When a goldfinch flashes across the yard on his way to a birdfeeder or birdbath, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by how pretty he is!
Goldfinches are popular motifs in home decor and visual art, likely because of their pretty coloring. They are yellow like sunlight, sunflowers, or even fresh lemons!
They’re popular enough to be the state bird of three states: Iowa, New Jersey, and Washington.
Not all yellow finch-sized birds are goldfinches, though, and not all finches look alike. Being able to spot the differences between small songbirds is a point of pride for many birders. Let’s take a look at the birds that look like goldfinches, either in shape, color, behavior, or a combination of the above!
First, let’s talk about goldfinches.
How to Recognize a Goldfinch
A single goldfinch will change its appearance throughout the year.
In the spring, males are bright yellow over most of their bodies, with a black patch at the top of the head and black wings. He will also have white areas of his body – under his tail, for example.
However, in the winter, a male goldfinch will lose the black on his head, as well as most of his yellow feathers. The newly grown feathers will be brownish-green.
Females are less vibrant than males, including in the summer. They are a dull yellow on their bellies and chests, and olive green on their backs and heads. In the winter, she will have grey-black wings and pale wing bars in a pale beige color.
You can also recognize goldfinches by their cone-shaped bill and pointed and notched tails. They don’t have any streaking. Expect them to look pretty patchy and rough when they are molting!
Where Do Goldfinches Live?
Goldfinches are plentiful throughout North America. They do not live in deep, lush forests, but they enjoy thistle and birdfeeders. They are easy to see out in the open, and they do not feel the need to stay hidden or disguised by the foliage in their habitat.
While finches are a popular type of pet bird, goldfinches are protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and cannot be kept in captivity as domesticated pets. Goldfinches are entirely undomesticated.
What are the Differences Between a Warbler and a Goldfinch?
When you first spot a bright yellow bird, you may not be able to tell if it’s a goldfinch or a yellow warbler.
The first thing to look for is streaking. Goldfinches lack any streaking in their plumage, whereas yellow warblers are lightly streaked on both their breast and belly.
Goldfinches also have black on their wings and tail, combined with bars on their wings. These markings are absent from a yellow warbler.
What are the Differences Between a Wild Canary and a Goldfinch?
Calling a goldfinch a wild canary is a common misnomer in the amateur birding world. However, goldfinches and wild canaries are two totally different species.
All canaries are finches, but not all finches are canaries. They are named after the Canary Islands where they were first documented by western naturalists – although they were certainly already familiar to the indigenous people on the Canary Islands!
Wild canaries are yellow-green, similar to a winter goldfinch. However, they are also streaked, which is one of the things that a goldfinch will never be.
What are the Differences Between a Sparrow and a Goldfinch?
Finches and sparrows are easy to mix up, but there are some ways to quickly tell the difference: sparrows tend to be larger, sexually monomorphic, and more muted in color when compared to finches. They also tend to have larger bills, which are used for larger seeds.
Birds That Look Like Goldfinches
When comparing birds, one can look at their colors, plumage patterns, silhouette, and other appearance-related features. Some of the beautiful birds on this list look like goldfinches because they are also yellow. Others are on the list because of their body shape or the shape of their bill.
Let’s break down the different kinds of birds that look like goldfinches, even though they are not quite the same as the popular backyard songbirds.
Like the goldfinch, the Cassin’s finch is part of the Fringillidae family.
The Cassin’s finch is a small songbird with a similar shape to the goldfinch. Its coloring is quite different, though: male Cassin’s finches have pink bodies and a red crown, whereas females are white with brown streaks all over.
Both sexes have a white ring around their eyes, streaks under their short tails, and a thick bill with straight sides.
These are mountain-dwelling finches who make their home in the evergreen forests of the Rocky Mountains of North America. Their winter range extends into central Mexico.
