Where do American Goldfinches like to nest?

American Goldfinch by Rodney Campbell

Last Updated on January 18, 2024 by Greg Gillson

American Goldfinches are common birds across the United States. They breed across the northern half and also southern Canada. In winter most move south. Wherever you live in the United States you are likely to have American Goldfinches visit your backyard at some time during the year.

Sadly, American Goldfinches do not use nest boxes or birdhouses.

American Goldfinches nest rather late in the year–July to September. They build cup-like nests lined with thistle down in bushes and trees that are scattered about fields and open areas.

This article is a supplement to my overview page on attracting American Goldfinches. That page links to more in-depth articles on what goldfinches eat, where they are found, and telling them apart from similar species. At the end of this page I’ll provide another link back to the overview page.

Photo of imature American Goldfinch on teasel
Immature American Goldfinch
Photo by Greg Gillson

Nesting habits and reproduction of American Goldfinches

You may notice goldfinches disappear from your feeders in early summer as they go off and begin raising a family. American Goldfinches are monogamous. They wait to begin nesting until mid-summer. Then thistledown and milkweed seed pods are available to provide food for the nestlings. They usually only produce one brood per nesting season, rarely two.

The female cares for most of the nest duties early on. She selects the location, builds the nest, incubates the eggs. The male feeds the female while she incubates the eggs. Once the eggs hatch the male starts to feed them. From that point on the male takes on more and more of the care, even exclusively feeding the fledglings for a couple of weeks after they leave the nest.

After the nesting season, American Goldfinches form back into large flocks in late fall.

Courtship and mating

Courtship for American Goldfinches generally begins in July in most of its range, May in the West. Often you may notice several males chasing after a female for up to 20 minutes. Finally she chooses one of the males as a mate. Paired birds can be recognized by the courtship flight. Both birds fly high in a large circle. The male flies slowly while fluttering his wings and holding his tail open widely. He sings the entire time. The female follows him.

At other times males sing from a hidden perch often 15-20 feet up in a tree. They sing from inside the foliage more often than from an exposed perch. But they generally choose a tree that doesn’t have dense foliage.  They often sing from willows and saplings or young maple trees.

The male selects the nesting territory, flying in wide circles around the edges. Several pairs may claim the same large territory in a cooperative. But they keep their nests apart from one another and vigorously defend the immediate nest area from the others. Males defend against males and females defend against the other females.

American Goldfinch by mark-olsen

Nest building

The female selects the exact area to build the nest. She does all the construction, though the male may bring some nesting material. It takes the female American Goldfinch about 6 days to build the nest.

The outer part of the nest is constructed with twigs or bark strips held together with spider webs or caterpillar silk. Another layer of plant fibers, such as weeds and grasses, are added to the nest. Finally, the inside of the nest is lined with fluffy plant seeds (“pappus”) of thistledown and milkweed. It is so tightly constructed that the nest will hold water. The young would drown if the female didn’t shield the nest from rain. The nest is about 3 inches wide on the outside, 2-1/2 inches wide on the inside.

The nest is usually placed in a shrub, sapling, or deciduous tree at the edge of a clearing, not within woods. It is often placed where 2-3 vertical branches come together. The nest may be low, from 3 feet up to 33 feet high above the ground, though frequently not much more than 10 feet high.

Oddly, the mated pair of American Goldfinches often leave the completed nest for several days, or even up to 2 weeks, before coming back to lay eggs.

Nest boxes

Sorry, American Goldfinches will not use artificial nest boxes of any type. However, they will use natural cotton batting if provided as nesting material.

Watch these parents feed their nestlings over about a week’s period of time! How many chicks do you count?

American Goldfinch


American Goldfinches lay 4-6 eggs (rarely 2-7), one each night. These eggs are about 0.65 inches long. They are bluish-white in color. Some eggs are lightly spotted.

The female alone incubates the eggs. She doesn’t start incubating, though, until all the eggs are laid. That way they should all hatch on the same day. The male brings his mate food while she is on the nest. The young hatch after 12-14 days of incubation.

Young–nesting and fledglings

The goldfinch chicks hatch naked (with a little fuzzy down) and with their eyes closed–very helpless. The mother feeds the young at first, the male brings her food to feed the chicks. Soon both parents are busy feeding the hungry nestlings.

The young get fed only seeds. Very few birds feed only vegetable matter to their chicks.

The chicks grow rapidly. Their eyes open after 3 days. After 11-15 days they have completed growing their juvenile feathers. They are ready to leave the nest after 11-17 days. When the do so, they beg for food from their father. He continues with them and feeding them for up to 3 weeks after they leave the nest.

Return to overview page on American Goldfinches.

