What kinds of finches can you find in California?
Finches are incredibly beautiful birds and a lot of fun to see in your backyard.
Luckily, almost all of them will visit bird feeders, so you have a good chance of attracting multiple types of finches to your yard. If you’re lucky, you may even see a finch at my bird feeding station right now! I have a LIVE high-definition camera watching my bird feeders 24/7. 🙂
14 types of finches in California:
Below you will learn more about each species AND how to identify them by sight OR sound. Make sure to pay attention to the range maps to see which finches live near you!
#1. American Goldfinch
- Spinus tristis
- In summer, males are a vivid yellow with a black cap and black wings. Females are a duller yellow and lack a black cap.
- In winter, both sexes look the same and turn a pale brown/olive color. They are identified by their black wings and white wing bar.
These small and colorful finches are relatively common in California.
And luckily, American Goldfinches are fairly easy to attract to bird feeders! Try offering their favorite foods, sunflower kernels and Nyjer seed, which not many other birds eat.
It’s also helpful to include bird feeders specially designed for goldfinches. These small birds are easily scared off by larger “bullies.” They will appreciate having places that only they can use! I like the fact they can feed in any position, even upside down.
American Goldfinch Range Map
American Goldfinches are strict vegetarians. Their diet is exclusively made of seeds with no insects, which is rare in the bird world. Naturally, they feast on seeds from asters, thistles, sunflowers, grasses, and many types of trees.
Because of their diet, American Goldfinches breed later than other birds. They wait until June or July, when most plants are in full seed production, ensuring there is enough food for them to feed their babies.
To identify them by sound, listen for a pretty series of musical trills and warbles.
#2. House Finch
- Haemorhous mexicanus
- Adult males are rosy red around their heads and upper breasts. They have brown streaks on their back, tail, and belly.
- Females are brown with streaks on their back, tail, and belly.
- Both sexes have conical beaks designed to eat seeds and notched tails.
It’s common to see House Finches in California near people.
Look for them around buildings, backyards, parks, and other urban and suburban areas.
House Finch Range Map
In fact, House Finches are often the first birds to discover new bird feeders. These birds are intensely curious and rarely travel alone, so their arrival often helps other birds find your feeders too! I see them eating sunflower seed, Nyjer seed, and safflower in my yard.
House Finches have an enjoyable song, which can be heard year-round. Listen below to a series of jumbled, warbled notes.
#3. Pine Siskin
- Spinus pinus
- Both sexes are small, brown, and have streaks with fine yellow edging on their wings and tails.
- Sharply pointed bill and a short, forked tail and long pointed wingtips.
- The only finch in California where males and females look the same.
Pine Siskins are social and search for food in flocks while chirping nonstop to each other. They don’t even stop chattering when flying!
Pine Siskin Range Map
Pine Siskins feed at backyard feeders normally in the winter. They prefer to eat smaller seeds without tough shells, such as sunflower or Nyjer seeds.
Pine Siskins are typically found in mixed evergreen or deciduous forests, but they will move to a new place in search of food, like weedy fields, backyards, or gardens.
Listen below to Pine Siskin’s song, which is a twittering warble that rises and falls in pitch. They randomly throw in a “ZZZzzzzzreeee” that rises in pitch ever so often. You will notice they sound more wheezy than other finches in California.
#4. Evening Grosbeak
- Coccothraustes vespertinus
- Both sexes have a large, thick, conical beak and are the size of an American Robin.
- Males are yellow and black with a prominent white patch in the wings and a bright yellow stripe over the eye.
- Females are mostly gray with white and black wings and a greenish-yellow tinge on the neck and their sides.
Evening Grosbeaks are one of the largest finches in California.
Typically, they are found in the northern coniferous forests, and in winter, they can be found pretty much anywhere as they search for food.
Evening Grosbeaks are known for their large and strong bill. They use these bills to crack open large seeds that other birds are unable to open.
Evening Grosbeak Range Map
In fact, these finches will show up at feeders far south of their normal winter range, which provides a treat for backyard birders. You can attract them with sunflower seeds placed onto a large platform feeder, which gives these birds ample room to land and eat.
Evening Grosbeaks are one of the few finches in California without a song. But they do have some simple calls, including sweet, piercing notes and burry chirps, which you can hear below!
#5. Red Crossbill
- Loxia curvirostra
- Sparrow-sized. Look for their distinctive crisscrossed bills (which means the tip of their beak doesn’t come exactly together, it crosses, like if you would cross your fingers)
- Males are red overall with darker brownish-red wings and white wing bars.
