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.