I NEVER THOUGHT IT WOULD COME TO THIS, but earlier this summer I found myself crouched behind a bush, binoculars in hand, searching for the tiniest glimpse of a little brown bird.
Because in the treetop above me was a little blue bird—an indigo bunting, to be precise—and if I could somehow locate its drab, fiendishly elusive mate, I could say with some scientific certainty that a pair of these little creatures had built a nest somewhere in my St. Paul neighborhood, where menacing gangs of sparrows, crows, and grackles currently rule the skies.
I know what you’re thinking: how quaint—the man has discovered bird-watching, a sport beloved by people too old to link the word “sport” to anything but the bottle of Gatorade they’re holding.
Wrong. The drink in my hand is Snapple, and what I and hundreds of other Minnesotans have discovered is the peculiar thrill of trying, for the sake of science, to count all the breeding birds in Minnesota. Not for ourselves, but for the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas, a joint effort of Audubon Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, and several other bird-friendly organizations to map and catalog all the birds that mate and raise their young in Minnesota.
It’s an impossible task, of course. It’s also the most ambitious bird count the state has ever conducted. The results will give land-resource managers, policymakers, scientists, and conservationists a much better idea of how the state’s bird population is adapting to—or suffering from—the multiple threats of 21st-century life: global warming, climate change, urban development, agriculture, invasive plants and insects, hunting, pollution, pesticides, and wind-farm propellers among them. The five-year project will be completed next year, and the atlas itself—a massive and intricately detailed compilation of data, research, and expert analysis—will be released in 2014.
My personal contribution to this effort will be miniscule. Nevertheless, I am the official surveyor for block T28R23d, a nine-square-mile chunk of the metro encompassing Snelling Avenue in St. Paul between Marshall Avenue and West 7th Street, across the river to 32nd Avenue South between Lake Street and East 54th Street. My job, between May 1 and July 1, was to canvass this area and report the bird activity I saw.
It’s my neighborhood, so I’ve been watching feathered critters flit around the feeders in my backyard for years. But I am by no means a bird expert. I’m more of a look-at-the-pretty-bird-and-cuss-when-they-crap-on-the-lawn-furniture type of enthusiast. Which is to say, I like birds, but I don’t know them. My only qualification for becoming an atlas surveyor—the only credential necessary, as it turns out—is a sincere willingness to strap on a pair of binoculars and go for long walks looking nowhere but up.
THE THRILL OF THE HUNT—SERIOUSLY
Relative to me, most of the people involved in the MNBBA project are experts. An expert birder can identify a bird in any number of ways: by its size and shape, the way it moves and flies, its color patterns, its behavior, what and how it eats, where it perches, the shape of its bill and tail, and several other small but telling traits. Most accomplished birders don’t even have to see a bird to identify it: They can tell what species it is—and often whether it’s young or old, breeding nearby, in search of a mate, or scared out of its wits—just by listening to its song or call.
Steve Weston is one of those people. By day he is a courier, but in his spare time he is an all-star contributor to the MNBBA who has logged thousands of field note entries into the atlas database, and who also acts as the regional coordinator for surveyors in Dakota, Scott, and Carver counties. Weston knows hundreds of birdcalls, and experience has taught him when, where, and how to find birds that, to newbies like me, are pretty much invisible.
“I do have an advantage in that a lot of birding is done by ear,” says Weston. “Many songs I can recognize immediately, but sometimes they fool you. Sometimes they play the wrong song, or you can tell it’s a young bird but its song isn’t developed enough to identify the species.”
For Weston, birdcalls and songs offer vital clues to the Holy Grail of atlas bird-counters: finding a nest. “It gets addictive, like a treasure hunt,” says Weston. “Some nests are easier to find than others, though. Often you can find them if the birds are flying around yelling at you, trying to defend their territory and protect their nest. But finding a ruby-throated hummingbird’s nest? That’s almost impossible. They’re about the size of a quarter, so the only way is to follow one until it stops.”
