Minnesota Now with Cathy Wurzer

New book provides first comprehensive assessment of Minnesota’s breeding birds in nearly 100 years

A loon floats just above the water.
A common loon floats on Lake Minnetonka on June 28, 2019.
Evan Frost | MPR News

There are hundreds of different kinds of birds trilling out across Minnesota, and spring feels like an especially nice time to hear them.

For years, a group of dedicated scientists and birders around the state documented all 250 species that are known to nest in the state. They created an atlas — not of roads, but of birds.

It’s a sprawling book called “The Breeding Birds of Minnesota” and it’s out on Tuesday. One of the book’s coauthors, Lee Pfannmuller joined MPR News guest host Emily Bright.

A book cover for "The Breeding Birds of Minnesota"
"The Breeding Birds of Minnesota" offers the first comprehensive and in-depth assessment of Minnesota’s breeding birds in nearly a century.
Courtesy The University of Minnesota Press

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Audio transcript

EMILY BRIGHT: That's what I heard first thing Sunday morning heading into the radio station before dawn, a cacophony of birds in my neighborhood. There are hundreds of different kinds of birds trilling out across Minnesota, and spring feels like an especially nice time to hear them.

For years, a group of dedicated scientists and birders around the state documented all 250 species that are known to nest in the state. They created an Atlas, not of roads, but of birds, a sprawling book called the Breeding Birds of Minnesota, and it is out today. One of the book's co-authors, Lee Pfannmuller joins us now. Hi, Lee Welcome to the program.

LEE PFANNMULLER: Hi. Thanks for having me.

EMILY BRIGHT: Thanks for being here. So why was it important to you to document all the species that nest in the state?

LEE PFANNMULLER: Well, we know generally what the distribution of birds are in Minnesota. But for conservation planning and for landscape planning and just land use planning in general, it's really important to have very specific information on where birds breed and where they occur so that you can adapt or modify your plan to really protect what's around there.

So just having really detailed information is really the critical part of the Atlas. And this is the first time that we've done it in Minnesota. So it's really pretty exciting, the level of information that we have.

EMILY BRIGHT: Yeah, that's great. So this book focuses on birds that breed in the state as opposed to birds that pass through on migration. Why did you draw that line around the project?

LEE PFANNMULLER: Well, because those are the species that really use our resources to raise their young each year. And so their future depends on Minnesota providing them the essential resources to raise young, whereas the migrants, although they use our resources, are really breeding somewhere else. So when you look collectively at all the vagrants and migrants and winter visitants, it's the breeding birds that most depend on our natural resources in Minnesota.

EMILY BRIGHT: Well, let's talk about some of the birds that are featured. Are there any that are especially close to your heart?

LEE PFANNMULLER: Oh my goodness, there are so many. Where should I start? My favorite bird is the winter wren, which is just this tiny little bird that's less than an ounce. Really, it's one of our smallest birds. And it just looks like a little brown ball.

But it nests in Northern Minnesota in the boreal forest. And one rarely sees it. It nests in the underground, a very complex forest where there's a lot of microhabitat, downed trees, down logs, et cetera, but it sings from the top of the trees. And when you hear its song, you will never forget it. It's very hard to describe, but it is the most beautiful, long song coming from such a tiny little bird.

And the winter wren is one of a suite of boreal species that are very much under threat due to warming temperatures. Time after time studies have shown that the boreal forests of Minnesota is one of the most endangered habitats as temperatures warm.

And so the winter wren is one of that suite of species that is predicted to move north into Canada, providing there's enough habitat up there, as temperatures warm. So I'm a little nervous about just what the future brings for this little bird that's such a favorite of mine.

EMILY BRIGHT: Yeah. All right, tell me about one more.

LEE PFANNMULLER: One more. My goodness. The peregrine falcon is a wonderful species that I think a lot of people, particularly in twin cities, know about. It used to occur along Lake Superior and the Mississippi, Minnesota rivers. But due to DDT, it really experienced a decline in the 1940s and '50s. And by the '70s there weren't any birds here at all in Minnesota.

But the bird was experiencing that problem everywhere in North America, egg shell thinning due to accumulation of DDT in the food chain. So there was a huge effort across North America to reintroduce peregrine falcons. And in Minnesota, we got on the bandwagon in the early 1980s and introduced our first pair along the Mississippi River, down near Kellogg Weaver.

It didn't fare well the first couple of years because of great gray owl predation, but by 1984, we had success there and the rest is history. I think the peregrine falcon is a wonderful example of a species that has adapted to change. Not all species do that.

I think most of us know it as a species that nests in downtown areas like Rochester, Saint Paul, Minneapolis, atop buildings. It's nesting just a half a mile from me on the Ford Avenue Bridge. So they've really adapted to our changing environment. And not all species have such a good story to tell with respect to that.

EMILY BRIGHT: Yeah. Of these 250 birds, what percentage of them are you concerned about as far as threats with their habitat, for example?

LEE PFANNMULLER: Well, the biggest threat right now is to our grassland species because in Minnesota, as many people know, we've lost over 98% of our original native grasslands. So the species that really depend on native grasses are the ones that have not fared well.

We've lost species like the McCown's longspur, Baird's sparrow, Spriggs pipit is barely hanging on, Chestnut longspur is barely hanging on because they haven't been able to adapt to our converted grasslands.

Other species like the upland sandpiper and the grasshopper sparrow are doing a little bit better because they can depend on planted grassland, restored grassland. So it's a mixed bag always. There are some species that are very capable of adapting and there are some that are not. Apart from the grassland, then I go next to those boreal species that I mentioned and the potential threat of warming temperatures.

EMILY BRIGHT: LEE PFANNMULLER, who do you hope will use this book?

LEE PFANNMULLER: Well, we hope that it really speaks to anyone who has an interest in our native bird fauna. I think we've designed it to really speak to people who just have a backyard interest as well as to scientists and resource professionals who have a more technical interest.

We really focused on making this palatable, I might say, to a whole wide audience. For example, we have an introduction to each species that really talks about what does a bird look like, what does its song sound like, where do you find it, what's unique about it. What are some of the early ornithologists like John James Audubon and Aldo Leopold? Think about the bird and how did they describe it.

So we really tried to make it relatable so that the other information about habitat and populations and conservation-- it is a doorway to that more technical information.

EMILY BRIGHT: Well, it sounds like a fantastic resource. I'm sorry we don't have longer to talk about this today, but we'll let people know where they can find it. Lee thank you for your time.

LEE PFANNMULLER: Absolutely Thank you for having me.

EMILY BRIGHT: Lee Pfannmuller is an ornithologist who has worked with Audubon, Minnesota and the State Department of Natural Resources. She's co-author of The Breeding Birds of Minnesota, that book which is out today. And you can catch her and her co-author, Gerald Niemi, talking about the book next Thursday, that's May 9th, at 6:00 PM at the Bell Museum in Saint Paul.

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