The European Goldfinch


Welcome to everything you need to know about the European goldfinch. Here I answer any question you have on goldfinches as a part of a series on garden birds of Ireland and the UK.


What do goldfinch like to eat?

You might be wondering what Goldfinch favourite foods are so that you know how to attract Goldfinch birds into your garden. For your feeder you may be wondering can Goldfinches eat sunflower seeds? If you want to provide their most loved food then fill your Goldfinch bird feeders with seeds. This species of garden bird are specialist seed feeders due to their long thin beaks therefore in the wild this is their go to food. They are the only bird that can access the teasel seeds due to these thin long beaks.

The main wild seeds that Goldfinches eat are mostly that of fine grasses, thistle and teasel seeds, sunflower seeds and dandelion seeds. They also eat tree seeds such as alder and birch. 

A survey by the British Trust for Ornithology’s (BTO) was carried out and found that their preference at bird feeders was first sunflower hearts and then niger seed followed by wild seeds such as teasel and thistle. The study found the tastes of Goldfinches seem to have changed over time and it appears that they have a definite preference for either one or the other, rarely visiting both in the same garden. 


Will Goldfinch eat old niger seed?

Unfortunately as niger seed gets old it dried out and becomes unattractive to birds. Best practice is to change it out often and not to put out too much at a time. Try to just buy enough for 1 - 2 months at a time. 

If the seed is old and gets mouldy in your feeder it can cause harm to your garden birds.

If you see nyger seed on the ground and think the birds aren't eating it...look again. This may just be the hull of the seed.  

This seed comes from the African Yellow Daisy. 


Will Goldfinch eat mealworm?

As chicks they will eat insects and they decrease this for seeds as they become older. Insects are often added to their diet in the summer months. 


Why Goldfinches stopped coming to feeder?

If you are no longer seeing goldfinch on feeders then be conscious of these factors:

  • Cats or bird predators such as sparrow hawk that might be in the area.
  • The food you provided. Is it suitable for the garden species you are expecting? Is the seed old or fresh?
  • Your neighbours. Have they started to provide bird feeding areas?
  • The variety of food you are providing.
  • Time of year. Fledglings will need to be shown how to search for wild seed and where to find it by their parents. It might also be the time of year some of the goldfinch migrate.
  • Natural food is abundant. In Autumn berries, fruit, insects and seeds could be plentiful meaning the feeder isn't necessary just yet. If natural food is abundant this is great news for your garden birds as they get good variety.

 Goldfinch on the ground with a great tit flying away

Where is the goldfinch a native bird species?

Europe, North Africa, Western and Central Asia.


Where have goldfinches been introduced?

Goldfinches have escaped aviary cages in Uruguay and they have spread to look for thistles in Argentina and Brazil.   

They were introduced to the United States and they have become established in the Great Lakes region. 

In Australia goldfinches can be found from Brisbane to the Eyre Peninsula. They are found all over New Zealand. 

Other countries include: Canada, Bermuda. Mexico, Peru, Chile, the Falkland Islands and South Africa. 


Are goldfinches migratory?

Some actually are! The majority will spend the year in the UK and Ireland but others will migrate as far south as Spain to a warmer climate.  They are easy to see as they usually prefer to travel in flocks sometimes numbering 40-100 especially in winter.


When do goldfinch migrate?

Usually if goldfinch are going to migrate it will be in September or October. 


Are Goldfinches rare?

The worldwide European goldfinch population size is around 101-155 million mature individuals according to the IUCN.

In Europe, the breeding population is 27.8-42.7 million pairs.

The Goldfinch population UK is thought to be around 1.2 million pairs.

They are vulnerable due to habitation challenges of woodland and tree clearing. Pesticides used in farming have a big affect on them also. Goldfinch numbers are not increasing but they are classed as Least Concern. 


Where to watch goldfinch?

Goldfinches are found near rough ground feeding on thistle and teasel seeds. Anywhere with scattered trees and bushes for nesting and cover. This can include parks, orchards, heathlands and gardens. 



Where do they nest?

The Goldfinch nests in thick cover several meters above the ground. The goldfinch habitat can range from gardens, parks, woodland to open fields. Areas with scattered trees. They are common throughout the UK and Ireland but they especially have found southern UK habitats as well as Ireland habitats. They are rarer in the mountainous regions of Scotland especially that of the far north and west.  


When do goldfinch nest?



How and what does a goldfinch use to build its nest?

A goldfinch will build a delicate nest of moss, grass, lichen, hairs and feathers. The nest is cup-shaped and lined with wool or plant down(eg.thistles). The female goldfinch builds it alone in a tree towards the end of a branch or in a bush. It takes around 1 week to build. 


Will goldfinches nest in birdhouses?

No. Goldfinch nesting habits differ from tits and other cavity nesters. They usually build nests at the end of swaying branches or in bushes. 


