire. Common is a soft, echoing huh chuh-chuh-chuh or huh chuh-chuh-chuh-chuh-chuh (often, but not always uttered, when disturbed and fleeing, although the sound itself doesn't especially suggest alarm) or by sporadic, plaintive notes such as tyeee? with a rising intonation, often followed by an "answering," falling tyeer.

Older books assign Lesser Goldfinch, American Goldfinch, Lawrence's Goldfinch (Spinus Lawrencei), and Pine Siskin (Carduelis pinus) all to the genus Carduelis. Looking at the most recent 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.

Further reading:

Bolander and Parmeter, Birds of Sonoma County California, rev. ed., 2000, p. 125

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

Burridge, ed., Sonoma County Breeding Bird Atlas, 1995, p. 135

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. 462

Floyd, Smithsonian Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 2008, p. 477

Fix and Bezener, Birds of Northern California, 2000, p. 362

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

Kaufman, Field Guide to Advanced Birding, 2011, p. 103

Lukas, Bay Area Birds: From Sonoma County to Monterey Bay, 2012, p. 277-279

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, p. 290

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

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

Sibley, Field Guide to Birds of Western North America,1st ed., 2003, p. 452

Stokes, Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America, 1st ed., 2010, p. 756

Vuilleumier, American Museum of Natural History, Birds of North America: Western Region, 2011, p. 336

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



© Colin Talcroft, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012

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.


Lesser Goldfinch, winter male:

Note presence of black cap in the winter; green back; dark bill

For comparison: American Goldfinch, spring male: Note lack of black cap; yellow back (mid-molt out of winter brownish feathers but before the black cap has appeared); pale, orangish bill; white at vent

For comparison: American Goldfinch, winter plumage

Santa Rosa, December 11, 2011

Lesser Goldfinch

Spinus psaltria

Lesser Goldfinch(male), Stone Castle Lane, Santa Rosa, April 30, 2011

1990-2013 Sonoma County data. Graph provided by eBird (www.ebird.org), generated July 15, 2013

EBird reported occurrence in Sonoma County