Fun fact about Cassin’s finches: Cassin’s finches got their name from the ornithologist John Cassin, who was traveling as part of the Pacific Railroad Survey in the 1850s. He loved the little pink birds that he documented and illustrated on the journey so much that he asked for them to be named after him.
Interestingly, house sparrows are not related to any of the other North American sparrow species. They are incredibly common birds, to the point that they are sometimes considered to be nuisance birds in neighborhoods and urban communities.
House sparrows are larger than other sparrows (and also larger than goldfinches), and they have fuller chests and larger heads than both sparrows and finches.
Males are dark brown and gray, with dark-colored heads and white cheeks. Unlike other sparrows, house sparrows are sexually dimorphic, so the females look different from the males. Females are plainer, with less contrast between their brown and gray markings.
Fun fact about house sparrows: These birds are known for living around people. In fact, you won’t find them in woodlands or grassy plains or mountains, unless there is a community of people there, too.
The evening grosbeak is a member of the finch family. Males are similar in color and pattern to the male goldfinch, but they are larger and stockier. Their bills are also thicker and more powerful. Males have an off-white bill, but females have a yellowish-green bill.
Females are gray instead of yellow, but their wings are white and black.
Evening grosbeaks prefer forested habitats, especially in the Pacific Northwest and across Canada. They occasionally migrate along the East Coast of the US during the winter.
Their diet consists of seeds and berries, as well as insects. Their big, strong bill allows them to crack large seeds that other finches can’t access.
Fun fact about evening grosbeaks: They will eat rocks and pebbles to get all the nutrients they need!
The yellow color on a Lawrence’s goldfinch is as lemony-yellow as that on a male American goldfinch, but there is simply less of it.
Lawrence’s goldfinches are lovely little birds. The male will have a black face, and the female will have a gray face. However, both males and females have colorful wings with yellow, gray, black, and hints of white. Only the male has a brightly colored yellow chest.
They have a relatively small range. Unlike finches that you can find all over the country, Lawrence’s goldfinches are only found in the southwest of the United States and a little bit into Mexico. They travel north into California for their breeding season.
Fun fact about Lawrence’s goldfinches: Finches change color from season to season through a process of molting and re-growing new feathers. Lawrence’s goldfinches have a totally different way of getting brighter during the season.
Their feathers actually change from brown to yellow over time! The brownish coloring at the top of the feather fades away, leaving the yellow beneath.
American goldfinches and lesser goldfinches are quite similar to one another. However, lesser goldfinches can be spotted by taking a look at their backs.
First, when comparing males, the American goldfinch’s back is bright yellow with a stark contrast at the point where the black wings begin. The lesser goldfinch, on the other hand, has two color options. His back can be all black from top to bottom (no yellow at all), or it can be grayish-green streaked with a faded yellow.
Females are much more difficult to tell apart. Watch for white under tail coverts, which are the feathers that cover up the bases of the flight feathers. A lesser goldfinch will also have a rectangular patch on her wings.
Fun fact about lesser goldfinches: These little birds have a song that is described as “wheezy,” but they are also capable of mimicking the songs of other birds in their habitat.
As the smallest birds in the Icteridae family, orchard orioles are colorful and flashy.
In males, look out for a black throat, an orangeish-red chest, a black head and back, and a reddish-brown patch at the bend of their wings. In females, you will see a greenish-yellow body with two light bars on her dark-colored wings.
You can find orchard orioles in the Midwest US, Southern US, Mexico, and Central America. They live high in the treetops, avoiding large forests. They inhabit orchards, spare riverside forests, and groves of trees in yards and neighborhoods.
Fun fact about the orchard oriole: Some birds may be territorial and defensive, but not orchard orioles! These are social birds who enjoy living in communities with other birds. They will nest in the same area as other orioles (Baltimore and Bullock’s, for example), as well as kingbirds, robins, and sparrows.
