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ALWAYS IN SEASON: Strandquist hosts a bird of mystery

The stranger that showed up at Shirley Anderson's bird feeder was a European goldfinch. There's no doubt of that. Anderson gave a detailed description, and she followed that up with photographs.

The stranger that showed up at Shirley Anderson's bird feeder was a European goldfinch. There's no doubt of that. Anderson gave a detailed description, and she followed that up with photographs.

So, that mystery is solved.

The deeper mystery is how did a European goldfinch get to Anderson's feeders in Strandquist, Minn.?

The word "European" is descriptive here. This is an Old World bird.

It's true that the European goldfinch has a place in New World bird books, usually on the last page and often under a dismissive label.


In "The Sibley Guide to Birds," David Allen Sibley has this to say about the European goldfinch:

"Many attempts at introduction around North America have failed; occasionally escapes from captivity."

This treatment occurs on page 537, which appears just ahead of the index and is labeled, "Exotic finches."

So, how did a European goldfinch make its way to northwestern Minnesota? There are three possibilities.

One is that this bird is a local escape. European goldfinches are kept as cage birds, and it's possible that someone in northwestern Minnesota lost one.

A second possibility is that this bird is one of a release in the Chicago area in 2002. A number of caged birds were released, and this resulted in nesting records for chaffinches and widespread sightings of European goldfinches. Goldfinches were reported from Whitefish Bay in Michigan and Gimli in Manitoba.

It may be significant that both of these places are on large bodies of water, which might have stopped the flight of the goldfinches.

Of course, that wouldn't explain why a European goldfinch showed up in Strandquist.


This release occurred more than five years ago, about the limit of a goldfinch's natural life - especially in the center of North America, where the weather is much colder than it is in continental Europe.

This raises the intriguing possibility that Shirley Anderson's bird is the offspring of birds that fled the Chicago area. Of course, this supposes that the birds nested successfully somewhere in the Upper Midwest.

Of course, we can't know for sure.

One certainty: The bird indeed was a European goldfinch.

The European goldfinch is a close relative of the familiar American goldfinch. Both are members of the genus "Carduelis," which means thistle eater.

American goldfinches are common nesting birds in our area, and recent milder winters coupled with increased bird feeding have led these birds to spend winters here.

Unlike the European goldfinch, the American version has two color phases. In summer, it is brilliant yellow, while in winter, it is rather drab in color, greenish yellow with white wing bars.

The wing bars help distinguish it from other feeder birds.


By contrast, the European goldfinch is colorful year 'round.

While it is golden enough to earn the name "goldfinch," the European goldfinch is distinguished by a bright yellow band on its otherwise black wings and a quite brilliant and distinctive facial pattern. This consists of a red patch behind the bill. This is divided approximately equally by a black line leading back from the bill to a large patch of white on the side of the face.

American goldfinches have shown up for Christmas bird counts in the Red River Valley this year. Indeed, their appearance has come to be expected.

Preliminary reports from counts show that pine grosbeaks and pine siskins are both present in large numbers. Neither species is completely dependable. Indeed, pine grosbeaks often are absent. This year, however, they've been seen in many locations.

Pine siskins usually show up each year, but their numbers vary considerably. This is a good year for them.

The absence of one bird, once dependable, has birders concerned. This is the black-billed magpie. Numbers of magpies are down across North Dakota.

The reason?

This is speculation again, but perhaps West Nile disease is to blame. West Nile is known to be fatal to crows and blue jays, both relatives of magpies.


Jacobs is publisher and editor of the Herald.

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