Ask SIB – Little Yellow Birds!

I’m hoping you can help me learn how to distinguish between an immature and/or female Pine Warbler from an immature and/or female American Goldfinch.  Stated differently which is the Pine Warbler and which is the American Goldfinch? Last week I held back my Feeder Watch bird count for several days in order to do a little research before I submitted the count.  When I did finally submit I identified them as all American Goldfinches but now I think they were Pine Warblers or perhaps a combination of both as there were groups of five and six at one time.  I have consulted iBirdPro, Sibley and Merlin as well as several other on-line sources.  My head is spinning; these feathered friends have many similar characteristics this time of year. 

I know that the males of both species are bright yellow but it’s the immature and/or female of both species that is driving me nuts as they both seem to have a muted olive whitish coloring although I think the goldfinch has black or at least darker wings.  One source states that pine warblers have two white wingbars on each side but unless they are in flight I can’t always visualize both bars.   Anyway I’m aware there’s a huge list of identifying characteristics, including the bill, which I’ve tried to utilize to definitively id the species but not having the best of luck. 

What distinguishing features do you use to discern the difference between these two species?  Are the photos that I’ve attached Pine Warblers?  I resized the photos in order to send via email but if the resolution is poor once you zoom let me know and I’ll resize larger. 

Valerie Doane, SIB Member

Fun challenge, but easy when you know what to look for. American Goldfinch are in the finch family, so their bill is thick and conical, designed for eating seeds. The pine warbler is a warbler. Its bill is thin and tweezer-like, designed for picking insects off leaves and bark.

While both have wing bars, the wings of the goldfinch are darker. Pine Warblers also tend to be loners while goldfinches tend to hang around in groups during the winter months. American Goldfinches tend to feed by grabbing a perch on the feeders and not moving until they are satisfied or chased away. The tend to be pugnacious, fighting and bickering with their neighbors on other perches. A Pine Warbler, if it visits a feeder, usually will dash in grab something and dash away. There are always exceptions.

Bob Mercer, SIB’s “Resident Naturalist”

The first two photos were taken by Valerie and sent with her question. They are both American Goldfinches. Note how thick the bill is at the face and the black wings.

The photo above is a Pine Warbler taken by Valerie Doane. Note the thin bill and grayer wings.
This photo, also taken by Valerie Doane, demonstrates the group feeding behavior common to American Goldfinches.

And finally, Valerie took the two photos below and wrote: “This little guy just showed up.  Again taking the photo through the thick, glass French doors so not the greatest but evaluated the bill looks like a warbler but not a pine warbler.  A Yellow-rumped Warbler maybe?”

She is correct!

Author: sibirders

SEABROOK ISLAND BIRDERS / “watching, learning, protecting” Seabrook Island Birders (SIB) are residents, renters and guests of Seabrook Island, SC who have an interest in learning, protecting and providing for the well-being of the incredible variety of birds that inhabit Seabrook Island throughout the year.

3 thoughts on “Ask SIB – Little Yellow Birds!”

  1. Oh my! The yellow-rumped warbler is really a CUTIE!! And I particularly like the first photo–taken from the rear (so to speak)!!


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