- Females are full-bodied and are yellowish with dark unmarked wings.
As their name suggests, Red Crossbills have crisscrossed bills, similar to if you cross your fingers. They adapted these oddly shaped bills to help them break into tightly closed cones, giving them an advantage over other finch species in California.
They are found in large coniferous forests during their breeding season, especially spruce, pine, Douglas-fir, hemlock, or larch with recent cone crops. But in winter, they wander wherever they need to go to find food. While not incredibly common, they will sometimes visit bird feeders and eat sunflower seeds.
Red Crossbill Range Map
Red Crossbills are very dependent on conifer seeds. In fact, they even feed them to their babies instead of insects like most other songbirds. These finches typically breed in late summer but can actually breed any time during the year if a large enough cone crop is available.
Males sing a variably sweet warble, which sounds like “chipa-chipa-chipa, chee-chee-chee.“ Females rarely sing, but they have call notes that are sharp and metallic.
#6. Purple Finch
- Haemorhous purpureus
- Small, with a conical seed-eating bill.
- Males have a raspberry red head, breast, and back.
- Females have prominent streaks of white and brown below, with strong facial markings, including a whitish eyebrow and a dark line down the side of the throat.
Male Purple Finches are beautiful and have been described as having looked like they were dipped in raspberry juice.
Purple Finches have a big beak and tongue to crush seeds and extract the nut. This is good news because they will also visit bird feeders! Your best chance to attract them is using black-oil sunflower seeds. Having conifer trees in your yard is also a great way to encourage these finches to visit.
Purple Finch Range Map
Purple Finches can be challenging to identify because they look incredibly similar to the more common House Finch. I know that I’ve made this mistake many times, hoping that I saw a Purple Finch when it was, in fact, just another House Finch. To tell them apart, look at their back, as Purple Finches have red coloring on it, where the back of a House Finch has none.
Similar to other finches in California, males sing a rich, musical warble. Listen below!
#7. Blue Grosbeak
- Passerina caerulea
- Stocky finch with a huge, triangular bill.
- Males are deep, rich blue with a tiny black mask in front of the eyes, chestnut wing bars, and a black-and-silver beak.
- Females are primarily cinnamon-brown. The color is richer on the head, paler on the underparts; their tails are bluish.
Blue Grosbeaks like to eat seeds and grains at bird feeders in shrubby backyards because they feel more protected. You will normally hear them singing before you see them.
Blue Grosbeaks Range Map
Blue Grosbeaks are very shy, especially around humans, which makes them very difficult to observe. Interestingly, both males and females have a weird habit of twitching their tails sideways, although the reason for this behavior is unknown.
Blue grosbeaks have also been known to “sidle”, where they walk sideways along branches, as seen in parrots. Listen below as the male Blue Grosbeak sings a musical warble that lasts for 2 or 3 seconds.
#8. Black-headed Grosbeak
- Pheucticus melanocephalus
- Both sexes have large heads, thick beaks, short and thick necks, and a short tail that gives them a compact, chunky look.
- Males are orange-cinnamon color with a black head and black-and-white wings.
- Females and immature males have grayish bills and flash bright yellow under the wings when flying.
Black-headed Grosbeaks like to hide in thick foliage, and they are known to hop around while searching for food. Their giant beaks are perfectly adapted for cracking seeds, but they also use them to crush hard-bodied insects like snails!
Black-headed Grosbeak Range Map
Like other finches in California, you can attract Black-headed Grosbeaks by providing sunflower seeds. But interestingly, this species has a sweet tooth, and is also known to visit nectar feeders! They will nest in your backyard and garden if there is enough cover and water is close by.
Both male and female Black-headed Grosbeaks sing. The female song is not as long and not as loud, and she sings less than the male. The males sing a rich song with high-pitched notes from treetops. Listen below:
#9. Pine Grosbeak
- Pinicola enucleator
- Large, plump finches. Look for dark gray wings with two white lines across the middle.
- Males are reddish pink and gray in color.
- Females and young males are grayish with tints of reddish-orange or yellow on the head and rump.
Pine Grosbeaks are one of the largest finches in California!
If one lands on your feeders, they are typically easy to identify since they will be bigger than almost all the other birds.
Pine Grosbeaks frequently visit feeders, especially during the winter. If you want to attract them, try using a hopper or platform feeder because of the bird’s larger size. Fill the feeders with sunflower seeds.
Pine Grossbeak Range Map
Pine Grosbeaks are relatively easy to find and see due to their slow-moving (some people call sluggish) behavior. In addition, they are relatively tame and not scared away easily.
