The Goldfinch in Winter is a Bird of a Different Color


Kissed by the sun.

A Goldfinch in Winter is a bird that may be one to give a second look. Cornell wrote an article in their quarterly guide All About Birds, on the American Goldfinch. In it they ask, “Which three birds are these? An American Goldfinch, a Snow Bunting and a Pine Siskin?”

It was a trick question because all three were Goldfinches, all just in a different winter attire. And yes, it is still winter here with an added foot of snow this week. I guess the little birds might want to still keep on their warm coats.


The American Goldfinch wears a few different winter coats too. They vary in plumage from pale olive, to whitish like you might see in a Snow Bunting. I am not sure with the lack of breast streaking, dabs of yellow of the face and throat on the Goldfinch how they resemble a Pine Siskin though? The Snow Bunting also seems distinctive to me, being what I think a prettier bird in winter since they don’t moult to an alternate or duller plumage, plus they have that soft-as-driven-snow coloring.


Cornell’s article explains the winter plumage variance of the Goldfinch quite well. It is due to age and sex of the bird. Males are likely to be a bit more colorful than females, even when dressed in the drab yellow plumage.

Over the winter season, the birds might wear down the feathers or the feathers may get bleached from the sun, giving them a whiter appearance. Goldfinches also get darker beaks in fall and winter.


I take notice of these things and it perks my curiosity. I do like how the males get a makeover come Spring. Wow, do they become a brilliant yellow. I did try to find out why goldfinches molt to drab yellow, but could not find a good reason. After all, Cardinals molt to flashy red and become more vivid. So this intrigued me. All I could find out was it was to protect the goldfinch from becoming prey, but I think there must be another reason these guys cross-dress like the ladies.

In my research, I came across a site that shows these birds up close in all seasons. If you are as inquisitive as me, check this out. My post only shows birds visiting my feeder in winter. I have summer shots also, but most people recognize a goldfinch because of the very bright yellow plumage.


Ever notice that nearly all of the birds that hang around in the winter do so in flocks?


Being in a flock makes it less likely that something will eat you, yes, by one of these.


Other birds let you know the best seed locations too. Mixed flock behavior has many benefits for small songbirds such as these Goldfinch.


The Goldfinch in my yard came in a small flock to mix in with dove, cardinals, sparrows, Black-eyed Juncos, chickadee and nuthatch.


When the feeders are free of Starlings and Sparrows, the Goldfinch fly in and eat as much as they can, as fast as they can.


About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at:
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26 Responses to The Goldfinch in Winter is a Bird of a Different Color

  1. Rose says:

    Hi, Donna; I’ve been waiting for this post ever since you mentioned it. It’s interesting that no one quite knows why the goldfinch changes color, but avoiding prey certainly seems logical. I’ve noticed a lot of red-tailed hawks circling here this winter, and that bright yellow would be sure to catch their eye. I didn’t even realize until a couple of years ago that the finches did this; I thought they all flew south for the winter:) While doing the GBBC, I was excited to find that I could finally pick out a finch here–with the help of my bird book, that is–he certainly blended in with the rest of the crowd. Thanks for the interesting info!

    • I have been so far behind in getting scheduled posts out because posts like the falls getting iced up need to be current. Thanks for waiting, Rose. I think there was more hawks here this winter because of the constant snow cover keeping the rodents safe ftom predation. I will have to look that up too. I wonder how my small trees will fare from rodent girdling due to this?

  2. gauchoman2002 says:

    Excellent pictures and interesting information. I’ll have to pay more attention and give a second look to the otherwise drab birds at the feeders in winter. I had always assumed that all the goldfinches left this part of North Dakota for the winter, but maybe they didn’t go south seeking warmer climes, maybe they’re just in disguise.

    • Thank you. That is what it took for me… paying more attention. I was photographing birds at the feeder early Winter and thought it was all sparrows, then I noticed a few birds stood out. Being smaller than sparrows, I had to put on my glasses to see what they were. They really blend into their surroundings to match the environment. Most Goldfinch do move South in Winter, but this year, like robins ( Why Are Robins Still Here in Winter? ) and a few other birds, hung around. I think all the birds that stayed really picked the wrong year to remain in place. I heard next year could be an El Niño event. They should hang around then as it will make our Winter more mild and maybe snow free. There’s about a 50% chance of this weather phenomenon happening according to predictions being examined now. Good for our weather woes this year, no?

  3. patricksgarden1 says:

    Hey Donna,
    It seemed to me you were too quick to discount this is all about prey protection. Makes a whole lot of sense to me that evolution would favor the almost drab color when there is no foliage cover. Come on, Donna, put your scientific hat back on.

