Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Where the birds breed

New online atlas provides details on where birds live in Minnesota

Marshall Helmberger
Posted 11/21/17

REGIONAL— Have you ever wondered what kind of birds nest in your area? You no longer have to wonder thanks to the culmination of a remarkable project to map the occurrence of breeding birds …

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Where the birds breed

New online atlas provides details on where birds live in Minnesota


REGIONAL— Have you ever wondered what kind of birds nest in your area? You no longer have to wonder thanks to the culmination of a remarkable project to map the occurrence of breeding birds throughout the state of Minnesota.

The Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas is a free interactive website that allows users to quickly and easily find out what kinds of birds breed in Minnesota, and where. It includes everything from common birds, like robins or ruffed grouse, to far rarer species, like boreal owls or American three-toed woodpeckers.

Assembling the data that went into the creation of the atlas was a monumental task, involving eight organizations, 700 field volunteers, 43 photographers and a hefty technical review team that had to catalog and assess the huge collection of bird records gathered for the project. The total price tag was around $1 million, according to UMD professor Jerry Neimi, who helped lead the project through the auspices of the Duluth-based Natural Resources Research Institute. Audubon-Minnesota was also a key leader in the project.

“It was a massive amount of work,” Neimi added. Organizers and volunteers began work on the project in 2009, with major funding from the Legislative-Citizens Commission for Minnesota Resources. The volunteers gathered data for four years, and Neimi and others on the technical review team spent the next four years compiling and confirming the more than 380,000 individual bird breeding records tallied by volunteers on a total of 249 species.

“Mostly, we needed observations of birds and their breeding behavior,” explained Neimi. “A nest, a male singing or the best thing is a nest with eggs or young. Those are confirmed evidence of nesting by a species.”

Volunteers gathered all that data from every township in the state, including every township within the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness as well as the vast and inaccessible Red Lake peatlands, where humans rarely venture.

The information is particularly valuable because Minnesota offers tremendous bird diversity, compared to most inland states. That’s because it sits at the center of the Mississippi flyway and at the confluence of three major North American biomes— the prairie, the eastern deciduous forest, and the boreal forest— and each comes with its own assemblage of bird species.

So far, the reviews have been highly positive.

“It’s going to be an incredible source of information for people who want to know about Minnesota’s bird populations and habitats,” said Steve Lewis, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Regional Nongame Specialist. “The website provides easy access to so much information.” 

The focused effort on breeding birds helped to confirm a number of recent developments in bird populations in the state, including the effectiveness of conservation efforts in helping to recover populations of bald eagles, osprey, peregrine falcons, and trumpeter swans. It also documented breeding locations for some rare breeders, like bufflehead and common terns, as well as confirmed the perilous state of species like the piping plover, sharp-tailed grouse, cerulean warblers, and chestnut-sided longspurs.

Many of those records came from the Tower-Soudan and Ely areas, where folks like Norma Malinowski, Bill Tefft, and Steve Wilson were combing through woods, swamps, and lakeshores for documentation of breeding birds. It was Wilson’s efforts that helped put Tower-Soudan on the map for birders, since his records demonstrated that the area has the highest diversity of breeding birds of any place in Minnesota. “Steve was the champion,” confirmed Neimi.

Wilson, who lives in Tower, called the collection effort “a lot of fun,” and said he was disappointed when the collection phase of the project came to an end. Wilson documented breeding birds in Tower-Soudan, Kugler Township, the former LTV mine site, as well as the Isabella area, where he spends considerable time.

Wilson noted that the atlas is, in essence, a “snapshot in time,” which will likely need to be updated over time as bird populations change. The project will provide a valuable historical record documenting where birds lived in Minnesota in the early part of the 21st century, with the recognition that those populations are likely to change significantly in the years to come as climate change brings major impacts to the state’s bird habitat.

A comprehensive account of the status and distribution of Minnesota’s breeding birds hasn’t been compiled since 1936 when Professor T.S. Roberts published his second edition of Birds of Minnesota, a two-volume book. According to Neimi, a breeding bird survey should be done about every 20 years to better understand how bird populations and their distributions change over time. He noted that neighboring states and Canadian provinces are already working on updates to their bird atlases, even as Minnesota’s first-ever atlas finally went online.

Check it out

You can find the interactive breeding bird atlas online at:


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