Bird Surveys in Renville County

Lessons in Monoculture Birding

By Bob Janssen, MRVAC Board of Directors 

Here’s my story of how I came to do bird surveys in one of the most intensely agricultural counties, Renville. If you check a map, you will see that the northern boundary is roughly Highway 7. The Minnesota River forms the diagonal boundary.

Common Yellowthroat, courtesy of USFWS

At the MOU spring meeting in St. Paul, I met an old friend, Steve Stucker, who is Director of the Minnesota County Biological Survey. Steve is one of Minnesota’s most knowledgeable birders because of his extensive experience with the geographical distribution of Minnesota birds. I mentioned that I was looking for useful work to keep me busy. Steve told me to get in touch with his wife who is looking for help doing bird surveys in areas in western Minnesota. It sounded exactly like what I was looking for, especially since it might get me back into working with birds.

Jennifer Stucker is the Research Biologist for West Inc who are Environmental and Statistical Consultants doing work in western Minnesota where wind generators are potentially going to be installed. I called Jennifer and was hired and assigned to survey 17 GPS locations in a township in Renville County. I can think of better locations to look for birds but it was work and best of all it had to do with birds!

Surveys were required at each location for 70 minutes once per month. I was trained in the field by one of West’s most experienced people. I thought I knew many things about doing bird surveys but I learned a lot of new techniques while doing these surveys. The surveys included observation of a Bald Eagle nest near to the points I was to survey. Who ever thought there would be a Bald Eagle nest in the “middle” of the corn and soybean monoculture in Renville County?

I have been doing the surveys since April and I have found that this monoculture of agriculture is a great lesson in the changing landscape of Minnesota. This monoculture extends for miles, as far as the eye can see, corn and soybean planted almost to the edge of the road and the ditches along the road where grass and other plants remain which is usually mowed for the hay it produces. Where is there any habitat for birds?

I was really discouraged but as time passed and I grew familiar with the landscape I found out how resilient birds can be. The main grassland habitat that remains is along the drainage ditches which are everywhere. Some of these ditches are 20 to 30 feet or more deep but they are full of grass and other vegetation “spills” out over the top of the ditches. Vesper Sparrows are common along the gravel roads where the ditches and grass occur, Horned Larks, Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Yellowthroats and even a few Bobolinks use the ditch grass for nesting. In addition to birds, butterflies are abundant in the sparse habitat along the gravel roads.

Another area that is good for birds in this intense agriculture area is the farmsteads. Most of the homes are surrounded by dense brush and many species of trees which provide excellent woodland habitat for Red-headed Woodpeckers, Northern Flickers and Downy Woodpeckers. Mourning Doves and Red-winged Blackbirds are probably the most common birds in the area, they are everywhere and an occasional Eurasian Collared-Dove can be heard about the farm houses. American Robins, Barn Swallows and House Wrens are present around each farm home. I have even found Least Flycatchers in a few of the woodlots. Red-tailed Hawks and American Kestrels are seen along the utility lines.

The agricultural portions of Renville County, with their monoculture of corn and soybeans, is not the place to look for rarities but in spite of this, the area provides habitat for many Minnesota birds so there is hope for the species that I have mentioned above.

In a few areas of the county where I am working there are extensive areas of grassland. One Waterfowl Production Area covers almost a square mile and the birdlife here is amazing, Bobolinks and Sedge Wrens are everywhere and can be heard as you drive by this beautiful prairie area. I haven’t had time to study the area but it no doubt has many other species of grassland birds. It shows what the preservation of habitat can do for birds.

The bird that is missing from the whole area is the Western Meadowlark; I wonder what it would take to restore this species to Renville County? What a treat it would be to hear their song drifting over this landscape

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