March–April 2021

Minnesota Profile

American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis)

The American goldfinch adds demure beauty to the Minnesota landscape.

Tom Carpenter


For such a common Minnesota bird, the American goldfinch adds uncommon brilliance and demure beauty to the landscape. 

Male birds in spring and summer are eye-catching in bright yellow plumage, black cap, and black wings barred with white. Female birds present a subtle yet elegant package of olive-gray, often washed in lemon, with dark wings bearing white bars. The tail is edged in black and forms an inverse V, with the outer tailfeathers the longest. The bill is conical and pointed. Both males and females molt into drab olive-gray for winter. The goldfinch is small, roughly the size of a sparrow.

Habitat and Range

Goldfinches are found across Minnesota where there is suitable habitat—grasslands, meadows, prairies, roadsides, wetlands, backyards, and other open areas with a smattering or border of shrubs or trees. 


Goldfinches are seed eaters year-round, seldom eating insects. In fact, goldfinches are the last songbirds to nest in Minnesota each year because they wait for late summer’s abundance of maturing seeds in composite plants (especially thistle), grasses, and wildflowers. Parents feed the chicks a regurgitated “porridge” of such seeds.

The forks of shrubs such as willow, dogwood, and alder are favored sites for the birds’ tight-woven little nests made of plant fibers; so are the crooks of thistle plants, with their added stickly protection.

Goldfinches fly in undulating, swooping arcs, and the birds often utter joyful chew-chew-chew triplet calls on the upswing. Fluttering, intermittent wingbeats save energy; the rollercoaster flight perplexes avian predators.

When feeding, goldfinches give a per-sweeeet call that sounds happy but warns other birds to stay away from the food source. Goldfinches are very acrobatic as they glean seeds from swaying plant stalks, flower heads, and shrubs.

Like other finches, the goldfinch sings beautifully, and males warble out a melodic, trilling tune when it is time to mark territory and attract a mate. These lilting songs, plus the male’s bright plumage, give rise to the colloquial name “wild canary.”

Natural History

Uniquely, the American goldfinch molts twice a year—once in spring, when the males regain their spectacular bright-yellow plumage, and again in autumn after the late-summer breeding season is complete. All birds “go drab” for fall and winter. The autumn molt leaves each bird with over a thousand extra feathers that help it withstand winter cold and winds. Many goldfinches overwinter in Minnesota. 

In the Yard

Black thistle or black-oil sunflower seeds, offered in hanging feeders or baskets that discourage bigger birds, attract cheerful goldfinches to the yard. So does a reliable water source, especially in winter.