The ponds hummed, the trees cackled and I wheezed as I lumbered up the nineteenth hill of my run last night. Though the sounds are familiar, I somehow forget each year just how loud it is in spring when the frogs are calling, the birds are chirping and the kids are out playing ball in the street. The birds in particular are like an over-exuberant symphony, with new instruments added every day. The east metro area is located within both the Mississippi and St. Croix River flyways, making us a major stop-over for migrating waterfowl and songbirds. Some of the birds, like tundra swans and warblers, stay only a short time before heading further north, while others like the red-winged blackbirds keep us company throughout the summer.
Whether you live in a suburban subdivision or out in the country, you are pretty much guaranteed to hear frogs and birds during the spring. If we use the analogy of a symphony, however, the more natural the environment, the more interesting the music will be. A typical yard with lawn, a few ornamental shrubs and gardens and perhaps a tree or two will easily draw in a dozen species of birds, including common favorites like robins, cardinals and blue jays. Similarly, a pond or lake that is surrounded by mostly turf grass with a few patches of cattails will attract ducks, geese, an occasional great blue heron and sometimes leopard frogs. Add a few native plants to your yard or shoreline, and suddenly the number of different kinds of birds, frogs, and turtles begins to multiply.
Of the 320 species of birds that use the St. Croix River Valley as a migration corridor, nearly 60 are classified as Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN), meaning their populations are on the decline. Not surprisingly, the birds that are disappearing most quickly are the ones that have the most specialized habitat needs. Take ducks as an example. Most people in our area only ever see mallards and the occasional wood duck, but in reality, there are actually 22 species of duck that call Minnesota home during some portion of the year. One of these, the northern pintail, has experienced a thirty year decline in population numbers due to significant loss of prairie pothole breeding grounds. Prairie potholes are wetland areas formed by retreating glaciers 10,000 years ago. They are filled by rain and melting snow and often are not connected hydrologically to other nearby lakes and streams. Another species of duck, the canvasback, uses the Mississippi River in southeastern Minnesota as a stopover during migration. Declining water quality on the river has hurt this species as well.
Because birds come and go from one season to the next, and sometimes even one day to the next, it’s not always noticeable when the symphony changes over time. If we think of ourselves as conductors for the orchestra, however, our goal should be to make the music more beautiful each year. We do this by adding native flowers, grasses, shrubs and trees to our landscapes and by allowing our woods and shorelines to get a little bit messy. A fallen tree here, a rotten log there, and before you know it, the music of spring begins.
Visit www.mnwcd.org/gowild for more information on bringing birds and wildlife to your backyard.