For the Birds Radio Program: Breeding Bird Survey 1997 (Placeholder)

Original Air Date: June 30, 1997

Laura’s annual ritual of counting breeding birds. (4:03) Date verified.

Audio missing


Every June since 1989, I’ve conducted a Breeding Bird Survey for the U.S. Geological Survey. Well, it used to be for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but a couple of years ago they restructured the bureaucracy, and now this year they’ve gone and restructured the count sheets. But the data collection technique has been the same for almost 30 years.

Kathy Hermes, my data recorder, and I leave Duluth at 3:45 in the morning to head out for my count area, about 25 miles northeast of Duluth. We have to begin the count at exactly 4:38, while it’s still dark. The stops are exactly one half mile apart, and at each one I listen and look for each individual bird for exactly 3 minutes while Kathy keeps a running tally. By far, the majority of birds we find are by ear. Concentrating on the songs makes it impossible to also follow each little flitting shadow through the trees the way I do on a normal day of birding. The entire survey is made up of 50 of these stops, so it takes about 5 hours total.

At the first few stops, the volume and variety of bird song is amazing. That really is the time of maximum singing in the bird world, when there are still a few stars and planets visible in the dark sky. But even as the morning light intensifies, bird song remains strong, and the survey is always a reminder to me that whatever happens in the affairs of humans, birds will always have reason to sing at the break of a summer day.

My total number of individuals counted each year has ranged from 671 to 873. This year’s total, exactly 700, was pretty much average. I didn’t have any particularly rare species, either—mostly just the same warblers I always have. The one thing that was way above average was the number of mosquitoes. For five or six stops near the beginning of the route, the buzzing of literally hundreds of mosquitoes all within inches of my ears was so loud that it was hard to hear birds. Once when I swatted my forehead, at least a dozen of these entomological vampires dropped to the ground before my eyes, with another 10 sticking to my hand. By the end of the route, my face and hands were swollen with bites, and I was spattered with my own blood from swatting ones that had already gorged themselves.

To make up for the mosquitoes, I had one of the coolest raven experiences of my life. At one stop, we heard a baby raven screaming, making me grateful that I’d only had to deal with human babies. Its demanding squawks were hilariously raucous and impossible for human or raven to ignore. It was hidden somewhere in the forest, with its parents nearby, scolding or reassuring it—you can never be quite sure what mood a raven parent is in. Suddenly I gave into an impish temptation to squawk an imitation of the baby. In zoomed one of the parents, who flew in small circles over my head, round and round, checking me out suspiciously with its black eyes. I kept squawking and it kept circling until it landed in a nearby tree, still eyeing me. It finally seemed to decide that I was just playing tricks on it and retreated back into the forest.

Most of the birds we count on a Breeding Bird Survey are hidden in the forest, revealing their presence only with their voices. The rare times that a real bird comes out into the open for us to enjoy, the sight and sound are always fun, and this close encounter with a raven was the most magical one ever.