    • The peak of the Spring molt occurs in April, so I will have to ask one! I do acknowledge that birds control body temperature and attempt to match the environment with the molt – since so much known reasoning is based on this, but if you saw my Cardinal post (link in post) they have an opposite approach. Goldfinch are also “color feeders” meaning their bright color derives from the seed they eat. Leutin, zeoxanthin, and beta-carotene in the plants of the bird’s diet must be available in the Spring diet when the birds are replacing their drab feathers to turn lemon-yellow. That explains how the birds change to yellow, and maybe partially responsible for why they are drab when the seeds are picked clean through winter. I have no idea exactly since I am guessing, but I am pretty sure it is a bit more than only to match the environment for safety. It could have something to do with mating come spring too since both males and females are harder to differentiate from a distance. The lemon males may have an earlier advantage in snagging a female come Spring. Everything seems to be a bit more complicated than the simplest explanation when nature is involved.

  4. It may be wishful thinking (we still have more than a foot of snow and sub-freezing temps) but I believe the goldfinches at my feeder are becoming more yellow each day. And I hear birdsong at dawn. Spring must be nearby! P. x

    • Some of the Goldfinch start turning in February in the Northeast, but not all of them. I never did see a bright yellow one this early though, but they are starting to change here as well. I can at least start seeing the males “be males”. I wrote this post early this year and never got around to posting it, so photos of them are not as current.

  5. Pretty bird, pretty bird!

  6. Debra says:

    I just love all the golden tones in the first picture — in the twigs and buds — even the light has honey tints.

    hahaha Just the other day I saw a huge flock of birds at the neighbor’s feeder. Someone must have chirped ‘Hawk!’ because they all scattered in a flash and sure enough overhead even I saw the familiar wing shape. It kind of reminded me of how we used to play street hockey when I was a kid. We played on the front street and when a car would come along the spotter would yell, ‘Car!’ We’d all move to the sidewalk to let it pass and then carry on.

    I love how you managed to catch sight of the lovely hawk. We can even see his extended feet.

    • I laughed because I played street hockey with the neighborhood boys too when I was a kid. We scattered so fast when a car was coming, dragging the net to the curb. The color in the images is from the late day sun hitting my pear tree. It makes the Goldfinch glow too. I need your link!

  7. acuriousgal says:

    Your pictures are so stunning…..again, I love your posts!!!

  8. I’ve a couple of possible theories (purely conjecture) on the drabness of the males come Winter. Beside the obvious benefit of protection from predation, it may also conserve energy during the Autumn molt. It is possible more bodily resources are required to produce the vibrant color that are best reserved for Winter survival. Alternatively, it could be hormonal. We do know that the angle of the Sun has a strong effect on avian endocrinology and perhaps as the Sun’s angle becomes less direct, chemicals involved in feather color may be modified. I’ve often noted that the male Cardinals have less vibrant feathers, particularly on the underside, during Winter so perhaps my guesses hold some water. If only I had a lab to test such things. Thanks for the wonderful post!

    • I like both conjectures. The sun is responsible for dulling feathers so that makes sense it could have to do with the light’s reaction to the chemicals involved in feather production and overall maintenance. Not like this is an earth shattering question, but I always think our observations help science look more closely. Too often the most obvious answer is not the only answer. The fact that the birds exhibit differing variations during the course of Winter plumage care (or lack of care) makes me think like you that there is hormonal factors along with food availability as well. Thank you for your observations. Who knows, someone in avian science may do a study on what you are suggesting.

  9. Phil Lanoue says:

    They really are cute little guys, but sure have to be alert for hawks!

  10. I spent a good amount of time following the links, soaking in the photos, and truly savoring this feast of scientific info…thank you for feeding this person’s ‘soul’ with the words, facts, photos of your bird subject(s).
    Did you notice how the mottled background of your first three photos actually contribute to that sense of ‘illumination’ of the birds coloring? Gorgeous.

  11. I would not have recognized these as goldfinches. Thanks for the great information.

  12. Goldfinches are a favorite of mine, I love watching them eat the seeds of Cup Plant, Sunflower, or Agastache. There are quite a few around the feeders here these days. I put out nyjer for them despite the expense. I always look forward to seeing them come out in their bright plumage in spring. Sad to say, I haven’t seen pine siskins or snow buntings in my garden.

  13. janechese says:

    Te only thing similar to a siskin is the shape of the tail and wings, though was surprised the male loses his black cap.

  14. Such beautiful birds… Exquisite photos, my dear Donna – not surprisingly so!
    Have a wonderful Sunday and new week! 🙂

  15. All of a sudden, the goldfinches are massing here again. I saw a few during the earlier part of the winter, but so many of them lately! Today was like a crazy bird party in my neighborhood. It always happens soon after the great backyard bird count–I guess we warm up a little later up here in the north. 😉 It’s not that the birds aren’t here during the winter, they just aren’t as active until those first “warmish” days of late winter/spring–like we’re having now! Most of the goldfinches here are still dull, but I’m noticing a change. Thanks for that great link describing all the seasonal plumage colors.

  16. Isn’t it interesting how their bills get dark too? They need the carotenoids in their diet in order to keep their bills bright orange!

  17. Fossillady says:

    Your photos are marvelous Donna, the birds sure keep you busy between feeding them, watching them as discriminate as you do and photographing them! I love the gold finches too!

  18. I love watching the transformation of my goldfinches a few times a year…such amazing fun filled birds. They are a regular visitor here since I leave so many seed heads for them throughout the season.

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