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.