Atlas coordinators call volunteers like Weston and me “citizen scientists.” In my case the term implies more familiarity with the scientific method than may be warranted, but the “science” of the project would not be possible without all the volunteers. Indeed, the bird atlas project is an ambitious example of “crowd science,” an increasingly popular type of crowdsourcing that allows amateurs to record their observations, usually through a website, and thereby contribute to the collective knowledge in a given scientific discipline. Astronomers and biologists are the biggest proponents of crowd science. Using a simple web page and software that collates the data more or less instantaneously, scientists are able to collect enormous amounts of information that would otherwise be unavailable to them. In the case of the bird atlas, that means hundreds of volunteers recording thousands of firsthand bird observations, all of which will be plotted, mapped, dissected, and eventually published—in print and online—for all to see.
Which is why I needed to see that female indigo bunting. The MNBBA, unlike other guides, is a breeding bird atlas. Simply spotting a bird isn’t enough to include it; there also has to be evidence of breeding activity. The point is to distinguish birds that choose to parent their chicks in Minnesota from the migratory birds that whiz through on the way to their summer homes in Canada or the Arctic Circle.
Breeding evidence can take many forms, such as seeing a bird carry nesting materials—like sticks, grass, or mud—or seeing a bird schlep food—grubs, worms, insects, etc.—back to a nest to feed its young. On the official atlas checklist there are 20 observation codes, ranging from a lowly “observed” (meaning you saw a bird but no evidence of breeding activity), to “possible,” “probable,” and “confirmed.” As a surveyor, “confirmed” breeding activity is what you’re after; everything else is just data that needs to be “upgraded.”
It’s fairly easy to identify the 15 or 20 most common birds in a territory. After that the game soon turns to finding new species that haven’t been recorded yet.
LAGGING BEHIND OTHER STATES
The offices of Audubon Minnesota are located at the back of an industrial park in Woodbury, disconcertingly close to 494. From her cubicle there, the director of the MNBBA project, Bonnie Sample, manages dozens of regional coordinators who in turn supervise more than 800 volunteers throughout the state.
An energetic silver-haired woman who talks fast and smart about the project that has consumed the past four years of her life, Sample is no slouch of a birder herself.
On a steamy afternoon in June, she agreed to accompany me on a nature walk through nearby Ojibway Park. But first, she wanted to show me something. She pulled from her shelf a fat yellow book titled Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas.
“This is what we’re working toward,” she said. “Essentially, it’s a great big book that describes the species in the state, with data that displays where a species of bird was found and how strong the evidence was for breeding.”
The fact that she was holding up Wisconsin’s atlas is a sensitive, somewhat shameful subject in birding circles. Minnesota may be ahead of the curve in many things, but it is one of the last states in the country to get an official breeding bird atlas, and it’s the only state along the Mississippi River flyway—the migratory superhighway used by hundreds of bird species each year—not to have one.
There are all sorts of reasons why Minnesota has fallen behind in the atlas race. “The problem is that Minnesota is an enormous state, both geographically and relative to the population. It’s huge,” Sample explains. “We have only a few major population centers—the Twin Cities, Duluth, Rochester—and then there’s greater Minnesota. Greater Minnesota is really, really big.”
In terms of habitat and terrain, Minnesota isn’t a monochrome state like Kansas or Nebraska, either. “We have the northern bogs, coniferous forests, prairies and parklands, agriculture in the southwest, blufflands in the southeast, and everything in between,” says Sample. “Our great diversity of habitat leads us to have lots of birds, as well as many different kinds of birds”—which makes counting them exponentially more difficult.
Officially, 422 species of birds have been observed in Minnesota over the years. To count the ones that nest here, Audubon Minnesota carved the state into thousands of nine-square-mile blocks, separated by township. Volunteers take responsibility for one or more blocks, and a special team of professionals fills in the gaps. Until I got involved in the project, my idea of a bird-watcher was a boot-wearing octogenarian with oversized binoculars around his neck. That was before I discovered how difficult it is to count little creatures that know how to fly away from you—and how amazing professional birders are at finding them.
Within three minutes of arriving at Ojibway Park, Sample, who calls herself “a decent birder,” had identified a black-capped chickadee, a yellow warbler, a cowbird, a wood thrush, an egret, a cardinal, and a chipping sparrow. Dozens of robins and grackles were raiding a soccer field for seeds, and Sample remarked, “I’ve never seen so many robins in June.”
Then she stopped and said, “Hear that?” The sound she was referring to was a weird nasal wheeze that had a regular in/out rhythm to it. “Those are crow hatchlings calling for their mother,” she said. “You can tell by the insistence of it. It never stops.” A minute or so later, a large crow flew into the thicket of trees we were watching, and suddenly the noise stopped. “Mama brought lunch,” Sample smiled.
