Birds aren’t doing too well in North America. A 2019 study from the publication “Science” shows a decline in the bird population of three billion since 1970, “with steep declines in every habitat.” The 2019 U.S. State of the Birds Report listed the losses as these: 22% fewer forest birds, 37% fewer shorebirds, and 53% fewer grassland birds.
That means the chorus of bird song from your state parks this spring has gradually dropped in volume. The decline hasn’t gone unnoticed. Conservation efforts to protect and conserve bird habitats are a priority with the state Department of Natural Resources. We asked the experts what’s being done in this two-part story that will conclude next month. Below is a Q&A with Kristin A.L. Hall, Conservation Focus Area Coordinator for the State Wildlife Action Plan and Shawn Fritcher, a Parks and Trails District Resource Specialist at Whitewater State Park.
Minnesota DNR: Why should we care about birds?
Kristin Hall: The top three reasons to care about birds: They provide important ecosystem services (pest control), they are good environmental indicators (water quality) and they have high intrinsic value (imagine the return of spring without the singing of a bird).
DNR: Why do birds require special habitats? Aren’t they alike and have the same needs?
KH: Birds, like people, come in many shapes and sizes and have varying needs.
DNR: Do they all have the same kinds of habitats? How are the habitats threatened, if ever?
KH: Some birds, like European starlings or rock pigeons, are generalists and can make their home anywhere. Other birds are specialists, relying on specific habitat types and habitat quality in order to survive. Some of those specialist groups include secretive marsh birds, grassland obligates and waterfowl. Each has different and specific habitat needs.
Habitat specifications comes down to life history details for each species; what do they eat? Where do they nest? How do they move? Birds that eat insects (insectivores) need something different from those that eat fish. Similarly, birds that nest in cavities need standing dead trees and birds that swim need open water.
Habitat loss or degradation is one of the biggest threats to birds and other wildlife. Land use changes such as draining wetlands, development, grassland conversion, and unsustainable forest management are all potential habitat threats.
DNR: What steps has the DNR taken to help birds?
KH: Minnesota has about 314 regularly occurring bird species that call the state home at some point in the annual cycle. Of those, the Minnesota DNR has classified 92 bird species as Species in Greatest Conservation Need. The DNR helps protect these SGCN through habitat conservation, surveys and monitoring. We work to restore and create habitat for these birds and other wildlife on our state-owned lands, and by working with private land owners through conservation easements. We keep detailed long-term trend and population data of the birds through the Minnesota Biological Survey. We monitor the effectiveness of our habitat work by assessing species response to conservation practices. An example is the Grassland Monitoring Team that monitors plant and bird response to conservation grazing and prescribed burning practices in the prairie region.
DNR: Why are there so fewer birds across North America now?
KH: There is no one thing we can pinpoint that would explain the alarming declines in bird populations. Many threats, including: climate change, habitat loss and degradation, pollutants and environmental toxins, predation by free roaming domestic pets, and man-made infrastructure, can have a cumulative impact.
DNR: I live in the city. How can I help birds? Can I create a habitat in my back yard?
KH: YES. Creating small patches of native habitat in your back yard can help birds as well as pollinators! Programs like “Lawns to Legumes” (by BOWSR) are a great way to get started. If you don’t have a back yard or if it is already a native plant paradise, legislation is another way to take action. Contact your local representative and make sure they are aware of your environmental concerns and that they are supporting legislation such as the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act currently making its way through congress.
DNR: Is bird conservation limited to any one area of the state?
Shawn Fritcher: It’s much bigger than any one park, wildlife management area, or state or region. It’s really continental in scope because so many species migrate. Birds are mobile and use different areas of the globe for their seasonal habitats. Our efforts at the DNR are part of larger efforts with many partners from state and federal agencies and various private organizations.
DNR: Are there specific examples of habitat protection at Great River Bluffs State Park?
SF: One example is our work with Henslow’s sparrows, which are a grassland bird that has shown population declines nationwide. We’ve done specific habitat management projects at Great River Bluffs State Park to restore agricultural land to a prairie habitat. The Henslow’s sparrow prefer grasslands with a lot of “litter,” which is old vegetation from the previous year. We use prescribed burns with long intervals between burns so there is always somewhere that they can nest the next year. (Editor’s note: prescribed burning, or controlled burning, is a management tool that reduces wild fires and encourages plant growth.)
DNR: How long does it take to convert farmland to prairie? How many acres are restored for these sparrows at Great River Bluffs State Park?
SF: It takes at least 5 years to create a prairie with the accumulated litter that Henslow’s sparrows prefer. We have restored 70 acres of agricultural fields to prairie, and had another 80 acres of existing grassland. The sparrows make their nests on the ground in leaves and clumps of grass. A whole host of grassland birds are ground nesters. Many forage on the ground for insects, as well.
DNR: Do the restoration efforts work?
SF: We’ve had some success with sparrows at other parks where they now nest in prairie restorations. They’ve been observed at Lake Louise, Afton, Frontenac and Glendalough state parks. No doubt, by restoring prairie and utilizing prescribed burns at the proper frequency, we can provide new habitats for Henslow’s sparrow and other grassland birds.
DNR: What do the Henslow’s sparrows look and sound like?
SF: Like many birds, you’ll hear them and recognize their call before you’ll see them. They have a soft call that sounds like “tzelick’. They’re small with brown and black streaks mixed with some olive green coloration. By mid-May, they will have their territories established, males will be calling and they’ll soon be nesting.
DNR: What’s the best part of bird conservation?
SF: When you see that your effort is helping in the conservation of a species or it’s habitat. You’ll see a nesting bird or a native prairie flower that weren’t there before. It’s gratifying. It may take 15 years or more to see the results. Often, what we do seems like just a tiny dot on the map when you consider the large scale of a species range. Hopefully, the small projects we completed at Great River Bluffs State Park have helped with nesting success and ultimately contributed with the conservation of Henslow’s sparrow and many other prairie species.