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Join Minnesota’s Biggest Bird Count

Ornithologists estimate 225 to 250 bird species breed in Minnesota. Come 2016, they’ll have a precise count.

The Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas is launching the most comprehensive survey ever conducted of the state’s nesting birds. Throughout this project, more than 1,000 volunteers will be traipsing through woods, bogs, and grasslands to count breeding birds in every one of Minnesota’s 2,400 townships.

Audubon Minnesota is administrating this six-year project with help from partner organizations including the Department of Natural Resources Ecological Resources division, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union, Bell Museum of Natural History, and University of Minnesota–Duluth Natural Resources Research Institute. Additional funding comes from The Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund. Survey counts will wrap up in 2015, and the data will be published in 2016 as a dictionary-sized book (entitled The Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas) with maps, graphs, charts, and information about bird species and their observed breeding areas. With that book, biologists will have their first in-depth look at all of Minnesota’s breeding bird populations and their habitat.

“We have the old accounts from folks like T. S. Roberts and species- or site-specific research studies by graduate students,” says Mark Martell, director of bird conservation at Audubon Minnesota, “but we do not have a solid picture in Minnesota of all our species, taken at the same time, using the same methodology.”

Although the book won’t be published for seven years, birders will be able to see the survey data online as it is being compiled. The project’s Web site will allow users to quickly search for records by species and even add their own breeding bird observations.

“Anyone can participate in this atlas compilation by reporting a breeding bird seen anywhere in Minnesota on the Web,” says Martell. “Whether it’s in your back yard, at the lake cabin, while you were on a hike or a Boundary Waters canoe trip, you can add to the data being collected.”

Minnesota has been a leader in conducting many biological surveys—including the DNR’s Minnesota County Biological Survey of rare native plant and animal communities—but it is one of only seven states that has yet to compile a breeding bird atlas. This baseline for measuring bird population health is an especially critical tool for the DNR and other bird conservation groups as climate change and altered landscapes continue to have an impact on bird ranges and nesting success.

In neighboring Wisconsin, a breeding bird atlas survey revealed a map with unexpected abundance of some species. For example, Carolina wrens, which weren’t believed to occur in Wisconsin, turned up in more than 10 locations—perhaps a species moving north as seasonal temperatures rise. On the other hand, western meadowlarks turned up in far fewer places than expected.

Some Minnesota bird biologists hope the atlas survey will rediscover some species that haven’t been recorded here in recent years. “We don’t know much about the rusty blackbird. The last breeding data collected about that species was in northern Cook County in the early 1980s. But they’re reclusive, so maybe they’ve just been hiding out in the Boundary Waters,” says DNR ornithologist Steve Stucker. “The solitary sandpiper is another species where we only have two breeding records, but maybe we can find them again.”

For now, Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas project coordinators are looking for volunteers to help with the survey. Novice birders can go afield with experienced birders or volunteer for other tasks, such as data entry.

“There’s room for everybody to join in this effort,” says Martell.

Besides the volumes of breeding bird data, he says, perhaps one of the most important outcomes of the atlas survey will be engaging hundreds of Minnesotans in the cause of bird conservation.

To volunteer, call project coordinator Bonnie Sample at 651-739-9332 or email her at

Gustave Axelson, managing editor


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