One crow’s nest confirmed.
WHY BIRD COUNTS COUNT
The project I volunteered for isn’t the only bird count to which members of the public contribute data. The best-known are the annual Christmas Bird Count, held nationally every year in the last two weeks of December, as well as the Great Backyard Bird Count, held in the United States and Canada over four days in mid-February. Cornell University’s Project Feederwatch is a winter-long tabulation of backyard bird sightings logged by residents of the United States and Canada, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service does its own breeding bird survey every year, which targets specific areas in the state, mainly along roadways and in well-known bird habitats.
Most of these counts are done during wintertime, however, excluding migratory birds that spend the winter in Central and South America. None of them is as comprehensive or thorough as the MNBBA is going to be.
“The atlas will give us the big picture for birds in Minnesota,” says Carrol Henderson, non-game wildlife program supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources. “It will have broad conservancy applications. When we can compare our results to other state maps and see what’s happening in various habitats, we’ll be better able to identify vulnerable species that need to be protected, or ones that can be de-listed [from the endangered species list]. We’ll also have much more information for land-management decisions.”
Minnesota’s breeding bird atlas has been a long time coming for scientists such as Olivia LeDee, a University of Wisconsin–Madison ornithologist and wildlife ecologist who did her doctorate work at the University of Minnesota on the impact of landscape change and global warming on Great Lakes birds, and who continues to do climate-change research on birds in both Minnesota and Wisconsin. “The atlas gives us a nice understanding of the number of bird species, as well as their distribution and abundance, and establishes a baseline for further research,” says LeDee. “If we do this again in 10 or 20 years—that is, if we repeat the same process at certain time intervals and record the changes across those intervals—then we can start asking questions about the cause of those changes.”
Bird activity and populations can be affected by many things, says LeDee—landscape development or destruction, climate change, disturbances in the food and water supply—but identifying the root cause of those changes “isn’t possible without good baseline data.” The atlas would provide that data.
Birds are often referred to as the “canary in the coal mine” of climate change because they are so sensitive to temperature, weather patterns, and various forms of eco-stress. For instance, this year was so bizarrely warm in the Twin Cities that the first ruby-throated hummingbirds arrived weeks earlier than usual. And, according to Lauren Borer, the education coordinator for the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and Bird Sanctuary, many of the warblers that migrate through the garden on their way to northern Minnesota and Canada came through so early and so quickly that many bird-watchers, expecting to see them in May, missed them entirely.
Birds are among the most adaptable animals, but they’re also highly evolved for the specific habitats in which they live, so they are sensitive to any disruptions in their immediate ecosystem. For example, says LeDee, Minnesota’s state bird, the common loon, is susceptible to a certain type of black fly that feeds on young, defenseless loon chicks. “In warmer temperatures, the flies can have more hatchings and attack loon nestlings more throughout the year,” LeDee says.
Black terns are in decline, in part, because of increased rainfall and flooding from extreme weather events, which have led to nest loss. “Black terns build their nests directly on the water,” says LeDee. “When the water floods, their nests get destroyed.” Furthermore, she says, birds can starve if, during migration, they arrive before the flowers, insects, and other flora and fauna they feed on have bloomed and hatched.
CONSERVATION IN YOUR OWN BACKYARD
Recent climate studies have shown that Minnesota’s average temperature has risen two and a half degrees since 1970, and it is predicted to warm as much as six to 10 degrees in the next century. As that warming happens, bird habitats will change—different trees will make up our forests, different grasses will seed our prairies, and alteration of the landscape will continue—as will the type of birds that make their home in Minnesota.
In the coming years, all Minnesotans will need to do to witness these changes is look out their back window. There, amid the usual goldfinches and black-capped chickadees, folks in southern Minnesota may start seeing scissor-tailed flycatchers and painted buntings. In the Twin Cities, as our spring and fall seasons mellow and stretch, more birds are likely to stick around longer. But up north, some birds commonly seen now—such as the dark-eyed junco, purple finch, and boreal chickadee—may stop showing up at feeders altogether.
Human activity can alter natural landscapes in ways that make them instantly inhospitable for birds and other animals. All of us who live in cities and suburbs that were once lush forests and vast prairies have a responsibility to help make life a little easier for the creatures we’ve displaced. Building birdhouses, keeping bird feeders full, planting native plants in your backyard, using a little less gas—these are all small but important ways of ensuring that our local ecosystems don’t collapse.
