VIDEO: University of Minnesota-Crookston surveys songbirds

CROOKSTON -- The bird wasn't happy about its predicament. And judging by its angry squawks and clacking beak, the great-crested flycatcher was even less impressed with Laura Bell's efforts to free its wings and feet from the mesh that rose from t...

A song sparrow is fitted with a tiny band Aug. 1 at the Red River Valley Natural History Area in Crookston, where University of Minnesota-Crookston researchers are participating in an ongoing national songbird study. (Brad Dokken photo)

CROOKSTON -- The bird wasn't happy about its predicament. And judging by its angry squawks and clacking beak, the great-crested flycatcher was even less impressed with Laura Bell's efforts to free its wings and feet from the mesh that rose from the forest floor like a large volleyball net.

As if putting an exclamation point on its displeasure, the angry bird proceeded to forcefully unload its bowels on Bell.

That would be poop, in lay terms. Call it one of the hazards of being a scientist studying songbirds.

A lab coordinator and naturalist in the University of Minnesota-Crookston's natural resources program, Bell was among a small crew gathered at the Red River Valley Natural History Area on this perfect August morning trapping and banding songbirds as part of a national effort to learn more about the birds' productivity and survival.

Located across U.S. Highway 2 from the UMC campus, the 85-acre natural history area is owned and operated by the University of Minnesota's Northwest Research and Outreach Center.


Undaunted by her splattered misadventure, Bell soon had the noisy flycatcher free and settled inside a small cloth sack before the next phase of its adventure -- being banded, weighed and measured.

"I'm happy to shove him in there," Bell said with a laugh. "He bites and he squawks."

And worse. ...

"I have never encountered a bird projectile like that one," she said later. "It's just defense -- they do anything they can think of -- but it goes with the territory."

About the survey

As part of the survey, a national effort known by the acronym MAPS -- short for "Monitoring Avian Productivity and Survivorship" -- the Crookston crew had been onsite since 5 a.m. setting 10 "mist nets" at various sites throughout the natural history area.

The mist nets, which measured about 40 feet long and 10 feet high, extended between two poles and "opened" at sunrise -- 6 a.m. on this day.

The crew then checked the nets every hour for the next six hours, "working up" the birds they caught in a screen tent set up elsewhere on the natural history area. Besides banding, weighing and measuring the birds, they examined fat and body conditions and recorded the data for future reference and submission to a national database.


The birds then were released.

According to John Loegering, an assistant professor of ecology at UMC, this is the second year the Crookston campus has participated in the MAPS program. It's the only survey station in the Red River Valley and one of only a handful in Minnesota, he said; North Dakota doesn't have any survey sites.

Nationwide, the MAPS program includes more than 300 locations, Loegering said, and each survey station follows the same protocol, setting the same number of mist nets in the same locations every year. The survey calls for 10 sampling periods, which must occur once in every 10-day block, Loegering said, and is timed to capture local birds rather than migrants.

Because of Crookston's northerly location, the UMC crew only samples seven times, beginning in early June and wrapping up last week.

By the numbers

Loegering said nearly 400 songbirds have been captured and banded in Crookston the past two summers. Most abundant are species such as American redstarts, flycatchers, yellowthroats, yellow warblers, vireos, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, Baltimore orioles, robins, catbirds and goldfinches, species which fly closer to the ground and are more apt to be caught in the nets.

"Last year, we caught several birds that we again caught this year and were able to determine their survival using the data," Loegering said.

Banding songbirds might not have the glitz or glamour of working with larger birds such as ducks or raptors, but the survey is an important tool for keeping tabs on species that otherwise might be overlooked.


"Certainly you can get the public excited about raptors and waterfowl because they're large and you typically see them," Loegering said. "These are the songbirds that you hear in backyards and city parks and woodlands throughout the state. But you typically don't see them up close unless they're in your backyard birdfeeder."

Added Bell: "They're so little that people sometimes forget about them."

Loegering said it's too early to draw any conclusions from Crookston's contribution to the survey because they only have two years of data, but the findings help fill a geographical gap.

That's why UMC decided to be part of the survey, which required obtaining both state and federal permits to capture and band the songbirds, a lengthy process.

"It's part of the university's commitment to help move science forward, and this is one activity we could do that would be very useful," Loegering said. "This northern prairie environment -- or at the edge of the prairie -- is an environment we don't have on a nationwide basis (in the survey) so this is our contribution."

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Dokken reports on outdoors. Call him at (701) 780-1148; (800) 477-6572, ext. 1148; or send e-mail to .

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