In the fall of 2002, Ford Motor Company planted sunflowers on a 20-acre lot they owned at Hubbard and the Southfield Freeway (M-39) service drive, near their world headquarters. Ford has continued to plant sunflowers, sorghum, and/or a wildflower mix on up to 10 properties scattered across Dearborn (I've posted a map of current locations here).
The fields have always attracted a lot of birds -- I wrote about the numbers seen on this year's Christmas Bird Count. The very first winter the original field hosted an unusual bird: a European Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis), a bird not native to North America. European Goldfinches are common in the pet trade, and it's not too unusual to hear about sightings of escaped or released pets. Unlike members of the parrot family, European Goldfinches are very hardy and can survive northern winters. The sighting occurred during a time when I had been hearing more and more reports of European Goldfinch sightings, especially in the Chicago area. Curious, I posted a page on the RRBO web site requesting sightings from the upper Midwest (a current version of the page is here). I also kept my eyes on the various Internet birding lists and regional publications.
That there were a lot of European Goldfinches out there readily became apparent. I compiled over 400 reports, of which 298 were from Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan. There was a clear concentration in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois, a pattern of radiation from the "epicenter" that was more pronounced north than south, and a smattering of reports over the rest of the four states.
It is believed that the bulk of these European Goldfinches -- as well as a handful of other European cage bird species that were reported in the same areas -- originated with a bird importer in the greater Chicago area. From a number of independent reports I received, this importer had apparently deliberately released these species on more than one occasion over time. Believe it or not, as long as the birds are legally imported, there is no federal law prohibiting their release, even if they are not native.
Since 2003, there have been reports of nesting European Goldfinches in northern Illinois. They may also be nesting in southern Wisconsin. Great Tits (Parus major), another one of the species involved in the alleged releases, have also nested in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois! European Goldfinches nest earlier in the year than American Goldfinches and appear to be ecologically benign, although non-native species frequently end up having unanticipated impacts on ecosystems. Whether the breeding population will grow and persist is not known. In the early part of the 20th century, there were a couple of established colonies in New York, founded by deliberate releases. They eventually died out. However, the proliferation of non-native plant species -- many of which are the natural foods of European Goldfinch -- may prove to be a boon for the species this time around.
I don't believe the majority of the Michigan sightings (or the many Ontario reports I've gotten) of European Goldfinches are attributable to same source. The geographic and chronological patterns do not seem to fit. Some are likely just escaped pets. Many others may be deliberately released birds. Some pockets of reports came from areas with higher populations of people that practice eastern religions, which sometimes advocate setting birds free to accrue merit in the afterlife. Employees at my own local pet store, which often carry European Goldfinches for sale, reported to me that these and other cage birds are sometimes purchased by people of various ethnic backgrounds with the intention of releasing them. I presume this is the source of the Dearborn European Goldfinch.
I ended up writing a detailed account of the reports I received, including background on the ecology and history of European Goldfinches in the U.S. and additional information on their future, in a paper that was just published in North American Birds; you can click on the link to download a PDF copy:
Craves, J. A. 2008. Current status of European Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) in the western Great Lakes region. North American Birds 62:2-5.
UPDATE, JUNE 2009: I have posted an update regarding nesting European Goldfinch in Illinois.
Photo of European Goldfinch in France by Daniel (ParaScubaSailor) at Flickr under a Creative Commons license.