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Editor’s Note: Recent mitochondrial genetic data indicate that Carduelis is polyphyletic and that Spinus spp. belong to different clade. See the 50th supplement to the AOU Check-list of North American Birds for details. Future revisions of this account will reflect this change.
Striking in appearance and enigmatic in behavior, Lawrence’s Goldfinch is distinctive in many respects. As a breeding species, it is endemic to arid woodlands in the foothills of California and northern Baja California. In year-to-year movements, it is perhaps even more erratic than other goldfinches, and, unlike most birds, it shows little loyalty to former breeding sites. On this habit of Lawrence’s, Ralph Hoffman (1927: 309), wrote: “A valley in southern California may be filled with the black-chinned gray-bodied birds one summer and the next year contain not one.” Its behavior at other times of the year is just as mercurial. In some winters, for example, the species irrupts through Arizona, New Mexico, and even into western Texas and northern Mexico, but in other winters, it is virtually absent from those areas. Sometimes it seems to disappear from most of its breeding range without reappearing elsewhere.
The distinctively plumaged male is an accomplished mimic, incorporating a variety of songs and calls from its foothill neighbors into its own rapid melody of wheezy whistles and tinkling, bell-like notes. At least in California, the species exhibits a special predilection for seeds of native plants and may feed largely on the those of fiddleneck (Amsinckia spp., Boraginaceae) in summer and chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum, Rosaceae) in winter. The kind and amount of such seeds are important influences on this species’ patterns of regional distribution and abundance. Lawrence’s favors hotter and drier situations for nesting than other goldfinches, but its breeding sites are usually close to water, which it needs for drinking and bathing.
It is gregarious throughout the year, forming large flocks during winter and smaller feeding groups during the nesting season. The strong flocking tendency in this species leads some birds to follow a pair to its nest, where they are sometimes tolerated and other times chased off by the nesting pair. Pairs usually nest solitarily, but their inconsistent intolerance of conspecifics occasionally leads to the formation of loose colonies of up to ten or more pairs. Whether nesting solitarily or colonially, its small territory is generally weakly defended.
Although the peculiarities of this species make it an interesting subject for study, few studies have been conducted, perhaps because of the difficulties associated with its limited range and irregular occurrence. A few early investigations, however, provided important information on nesting habits, diet, behavior, and vocalizations during the breeding season (Linsdale 1950, 1957, Coutlee 1968a, 1968b). This account relies heavily on these few, but detailed, studies.
The species was described and named in 1850 by John Cassin for George Lawrence, a New York businessman and ornithologist. Cassin’s dedication included the following: “I have named this bird in honor of Mr. George N. Lawrence, of the city of New York, a gentlemen whose acquirements, especially in American Ornithology, entitle him to a high rank amongst naturalists, and for whom I have a particular respect, because, like myself, in the limited leisure allowed by the vexations and discouragements of commercial life, he is devoted to the more grateful pursuits of natural history” (Cassin 1850: 105).