The pine siskin has a lot of streaking all over its body; that’s the fastest way to differentiate it from a female goldfinch or male goldfinch in the winter months. Unlike most other finches, pine siskins are sexually monomorphic, making it difficult to determine if the bird you’ve spotted is male or female.
These small birds have narrower, thinner bills that are much sharper than other finches’ bills. They also have a short tail with a notch in it, and their wingtips come to a point. Pine siskins are mostly brown with some yellow on the edges of their wing and tail feathers.
They live in large, noisy flocks and are known for being very unpredictable in terms of migration behavior. Unlike birds that migrate to the same location year after year, pine siskins change their migration habits as they please.
Fun fact about pine siskins: For being such tiny birds, they are very well adapted to cold temperatures! Their winter habitats include regions of Canada where the temperature can drop as low as –94°F (–70°C).
In order to survive in such intense cold temperatures, they increase their metabolic rate at night, pack on the fat, store seeds in their crop, and build insulated nests that the female never leaves while she is sitting on eggs. Instead, the male brings her all of her food until the hatchlings can be left alone.
Male purple finches are unlikely to get mixed up with goldfinches, but females and immature males may need some quick double-checking. They are more likely to be confused with house finches than goldfinches, though.
Adult male purple finches are purplish-red, with the darkest concentration of color on the top of the head. They are not streaky like many other finches, which is something else they have in common with streak-free goldfinches.
Females and immature males are brown and off-white, and they do have streaks on their sides.
Purple finches are plentiful in North America, where they live in forests and visit bird feeders.
Fun fact about purple finches: Wild purple finches are, of course, protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. You cannot catch a finch and keep it as a pet, just like you can’t keep any other wild bird as a pet. However, purple finches were once popular as caged pet birds.
There is no easy way to mix up an adult, breeding-season male scarlet tanager with a male breeding-season goldfinch. However, females of these two species are easy to confuse for one another, as are non-breeding males.
In the summer, male scarlet tanagers have bright red bodies that contrast against their black wings. During the winter, they are greenish-yellow with dusty black wings. This is quite similar to the non-breeding male and the female goldfinch, both of which are olive-yellow.
Scarlet tanagers breed throughout the Midwest, migrate through the Southeast and the Gulf Coast of Mexico, and spend the winters in Columbia, Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru.
Fun fact about scarlet tanagers: Tanagers don’t want to raise the young of Brown-headed cowbirds, but they can’t tell the difference between their eggs and the eggs of a cowbird. Still, a mating pair of tanagers will do everything they can to scare a female cowbird away from the nest before she has a chance to lay her eggs.
Summer tanagers are treetop-dwelling tanagers, like scarlet tanagers. Male summer tanagers are actually the only all-red birds in North America! Females, non-breeding males, and juveniles are yellowish-green, which allows for some confusion with goldfinches.
These birds spend the winter’s non-breeding months in southern Mexico and the northern range of South America. Their breeding season brings them to the South and Southwestern U.S.
Fun fact about summer tanagers: Summer tanagers eat large amounts of wasps and bees. They fly upon these large stinging insects and snatch them out of the air, then fling them against a nearby tree branch to kill them.
Once dead, they rub the insect against the tree to remove the stinger so that they can eat the remainder of the creature. They also eat bee and wasp larvae.
Western tanagers have a little bit of red on them, but even in the breeding season, male western tanagers are far less red than their summer and scarlet tanager relatives.
Instead, western tanagers have yellow bodies, black wings, and reddish-orange heads and faces. Females lack this reddish-orange facial coloring, and their bodies are yellowish-gray.
They live in evergreen forests and hide in the treetops like other tanagers. They only live in the western half of the United States and Mexico, although they travel further north than almost all other tanagers.
Fun fact about western tanagers: Western tanagers are not in need of conservation efforts like they once were.
In the 1800s, people believed that western tanagers were wreaking havoc on commercial fruit farms. People were permitted to shoot and poison these pretty little birds.
Fortunately, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects western tanagers today, and it is illegal to harm or harass them.