Gray Skies Got You Down? Turn up the Volume.

I’ll admit it. I did a bad thing. I was feeling depressed by the cold, rainy weather and listening to the daily news didn’t help. I drove to the store over my lunch break, bought a bag of speckled jelly bird eggs, and ate half of the bag. Then I was gloomy AND sick to my stomach. Kids – don’t try this at home.

It’s hard to stay cheerful when the first day of May looks like this.

The funny thing about that dreary spring day was that it only looked gray and lifeless. When I went outside later for a jog around town, I was amazed by the symphony of birds calling from the trees. Geese were honking overhead, a mallard was quacking incessantly as it floated across the water, and the cattails sang with the calls of redwing blackbirds. It was as if I had been watching a movie on mute and finally turned up the volume.

The Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers are major migratory corridors for birds. In fact, the Mississippi River is a flyway for 60% of all the birds in North America. Three-hundred and twenty species of birds migrate through the St. Croix River Valley, 60 of which are classified as Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN). Over the past month, Ducks Unlimited members have been reporting geese, swans and several species of ducks moving across Minnesota. Even further north, the snow geese arrived in Naicam, Saskatchewan in early April. Meanwhile, observers have started spotting ruby-throated hummingbirds in southern Minnesota as far north as the Twin Cities. Even songbirds like warblers use the Mississippi and St. Croix Rivers as flyways, because the wooded bluffs along the rivers provide shelter and food for their journeys.

Northern pintails are one of the many bird species that use the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers as migration corridors. (Photo from Wikipedia)

The Mississippi River is important to birds, not just because of the river itself, but also because of the wetlands, marshes, sloughs, channels, bottomland forests, and prairies along its course. Audubon Minnesota is working to protect floodplain forests along the Mississippi and other rivers in southeastern Minnesota and is tackling invasive species such as reed canary grass that threaten existing bird habitat. Rare birds such as the golden Prothonotary Warbler, the secretive Red-shouldered Hawk, and the sweet-melodied Cerulean Warbler all call floodplain forests home.

Some Minnesota birds are disappearing due to habitat loss along riverways and elsewhere in the state. Northern pintails, a species of duck, have been declining for thirty years as prairie pothole breeding grounds give way to larger farm fields. Prairie pothole wetlands form when rain and melting snow fill the pockets left by retreating glaciers 10,000 years ago. Audubon Minnesota is also looking for citizen scientists to help monitor the abundance and distribution of marshbirds, especially American Bittern, Least Bittern, Pied-billed Grebe, Sora, Virginia Rail, and Yellow Rail. To volunteer, contact Alison Cariveau at or 651-739-9332 x116.

Audubon Minnesota is looking for volunteers to track the numbers of American Bitterns in the state. (Photo from Wikimedia)

Within Washington County, the Washington Conservation District (WCD) works with local landowners on habitat improvement projects that protect bird habitat and reduce runoff pollution to lakes, streams, and rivers. The WCD partners with area watershed management organizations and connects landowners with state grants (Board of Water and Soil Resources – BWSR) and federal funding (Natural Resources Conservation Service – NRCS) to restore wetlands, plant buffers along lakes and streams, and place environmentally sensitive land into permanent protection. WCD staff provide free on-site visits for landowners in Washington County to assess existing habitat and identify potential improvement projects.

The view outside my window today is just as gloomy as it was on the day of the jelly beans. While I wait patiently for the sun to return, I’m trying to remember to close my eyes, turn up the volume, and listen to the song of the birds outside.