For the Birds Radio Program: Breeding Bird Survey

Original Air Date: Aug. 7, 1995

How do ornithologists keep track of bird numbers? With volunteers like Laura Erickson, who conduct annual Breeding Bird Surveys. (3:48) Date confirmed.

Audio missing


Every year since 1988, I’ve conducted a Breeding Bird Survey for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. My friend Kathy and I get up dark and early one June morning and drive off to my official route, northeast of Duluth. At precisely 4:38, I start calling out every bird I hear or see for three minutes, while Kathy writes them all down. Then we jump in the car, go exactly one half mile, and do it all over again. We have a total of 50 stops on the 25-mile survey route. We’re only allowed to count the birds I see or hear on my own, but Kathy is indispensable for recording each bird I call out. If I had to do the writing as well as listening and watching, it would slow me down. Each survey is supposed to be finished in less than 4 1/2 hours, or the accuracy drops as birds stop singing at mid-morning.

Usually we run the route sometimes around Grandma’s Marathon in mid-June, but this year I had teaching commitments that kept me busy for two weeks. Naturally, the weather during those two weeks was just about perfect almost every day. By the time I could finally do my route, Mother Nature had decided we’d seen enough calm, clear days and decided to add some wind, fog, and rain to the mixture. Each morning–or should I say night?–I’d get up about 2:45 and look out the window, and for six or seven days running, I’d call Kathy, waking her roommate too, of course, to tell her to go back to sleep. By June 30, I was feeling awfully discouraged, and it was still junky on July first. Finally, July second turned out to be a fine morning for bird counting.

By this time we were both getting used to waking up at 2:45, and were feeling pretty bright and chipper, all things considered. By the time we arrived at our first stop, twenty minutes early, we were alert and excited about the day’s prospects. This being July, waiting for 4:38 to roll around was a lot quieter than usual. Frogs were silent, White-throated Sparrows were sleeping in a bit longer, and all in all, it sounded like the day was going to be pretty slow. But little by little the chorus started filtering in, and when it was actually time to start counting, we tallied 6 white-throats, 5 yellowthroats, a Nashville and Mourning Warbler, Veery, Winter Wren, and Swamp and Song Sparrows during our first three-minute period.

Overall, I ended up with only 58 species, the lowest species total ever thanks to counting in July. Bitterns, grouse, Broad-winged Hawks, sapsuckers, Yellow-rumped Warblers, and other early nesters were too busy with babies to sing or call so late in the season.

I didn’t mind. I had the most Winter Wrens ever, and their song is one of the most beautiful songs in the universe. Hermit Thrushes were also unusually abundant, their ethereal flute notes floating lightly above the forest. There weren’t as many warblers as usual, many Ovenbirds too busy nesting to be yelling for their teacher, but Magnolias were especially abundant. I never have time to actually look at birds while I’m counting, but short sweet Magnolia music is as lovely and enjoyable as their lemon and licorice plumage.

We finished the route in just under 4 1/2 hours and headed for the Hardees in Two Harbors for breakfast, reassured that forest birds are doing okay and all is right with the world.