There are lots of Lessers.
Lesser Goldfinches that is — about 16 different species of finches in North America. Fortunately for me, there are only two that I find regularly on my walks around the Nevada Union High School and Sierra College campuses.
Lesser Goldfinches are the small yellow- to olive-colored birds you frequently see scouring the weeds for seeds. The males can have a very yellow throat, breast and belly with a distinctive black cap. The females are less colorful and appear pale yellow from the front. Both sexes have olive-colored backs with black wings with white wing bars. They are some of the smallest birds you commonly see, measuring 4 ½ inches, or less, bill to tail.
I don’t keep carefully records, but it’s definitely my impression that there are more Lesser Goldfinches in my yard this year than in years past. It may be that they have finally discovered my feeders filled with thistle seed, which is their food of choice. Or it may be that there really is an abundance of these little guys this year. Bird species populations go up and down in response to many factors including breeding success, food abundance, predation, habitat alteration and others. Perhaps this is just a good year for Lesser Goldfinches.
I always see Lesser Goldfinches on and around the school campuses in open brushy, weedy habitat. However, they live happily from Puget Sound to the Texas Gulf Coast, so my heavily forested yard is just one of many micro environments to which they have adapted.
The other finch I see regularly is the House Finch. A little bigger than the Lesser Goldfinch, the House Finch is about 6 inches bill to tail. The House Finch is a generally brownish bird, except the males have a red-orange wash on the head, throat and breast. The females are mostly brown with a streaked breast.
I usually see the Lesser Goldfinches close to the ground in the weeds and bushes and the House Finches a little higher up in the trees. As usual, when it comes to birds, there are plenty of exceptions to the general rule, and spotting House Finches on the ground and Lesser Goldfinches well up in a tree wouldn’t be that unusual.
It would be hard to confuse a Lesser Goldfinch with a House Finch. The Lesser Goldfinch’s yellow-olive color can easily be distinguished from the House Finch’s brown appearance and especially the male’s red-orange head, throat and breast. However, the House Finch has two close relatives that occasionally show up in the local area that present a difficult identification problem for a novice like me. The Cassin’s Finch and the Purple Finch both look very similar to the House Finch.
I can spot a Lesser Goldfinch with certainty. If I see a brownish bird with a red-orange wash on its head, I call it a House Finch. I’ll have to leave the identification of the Cassin’s Finches and the Purple Finches to some of the real ID experts in the Sierra Foothills Audubon Society.
Dan Stewart is a member of the Sierra Foothills Audubon Society.