Waiting for the birds

Several years ago, I was thrilled to meet and co-lead a short hike with polar explorer Will Steger. A native Minnesotan, Steger became famous after leading dogsled journeys across the North Pole, Greenland, and Antarctica, and has since gone on to found Climate Generation, a nonprofit organization that educates and empowers people – especially youth – to take action on issues related to climate change. In his book, “Crossing Antarctica,” Steger describes in detail the day-to-day pain and monotony of his seven month, 3,741-mile Antarctic expedition – how he grew to dread eating, the sensory deprivation of endless white, and the cassette tape with bird songs that he listened to during the depths of the mid-journey when the “real world” seemed like a distant memory. 

Will Steger, center, during his Antarctic expedition (from http://www.climategen.org).

I think about those bird songs often at this time of year.

While out walking in our neighborhood this week, my son and I suddenly heard a chorus of bird song and fluttering wings. “There are robins!” I exclaimed, “Dozens of them in those trees!” We stood and watched them for quite some time, both of us just so excited by this tantalizing suggestion of spring.

Each fall, an estimated 4.7 billion birds fly south from the United States to warmer climates. They leave not to avoid the cold, per say, but to find food once the lakes and rivers freeze over and insects die-off for the winter. In fact, of the roughly 240 species of birds that nest in Minnesota, only 20 do not migrate. As for robins, though the majority fly south, some actually do stay here to ride-out the winter. To adapt, they begin eating berries instead of bugs, and travel nomadically in continual search of food. Other birds that remain in Minnesota year-round include grouse, owls, woodpeckers, chickadees, nuthatches, cardinals, and sparrows.

A barred owl winks from a hole in a tree (photo by Jessie Thiel). Owls are one of the birds that remain in Minnesota year-round. Leaving dead standing trees on your property can help to provide habitat for these and other birds.

While a back-yard bird feeder is a great way to attract and enjoy watching birds in your yard, you can actually do far more for the birds by planting native flowers, shrubs, and trees. Trees and shrubs with berries, such as wild cherry, wild plum, hawthorn, highbush cranberry, and winterberry provide a source of food for birds like the winter robins. Beyond berries, however, native plants also attract native insects, which are the primary food source for many songbirds during the spring, summer, and fall. 

Dogwood is an example of a native shrub that has berries for birds, as well as supporting native insects that birds eat.

Recent research by Doug Tallamy and Gregory Shriver has shown that the U.S. and Canada have lost 39% of our birds in the last 50 years. Ninety percent of these were species that require insects to eat and feed their young. Some of the Minnesota native tree species that attract the best array of insects for birds to eat include hackberry, nannyberry, pagoda and redosier dogwood, hazelnut, hawthorne, wild plum, black cherry, white pine, red maple, and white oak. In addition, many beneficial insects are native plant specialists. For example, monarch butterflies will only lay their eggs on milkweed plants, and there is a similar relationship between wild lupine and the endangered Karner blue butterfly.

Wild lupine is a native prairie plant that is used as a food source by the endangered Karner blue butterfly.

Though the spring bird migration is still a few weeks away, late February is a good time to see owls and woodpeckers in Minnesota. You can also travel to see swans along the St. Croix River and at Sucker Lake in Vadnais Heights, as well as eagles along the Mississippi River in southern Minnesota. Beginning on March 15, head to birdcast.info to find local bird migration alerts and migration maps that are updated in real-time.

Meanwhile, keep your ears open for the songs of chickadees and robins. If Will Steger could survive seven months in Antarctica, the rest of us will certainly make it through a few more weeks in Minnesota.