How many bird species nest in Minnesota? A new book has the answer.

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When T.S. Roberts wrote the last really big Minnesota bird book in 1932, “Birds of Minnesota,” ravens were dwindling, bald eagles were scarce and most everyone assumed the giant subspecies of resident Canada goose was extinct.

Flash-forward to 2024, when a new really big bird book, “The Breeding Birds of Minnesota,” is published, ravens are thriving, bald eagles have rebounded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams and there are so many giant Canada geese breeding across the state that they are soiling golf courses and parks in many cities.

“A lot has changed in the nearly 100 years since Roberts tried to document all the species that breed in Minnesota,” said Jerry Niemi, co-author of the new book with fellow ornithologists Jan Green and Lee Pfannmuller. “Roberts thought that ravens were going extinct. It’s exciting to see they are actually thriving in Minnesota.”

Other species that have recovered since Roberts’ two-volume set was published are trumpeter swans, wild turkeys, sandhill cranes and pelicans.

Trumpeter swans, which disappeared from Minnesota and most of North America by the 1950s due to unregulated shooting, have made a remarkable comeback after being reintroduced here in recent decades. (Laura Erickson / Duluth Media Group)

Of course, not all species are doing as well. Sharp-tailed grouse were a thriving upland game species when Roberts wrote his books. Now they are blinking out, fading to zero, across much of their former range in eastern Minnesota. Black terns and eastern meadowlarks have also dwindled. Piping plovers are just barely hanging on.

Clay-colored sparrows were found in nearly every one of the state’s 87 counties, Roberts noted in 1932, and were thriving as recently as the 1990s, but have since crashed to just a quarter of their higher abundance.

“Our goal with the book was to provide a snapshot of where we are compared to where things were. We wanted to include some history on each species,” Niemi said of the 650-page book that includes chapters on all 250 species of birds believed to be nesting in Minnesota. There is some historical data on Minnesota birds in the book dating back to the 1800s.

Other changes since Roberts first published his treatise have been more gradual. The eastern screech owl was the most common owl in the state, according to Roberts’ work. But, more recently, there have been only a few dozen documented statewide. Instead, great horned and barred owls have grown in number and range, likely responsible for the demise of the screech owl, Pfannmuller noted.

Many of the changes since 1932 have been caused by people: cutting forests, lighting fires, transforming prairie to crop fields, draining and plowing wetlands, expanding cities and suburbs, building homes on lakes and in forests, and otherwise altering or destroying habitat. Windows in buildings, lights and vehicles all take a toll on birds. Across the continent, overall bird numbers are down 30% since 1970.

A major change is how many formerly southern species are moving north, Pfannmuller said, pushed by increasing climate change caused by human activities. The red-bellied woodpecker was only seen in extreme southern Minnesota when Roberts made his surveys in the 1930s, near the Iowa border, Pfannmuller said.

Now, as average temperatures have warmed across the state, the woodpecker is seen across Minnesota. The tufted titmouse and northern cardinal, previously rare across much of the state, also have moved north and settled in.

But humans can also help birds. Simply not randomly shooting ravens, hawks and eagles, along with banning the harmful pesticide DDT, allowed many species, like eagles, cormorants and osprey, to return from the brink. People used to shoot birds of prey at Duluth’s Hawk Ridge. Now, they come from all over the world to watch them migrate.

Decades of birding and biology

(Courtesy of the University of Minnesota Press)

Niemi, a retired biology professor from Duluth, was the longtime director of the Center for Water and the Environment at the Natural Resources Research Institute at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. His research focused on birds, the Great Lakes, conservation and natural resource sustainability, and he’s been an avid birder for more than a half-century.

Pfannmuller, of Minneapolis, is the book’s lead author. She’s now retired from posts as executive director at Audubon Minnesota and was director of the Ecological Resources Division of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Duluth master birder Green, who has been observing and studying Minnesota birds since the 1960s, also was a co-author of the new book. She has been involved with the National Audubon Society, the Duluth and Minnesota Audubon Societies, the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union and several DNR advisory committees, including the Minnesota Forest Resources Council. She has authored many Minnesota bird books and guides and is co-founder of Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory.

Years in the making

“Breeding Birds of Minnesota” is the culmination of work that started more than 15 years ago when the state’s Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources funded a massive, statewide field project to find out what birds were residents of the state — those that actually nested here and weren’t just passing through. More than 800 researchers fanned out across 1,500 townships in Minnesota and listened and watched for birds.

“We hit about 99% of all townships in the state, even in the Boundary Waters. … I think we might have been unable to get to a few in the Red Lake bog,” Niemi said.

Results of the yearslong field effort called the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas were published on a website in 2016. But Niemi, Green and Pfannmuller believed the real value of all that bird research would be to pack it into a book that more people would use — not just other scientists and bird experts, but teachers, librarians and backyard bird lovers.

In 1932, when T.S. Roberts published the first guide to all the birds known to nest in Minnesota, the author surmised that ravens would soon be gone from the state. Instead, nearly 100 years later, they are doing well across Minnesota. (David Brislance via Forum News Service)

“It was long overdue. Most states had already conducted two or even three atlas-type efforts,” Niemi said. “We felt the book needed to be done to capture all the work that was done for the atlas.”

In 2017, the trio started writing chapters for each of the 250 species — each one gets at least two full pages in the book — tracking down photographs — all taken in Minnesota by Minnesota photographers, Niemi noted — and researching the history of those birds in Minnesota for decades, even centuries past. They didn’t finish and send it on to the editors until 2023. It’s available to the public starting this month, published by the University of Minnesota Press.

The book offers an incredibly detailed accounting of not just where the birds are found now, but where they used to be, how abundant they are and what their future might look like given current climate and habitat trends. There are also chapters explaining the state’s diverse habitat regions, from boreal forests to hardwoods and prairie.

“Breeding Birds of Minnesota’’ is definitely not a pocket guide. It’s a massive, coffee-table-sized bible of all Minnesota birds, with photos of each species and detailed maps of their distribution. It’s laden with science and history but includes a mostly easy-to-use table of contents of where in the book to look them up among their type of bird. There’s even a section on birds that once called Minnesota home but no longer exists, like the passenger pigeon and swallow-tailed kite.

“And we joked that you can also use the book for weight training,” Pfannmuller said.

“We thought since we had all the data available (from the field surveys) that putting it into a book would be easy,” Niemi said. “But it took us six years to finish it.”

All three authors are long retired from their professional careers but stuck with the effort even without being compensated for their work.

Golden-winged warblers are found nesting only in certain types of evergreen forests and northern Minnesota is the center of their breeding population, with by far the most of any state or province. (Mike Lentz / Forum News Service)

“It was a labor of love — pretty much a full-time job much of that time,” Pfannmuller said.

The pandemic caused some delays. But the book was slow to finish in part because the authors insisted on writing something on each bird that would not just enlighten but also entertain readers.

“What motivated us is that, while there are several very good field guides to Minnesota birds already out there, nothing had been done that captures the history of all the species we have,” Pfannmuller said. “We’re hoping that everyone who loves birds in Minnesota, and maybe wants to know a little more about them than you’d find in a smaller birding guide, might enjoy this book.”

About the book

“The Breeding Birds Of Minnesota: History, Ecology and Conservation”
By Lee A. Pfannmuller, Gerald J. Niemi and Janet C. Green
University of Minnesota Press, 616 pages, $59.95

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