Distinguishing male and female American Goldfinches

The underside of the tail of four different American Goldfinches - two males and two females. See text for details. Photographs of birds trapped for banding in Concord, MA, copyright David Sibley.

For much of the year, distinguishing male and female American Goldfinches is easy (when the males show their brilliant yellow summer plumage, about March through September). Even in January and February many males have a few bright yellow feathers showing, but otherwise the gray-brown nonbreeding males can be hard to tell from females. There is very little difference between immatures and adults of each sex.

Males have really black wings with bright wingbars and feather edges, while the females have duller brownish-black wings with buffy or brownish-white wingbars and edges. This is pretty easy to judge, but it requires a bit of experience and judgment.

For a more objective and reliable difference, look at the underside of the tail, which is easily seen when birds are sitting on a feeder. Males have blackish tail feathers with well-defined white spots, females grayish feathers blending into dull white spots. Once you’ve confirmed the sex of a bird by the tail pattern, take a minute to look at the wings, the body plumage, bill and leg color, etc., and you’ll soon become an expert on goldfinch plumage variation.

11 thoughts on “Distinguishing male and female American Goldfinches”

  1. Lovebirds For Sale Sydney

    Hi David,

    Thanks for the tips. I’m quite surprised that you report that there is not much difference between an adult and baby in terms of identification. Very interesting. The differences are so subtle!

    1. Hi Carl, According to Svensson’s ID guide, male and female European Goldfinch are distinguished only by details of head pattern. So I guess this difference does not apply there.

  2. I saw a bird at my goldfinch feeder, Ohio. It looked buff or light tan colored, no black markings. It had the tail markings of the goldfinch but was larger than the bright yellow goldfinches also at the feeder. I’m puzzled as whether this is a goldfinch or not.

    1. i had a couple of house finch this year along with my yellow finch. Look up a picture of those and see if that might be what you are seeing. I am a rookie at this and just put finch feeders out this year. i have had so much fun watching them. It’s a good thing my husband finds them interesting and fun to watch because he’s my boss and I am not getting near my work load done!

  3. I have a couple of very orange colored burds that my impression are goldfinches, yet am pyzzled by the orange color. They have the black wings with white bars, bou are orange not yellow on body.

  4. I have never gotten close enough to a yellow finch as they usually fly away but I have actually gotten close and petted it several times. I was so thrilled and have decided to give it a name. They’re my favorite.

  5. Evelyn in north Alabama

    I have seen several bright yellow small birds with black down the side of them and some with red on the head and gradually getting lighter down the back. Is the latter a house finch?

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