“Large or small, our efforts matter,” insists the DNR’s Henderson. The resurgence of bald eagles along the Mississippi River is just one example of how conscientious conservation efforts can dramatically change the fortunes of our feathered friends, he says.
The Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas is a key piece of that conservation puzzle, and if I live long enough, I intend to volunteer again for the 2024 atlas. By then, maybe a family of indigo buntings will have left a colorful legacy in my neighborhood, allowing me—in the name of citizen science and state-mandated research—to confidently document this elusive species and any other new residents that have moved in. Like planting purple coneflowers and installing birdhouses, it’s one of the little things I can do in my own backyard to help more pretty birds—and even some ugly ones—survive the 21st century.
EAT, SLEEP, BATHE: OUTFITTING YOUR BACKYARD FOR BIRDS
1. Suet seed cake.
2. Finch feeder with nyjer seeds.
3. Fruit/jelly feeder for orioles.
4. Feed for seed-eating birds.
5. Small birdbath for bathing.
6. Large birdbath provides drinking water for small birds, and bath and drinking water for larger birds.
Bird feeders provided by Wild Birds Unlimited
BIRDING BY EAR
Most bird-watchers spend more time listening to the sounds birds make than they do actually watching them. In fact, an experienced bird-watcher can identify most, if not all, of the birds in a given area just by listening to their songs or calls. Songs and calls are different, however. Birdsongs are the more musical and complex melodies birds use primarily to advertise their interest in mating. Calls are the shorter, less musical chirps, tweets, and chatters that birds use to communicate locations and warnings. Once you learn the birdsongs in your neighborhood, you’d be surprised how rewarding it is to hear the chirping cacophony in your backyard turn into an avian conversation.
Two good resources: Peterson Field Guides’ Birding by Ear
by Richard K. Walton and Robert W. Larson and Birds of Minnesota Field Guide and Audio CD
set by Stan Tekiela.
BIRDING BY PHONE
Besides giving you an encyclopedia’s worth of information at your fingertips, these smartphone apps include photos, range maps, and recordings of birdsongs you can use to identify—and attract—beautiful songbirds:
The Sibley eGuide to the Birds of North America
iBird Explorer Pro
Birds of Minnesota Field Guide
SEEDS OF SUCCESS
Bargain-priced bird food is cheap because it contains “filler” seeds most birds don’t like—e.g., milo, wheat, rapeseed, oats, and canary seed. Quality birdseed may cost a bit more, but it is more likely to attract a wide variety of birds to your feeders, will last longer, and, most important of all, will help give the birds in your backyard the fuel they need to migrate, nest, and feed their young.
Wild Birds Unlimited offers more than a dozen different types of birdseed that contain no filler. Top off your feeders with these and your backyard will be the most popular bird destination on the block:
Black oil sunflower, striped sunflower, sunflower chips, safflower, and shelled peanuts.
Chickadees, woodpeckers, nuthatches, cardinals, and blue jays.
100 percent safflower.
Blackbirds and squirrels tend not to like it, but finches, cardinals, nuthatches, and chickadees do.
Black oil sunflower, striped sunflower, safflower, and white millet.
Juncos, doves, towhees, chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals, and grosbeaks.
(100 percent edible ingredients)
Fully shelled sunflower, peanuts, and white millet.
All seed-eating birds plus ground-feeding birds such as juncos, cardinals, and morning doves.
BLACK OIL SUNFLOWER
High-fat, high-protein, thin-shell sunflower.
All seed-eating birds, especially cardinals and finches.
(100 percent edible ingredients)
100 percent nyjer (similar high-fat content as black oil sunflower).
Planting trees, shrubs, and other plants native to Minnesota will attract birds to your backyard by attracting insects that birds like to eat. Some native plants to consider next time you’re at the garden store:
Red and Sugar Maple
Blue Flag Iris
*The wild plum attracts a whopping 429 types of larval insects. **Source: Audubon Minnesota
KEY EQUIPMENT FOR BIRDING
A good pair of binoculars
Field guide for identifying birds (paper or phone app)
Pencil and paper for recording field notes
Appropriate clothing, insect repellent
Map, if necessary
Water and snacks
Camera (if you want to take pictures)