Male Pine Grosbeaks sing a high-pitched warble that goes up and down. Listen below! Females do not sing very often.
#10. Lesser Goldfinch
- Males are bright yellow below with a glossy black cap and white patches in the wings; black tail and backs can be glossy black or sometimes dull green.
- Females and young males have olive backs, dull yellow underparts, and black wings marked by two whitish bars on the wings.
The Lesser Goldfinch is one of the smallest finches in California.
Look for these birds gathering in large groups, which can number up to several hundred individuals. When flying, they have the same roller coaster style flight as the American Goldfinch.
Lesser Goldfinch Range Map
Lesser Goldfinches are often found in suburbs where they are common visitors to feeders. These small finches eat sunflower seeds, along with the thin-hulled seeds of Nyjer/thistle.
The male’s song is a rapid medley of twittering notes, lasting up to 10 seconds.
#11. Lawrence’s Goldfinch
- Spinus lawrencei
- Small finches.
- Males are mostly gray with yellow on the breast, upper belly, wings, and back. Their chin, face, and crown of the head are black.
- Females are similar but have brown above, with no black in the face and less yellow in the plumage.
Lawrence’s Goldfinches are one of the most beautiful finches in California.
Interestingly, these birds are highly nomadic due to the fact they live in extremely arid areas. They move around constantly looking for places that provide food and water.
Lawrence’s Goldfinch Range Map
Lawrence’s Goldfinches don’t get their yellow breeding feathers through molting (like most birds). Rather, the feathers become yellower as they wear, shedding their brownish color and exposing yellow parts of the feather beneath. No other goldfinches acquire breeding plumage in this manner.
Lawrence’s Goldfinches are sometimes attracted to feeders. Your best bet is to fill them with Nyjer or shelled sunflower seeds.
Listen below as the male Lawrence’s Goldfinch sings several high-pitched notes mixed with some of their call notes. Typically they are musical than other finches, and they can often imitate other birds.
#12. Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch
- Leucosticte tephrocotis
- Males are a rich brown. Look for pink plumage on the body, a gray head, and a black forecrown, throat, and bill.
- Females are similar but with fewer amounts of pink, and their bill is yellow.
These finches are found at high elevations in California!
Look for them high on mountains or cliffs where they forage on loose stones, glaciers, meadows, and even avalanche areas. They even nest on the slopes of Mt. McKinley, which is the highest peak in North America.
Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch Range Map
Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches may visit backyard bird feeders in the winter when they come down a bit from the mountains. They like to eat black oil sunflower seed scattered on the ground or platform feeders.
Listen below to the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finch chattering cheep cheep song.
#13. Black Rosy-Finch
- Leucosticte atrata
- Medium-sized and chunky finches, with a conical bill and a notched tail.
- Males are brownish and have some pink highlights and a yellow bill.
- Females are blackish overall with pink highlights on the wings and lower belly and a gray crown. They have a black bill.
Black Rosy-Finches are incredibly unique birds. To find them in summer, you will need to head above the treeline. They nest on the sides of cliffs and other mountainous areas where few people ever travel.
Black Rosy-Finch Range Map
In winter, they come down from the mountains a bit to escape the cold. They form large flocks and are found roosting together in caves, mineshafts, and inside barns.
Black Rosy-Finches will even visit bird feeders in California during winter! To attract them, try offering sunflower and Nyjer seeds on platform feeders or scattering them on the ground.
Black Rosy-Finches do not have a song, but they give low cheep note calls.
#14. Cassin’s Finch
- Haemorhous cassinii
- Small finches with short-medium tails, streaked feathers, and thick bills.
- Males are rosy pink all over with more red on top of their heads.
- Females and young Cassin’s Finches are brown and white birds with dark streaks on the chest and underparts.
Male Cassin’s get the red on the top of their head from eating colorful foods like the orange berries of firethorn plants.
Cassin’s Finch Range Map
Cassin’s Finches visit feeders in the winter that provide sunflower seeds. They also like shrubs with fruit such as mulberry, firethorn, or grape bushes. Interestingly, they crave salt and are often found visiting deposits of minerals on the ground.
Their songs tend to imitate other birds, and both males and females sing. Listen below as a male Cassin’s Finch sings a joyful song with a quick series of short sounds.
Which of these finches have you seen before in California?
Leave a comment below!
To learn more about birds that live near you, check out these other guides!
The range maps below were generously shared with permission from Birds of the World, published by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I use their site OFTEN to learn new information about birds!