Birds Gone Wild

When Ron Wingstad starts talking about chimney swifts, his voice picks up intensity. “Chimney swifts have declined by 50% just in the past 40 years,” he says. “So Audubon Minnesota has been working with boyscouts and we have 30 some troops around the state building chimney houses.” Wingstad is the Audubon-at-Home Coordinator for Audubon Minnesota, and he is a natural born bird lover with a perfectly fitting last name.

Sharon Stiteler is wild about birds.

Sharon Stiteler is a part-time park ranger for the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area, and she too is wild about birds. Stiteler runs the popular website, and makes a living loving birds, writing about birds, and leading birding trips and workshops. “In 2004, I was getting a Sandhill Crane tattoo,” she writes on her website, “when the tattoo artist recognized me from my TV appearances as the ‘Bird Lady’.” If you’ve got a question about birds, you can find her on Twitter too. The pun is unintended, but amusing none-the-less.

Here in the east metro, a lot of people are crazy about birds. Both the Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers are major migration corridors, which means that we are privileged to see many species of birds that aren’t found in other parts of the state. The herons and egrets aren’t back yet, but on February 28, Kirk Mona, a naturalist with Warner Nature Center in May Twp., reported seeing his first horned lark of the season. The word on the street is that brown creepers are back in town too. It’s a sign that despite the snow, spring is not far away.

The St. Croix Valley hosts 320 species of birds each year, nearly 60 of which are Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN), meaning their populations are on the decline. Most, like chimney swifts, are victims of dwindling habitat. These small grey birds historically nested and roosted in hollow trees. When trees made way for houses, the swifts initially transitioned to living in chimneys, but now that chimneys are on the decline as well, the birds have really found themselves in a pickle. Audubon Minnesota is working with volunteers and landowners to erect artificial chimney houses for the swifts, but they are also spreading the word that people with yards of all shapes and sizes can help keep birds from disappearing by planting native flowers, shrubs and trees.

If you’ve ever wondered why some species of birds migrate while others don’t, it has to do with the types of food that they eat. Shorebirds and waterfowl leave town when the lakes freeze over, their dinner sealed under ice. Most songbirds eat insects so when the temperatures drop, they too must leave for warmer destinations where caterpillars and gnats still abound. Even during the summer, though, birds are having a harder and harder time finding food and shelter in Minnesota. The problem, according to Doug Tallamy, a professor at University of Delaware and author of Bringing Nature Home, is that lawns and ornamental plants don’t make good locations for nests, nor do they provide a host for the larval insects birds eat. Since parks and other natural areas make up so little of our landscape, the only hope for most of our bird species is for everyday people to begin planting natives in their yards. Some of the best options for birds include trees like white oak, black cherry and white pine, shrubs like choke cherry, wild plum and pagoda dogwood, and flowers like blue flag iris and columbine. 

On Tuesday, March 22 Sharon Stiteler will be teaming up with the East Metro Water Resource Education Program to offer a free workshop on birds at the Gander Mountain in Woodbury. She’ll be sharing some of her adventures with birds gone wild, and giving tips for how to attract birds to your yard. Because native flowers, shrubs and trees also help to prevent erosion and runoff water pollution, watershed districts in Washington County can provide grants to people for planting or improving bird habitat along lake, stream and wetland edges and for people with cropland or ravines that drain to the St. Croix River and other waterways. Learn more about grants and other assistance available by attending the workshop or by visiting To register for the workshop, contact Tara Kline at 651-275-1136 x.28 or Birds gone wild, coming soon to a backyard near you?