the least of them all

California has three species of Goldfinches:  the ubiquitous America Goldfinch that seems to thrive throughout most all of the U.S for at least part of the year.; Lawrence’s Goldfinch that has a very limited range restricted to western rangelands and woodlands in California and northern Baja; and the Lesser Goldfinch, which occurs in most of the southwestern U.S. and Mexico.  All are small songbirds, but the Lesser Goldfinch is the smallest of them; in fact, it may be the smallest true finch in the world (3.5 -4.5 inches in length and 8-10 grams in weight).  Black-capped Chickadees would dwarf these diminutive little birds.

I found a flock of Lesser Goldfinches feasting on seeds of a perennial herb in someone’s beautiful urban Los Angeles garden last week.  They were so busy tearing into those plants, they completely ignored me.

Some males were a little brighter yellow than others (maturity?), but perhaps some are just slower to molt into their winter plumage.

Males have a bright yellow chest and abdomen, black head, and black and white tails.

Males in the eastern half of the range and in Mexico are black-backed, and those in the western half of the range (e.g., California) are green-backed, although the light was sufficiently bad where I found them foraging that I couldn’t really tell what color the back of the bird was.

lesser goldfinches, Spinus psaltria

Ripping into the dried seed heads of these perennials with vigor!

Ripping into the dried seed heads of these perennials with vigor!

Although they are quite gregarious, forming mixed flocks with Lawrence’s Goldfinch where they co-occur, the Lesser Goldfinch dominates the other species and drives them away from potential food sources.  Their pugnacious habit reminds me of another small-bodied, feisty little bird that I recently wrote about (the Rufous Hummingbird, see previous post).

4 thoughts on “the least of them all

  1. That first shot of the Lesser Goldfinch is especially beautiful, Sue. The bright yellow color of goldfinches (in certain seasons) always makes me feel happy. It’s nice to see that you are able to photograph some different species when you are away from home. Although American goldfinches may be ubiquitous, I have found it tough to get good shots of them. Usually I can’t get close enough and when I am able to do so, their heads are usually buried in flowers.

    • Thanks, Mike. The first photo was definitely the prettiest male I saw in the bunch. Most of the birds were a much duller yellow, or perhaps were molting their yellow feathers to the duller winter plumage.

    • Head-to-head competition sometimes results in exaggerated size differences between species. They might be able to specialize on different food sources as a result. Alternatively, if you are smaller, you require less food per day, so it is easier to survive in marginal habitats. Some possibilities, anyway.

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