When do goldfinch lay eggs?

Typically they lay around 5 eggs in June which will hatch 2 weeks later. The female incubates the eggs while the male feeds her but both parents feed the chicks. The goldfinch chicks will remain in the nest for 2 - 2.5 more weeks before attempting their first flight.  If it is a good year then the goldfinch pair may have upto 3 broods. 


What does a goldfinch egg look like?

The goldfinch egg size is around 17mm X 13mm and they weigh 1.5g.  They are glossy with a whitish colour with sparse red speckles.


What is the average lifespan of a goldfinch?

The goldfinch lifespan is around in the wild and in captivity 8 - 12 years.


What does a goldfinch look like?

The adult goldfinch has a black and white head with a red mask. The upper body is a beautiful beige white The underneath is white with buff patches on the chest and flanks.


During the breeding season the goldfinch beak will turn an ivory white but for the rest of the year it has a greyish or black tip. The wings are black with small white spots and a bright yellow band.  The tail is also black with small white spots and forked.  The legs and feet are pinkish in colour. 

The goldfinch fledglings have a different plumage. Goldfinch juvenile plumage is duller in colour than the adults. The colours are mainly pale grey, beige and whites but look out for the yellow band on the wing that is similar to the adult. This is an unmistakable identification cue. 


How to differentiate male and female Goldfinches?

When identifying look for a larger, darker red mask that extends just behind the eye. If you see this then you have identified a male. The males also have shoulder feathers are black. On the female the shoulder feathers are brown.

Generally the more colourful a bird is it tends to be the male but in the case of the Goldfinch male and females it is much more subtle. 


When does a goldfinch moult?

The moulting period of an adult begins in July when the breeding season has finished and some only complete their moult in November. The new feathers are not as colourful until the tips wear away. 


What does a goldfinch sound like?

The goldfinch song is that of a flowing twitter.  The goldfinch singing is quite melodic and pleasant to hear. 


What type of behaviour do goldfinch have at the birdfeeder?

These birds can feed in groups and be quite sociable with mixed species but often they will show aggressive behaviours. It's a common sight to see goldfinch with high wing fluttering and threatening open beak gestures in flight.

 Goldfinch on a feeder with a blue tit.

What about goldfinch courtship behaviour?

The courtship begins in March and the breeding season is from April. If you are lucky you might spot a goldfinch courtship display and you will recognise this by the male sitting close to the female and stretching out his wings and alternately swaying side to side.  A great way to display his beautiful yellow banded wings. The female will repeat the swaying behaviour. She may beg for food and quiver her body. The male will feed her as though a baby bird. 


What are the signs of illness and disease in goldfinch birds?

Some things you should look out for are:

  • Crusting around the eyes or beak
  • Matted, fluffed(when it's not cold) or missing feathers
  • Visible wounds or lesions
  • Sitting still even when approached
  • Not looking around when sitting
  • Head tilt to one side


Leave the birds alone as much as possible as you don't want to distress them incase they are just in need of a rest.


Goldfinch Trichomoniasis: This also affects Greenfinches, Chaffinches, and other finch species. This disease effects the back of the throat and gullet. Contamination is usually through shared food and water. Goldfinch with Trichomonosis parasite cannot be treated practically.


Signs of trichomoniasis in goldfinch birds:

  • fluffed up feathers
  • slow movement
  • difficulty swallowing
  • food stuck around the bill

The best solution is to take down all feeders and bird tables and sterilise them. Only return these when they have dried properly.  The recommendations are to wait 2-3 weeks before feeding again to prevent these garden birds from gathering to one place and spreading the disease further. Wait an extra 2 weeks before returning water sources. Avoid the spread of the infection at all costs. 


Prevention of Trichominasis:

    • Spread out your feeders to prevent large congregations of birds.
    • Move feeders regularly so bird droppings do not build up.
    • Use mesh feeders with good drainage.
    • If water baths are necessary change the water daily.
    • Clean the area under the feeders regularly. 


How to avoid disease in my garden birds?
    • Clean feeders regularly
    • Don't overfill feeders.
    • Shake feeders daily.
    • Keep feeding area safe from predators
    • Supply clean water.
    • Dispose of any dead birds.


Can Goldfinches be pets?
No. These are wild birds and belong in nature. They prefer to travel in flocks. It is also not necessary when you can place a feeder in your garden and enjoy them from a distance. In the wild they will breed with other Goldfinch and produce young in the spring. This is far more exciting and beautiful to watch than a caged bird. 

At one time in Europe particularly in the 19th century Goldfinch were commonly kept as caged birds because of their pleasant song and colourful appearance but with declining garden bird numbers this would be extremely irresponsible today. During this time their numbers were brought alarmingly low.


What do you call a group of Goldfinch?
The collective noun for a Goldfinch group is a charm.

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