Wrapping Up

While American Goldfinches aren’t classified as critically endangered or threatened at the global level, their populations have faced significant declines in recent decades, raising concerns about their future. Here’s a breakdown of the situation:

Loss of grasslands and open fields due to urban development and changes in agricultural practices has reduced nesting and foraging opportunities for Goldfinches.

Increased competition for food and nesting sites from other bird species, particularly House Sparrows and European Starlings, can put pressure on Goldfinch populations.

Use of insecticides and herbicides can indirectly affect Goldfinches by reducing insects they rely on for food, especially for rearing their young.

Overreliance on feeders with unsuitable seeds, lacking thistle or other preferred food sources, can lead to nutritional deficiencies and decreased breeding success.

Conservation Efforts:

Initiatives to restore native grasslands and create wildlife-friendly landscapes are crucial for providing suitable habitat for Goldfinches.

Providing feeders with thistle and other preferred seeds, minimizing competition from other birds, and maintaining cleanliness can support local Goldfinch populations.

Raising awareness about the challenges faced by Goldfinches and promoting conservation practices can encourage individuals and communities to take action.

Frequently Asked Questions

Where are American Goldfinches found?

The American Goldfinch is a widespread and familiar bird, found across a vast swathe of North America. Here’s a breakdown of their distribution:

Breeding Range:

  • Canada: From southern Saskatchewan and Manitoba eastward to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.
  • United States: Across most of the continental US, extending from the northern states like Minnesota and Maine down to the Gulf Coast, and from the eastern seaboard to the Rocky Mountains.
  • Mexico: Northern parts of the country.

Wintering Range:

  • Southern United States: Goldfinches from the northern parts of their breeding range migrate south, wintering in areas throughout the southern US, from California to Florida.
  • Mexico and Central America: Some populations, particularly from the western US, winter further south in Mexico and Central America.

Are American Goldfinches friendly?

While American Goldfinches aren’t inherently hostile towards humans, the term “friendly” doesn’t quite describe their relationship with us. Here’s a more nuanced explanation:

Not exactly “friendly:

  • Wild animals: Like most wild birds, Goldfinches prioritize their own survival and well-being. They are not domesticated animals programmed for human interaction.
  • Cautious and vigilant: They remain wary of potential threats, including humans, and will readily fly away if they feel uneasy.
  • Limited interaction: While they might visit feeders you provide, they primarily approach for the food source, not necessarily seeking human company.

What does a female American Goldfinch look like?

Unlike their male counterparts, female American Goldfinches wear a much more subdued costume. Here’s a breakdown of their appearance:

Overall Tone:

  • Compared to the bright yellow males, females are overall greener and browner with a muted yellow tint.
  • They display a streaked, camouflaged pattern that helps them blend with foliage during nesting and raising young.

Key Features:

  • Head and Back: These areas showcase a mix of olive-green, brown, and pale yellow streaks, lacking the bold black cap of males.
  • Underparts: The belly and undertail feathers are a pale yellowish-green, lacking the vibrant canary yellow of males.
  • Wings: Black wings with prominent white wing bars, similar to males, but lacking the bright yellow edges.
  • Bill: The bill is typically a dull orange or brownish-orange, less vibrant than the bright orange of males.
  • Size: Both sexes are roughly the same size, around 4-5 inches in length.
  Female American Goldfinch by Imogen Warren
Comments 6
  1. I have a nyjer feeder in my Asian pear apple trees and there are dozens of house and goldfinches stuffing themselves daily. Is this a good thing for them? A friend said I should leave them alone. I live in Northern California (SF) and I could swear they have had two clutches already but it is July 1. I am sadly very poor and they are eating 20 pounds of seed every three weeks! Is all of this good or should I stop feeding them? I love to see the babies coming to my back porch for water.

  2. Two clutches already? That would be early. Finches feed their babies seeds, so the bird feeder is a wonderful source of easy food right now.

    The water is wonderful.

    Here's what to do. Determine how much you want and can afford to feed each week. Then only put 1/7th that amount in each day. When it's gone, they have to wait until tomorrow.

  3. She could also feed a cheaper type of seed, nyjer is expensive and my goldfinch like other mixed seed I buy better.

  4. Yes, the goldfinches will eat other seeds. Speaking of which, I'm out again, myself. Or, rather, the birds are out!

  5. Need advice on something, please.

    We planted a very large “crop circle” of wildflowers which has proven to be a terrific source of seed for goldfinches all summer long.

    I do need to mow down the crop circle at some point this fall, but I was just reading that goldfinches nest late…July and August in my area…and I’m terrified that if I mow down the remaining dead stalks that have been feeding these lovely birds that I’ll upset habitat that is being used. I’m in Polk County, NC.

    Just trying to get an idea of when to mow that field so as to provide maximum food or habitat for them. I haven’t seen as many goldfinches in the last three weeks, so just wondering if it’s safe to do so now? Any advice would be helpful.

  6. I wish someone would have answered because I have the same problem

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