Visiting the past to inform the future

Collections reveal samples of bird life — and a trove of student bird reports — from the mid-20th century on.

By Allison Campbell-Jensen

The ability to travel back in time? That’s a plot device to accelerate the action in sci-fi and fantasy novels. And maybe other avenues?

“Bird collections are these living things,” says doctoral student Anya Auerbach. “There’s old information that has new relevance all the time.” 

Looking back with the lens of a brave new world

For instance, undergraduate researcher Henry Rosato asks an observer: “Did you know you can pull DNA from birds’ toe pads?” Even from birds’ feet still attached to stuffed bird skins that were collected years or even decades ago? Because freezing DNA samples is a relatively recent development, he adds, the ability to sample toe pads greatly expands the possibilities for genomic studies. Among other benefits, these studies could contribute to conserving biodiversity.

Four people standing in the bird specimen repository.
From left: Undergraduates Olivia Hanson and Henry Rosato, and doctoral students Anya Auerbach and Samuel Safran are pictured among the drawers storing thousands of bird specimens held on the St. Paul campus.

Auerbach and Rosato refer to the extensive bird skin repository on the St. Paul campus, which is one source of historic data and belongs to the Bell Museum of Natural History.  The taking a fresh look back principle, however, applies also to bird tallies from Itasca State Park, developed annually by U of M biology students at the Itasca Biological Station and recounted in hundreds of paper reports. 

Starting with the 1940s, this student-collected data now are accessible and searchable online, because of support from donors Darby and Geri Nelson, and efforts by University of Minnesota librarians to organize the material. 

And the research continues at Itasca.

“It’s kind of cool,” says Sushma Reddy, professor in Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology, who holds the Breckenridge Chair of Ornithology, as well as being Curator of Birds for the Bell Museum of Natural History.  “There are places you can walk by [in Itasca State Park] where we put these markers on the trees” to delineate a study area, and they remain alongside the remnants of markers from past studies.

“Some of them have 10 or 15 different markers,” adds Keith Barker, a Biology professor who served as an instructor at Itasca in summer 2022.

While “the world has changed and we can’t go back,” says doctoral student Samuel Safran, we can get a view of the past that may better inform the future for birds — and all other creatures, including humans. 

“I think the [Itasca bird census] project is important, because we can’t go back in time,” not really, Safran says. “The data we have is all we will ever have, so we should make the most of it.” 

Searching the potential

These decades of summertime bird records have long been available, albeit in an analog (paper or scanned paper) format. Librarians Shannon Farrell and Julie Kelly decided that, while preserving the reports was good, making them accessible to researchers online would be even better. Farrell is the Libraries’ Interim Research Data Services Librarian, while her collaborator Kelly is now retired.

With financial support from the Nelsons, Farrell and Kelly trained student library workers to read the reports, create metadata about which bird species were seen where and when, and put the information in a format to make that data searchable online. 

Some observers might be inclined to discount the value of these reports, because they were developed by students. Not so fast, wrote former U of M professor Robert M. Zink (now at University of Nebraska – Lincoln) and Muir D. Eaton of Drake University in The Loon (Fall 2021; a publication of the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union). 

many 10s of ovenbird (warblers), taxidermied and in a specimen drawer: Bell Museum Collections.
Even stilled, a flock of Ovenbirds have tales to tell.

Their analysis of a slice of these studies concluded that the students contributed scientifically valuable data.

“For the common species, the students are quick learners,” Zink and Eaton wrote, “[A]nd because the census involves many repeat visits to the plots, students became proficient rather rapidly.”

Reddy notes that the biology students return year after year to the same two areas in the park to do bird surveys that include both hearing and seeing a variety of species: the repetition makes the data potentially more valuable.

Seeing patterns 

This St. Paul campus bird skin repository also conveys tales related to the species seen regularly at Itasca, but in a much different manner. To demonstrate, Auerbach and Safran, accompanied by Rosato and undergraduate Olivia Hanson, pull out drawers to reveal the taxidermied bodies of warbler species regularly documented in or near Itasca State Park.

Two small birds, taxidermies, with a pen nearby for size comparison.
In front, a Blackburian Warbler; behind, a Mourning Warbler; both were collected in Clearwater County, where Itasca State Park is located.

For example, researchers interested in the numbers of, or relative health of, Mourning Warblers, Ovenbirds, or Common Yellowthroats over time could look at the many bird skins collected (and dated) in Clearwater County, with any relevant metadata. If so inclined, they might combine looking at skins with searching the students’ reports online.

Today, scientists and environmentalists recognize birds are disappearing — not just species, like the Ivory-billed Woodpecker, but actual numbers of once-common birds. Recently, Audubon reported that, from the 1970s till today, the number of birds in North America has dropped by about 30 percent.* Daniel Brumm, Itasca Station Scientist, says he has seen studies accounting for the dropping bird numbers that range from 10 percent to 50 percent.

Scientists know that it is important to try to preserve critically endangered birds, with knowledge gained for example from the Piping Plover studies that Hanson participated in last summer and hopes to do again in 2023.

Even more essential for the future is to analyze the habitat conditions that have nurtured birds in the past. 

Look back to go forward

Putting together large batches of data together for analysis provides an insightful view of the past, Safran says. Before he arrived at the University of Minnesota for grad school, he re-created for a nonprofit the landscapes and shorelines of the San Francisco Bay Area prior to colonization by Spanish and American people. 

Researcher examining data on a computer, in a university office
Among Samuel Safran’s several research projects is a study of birds in urban areas: Here, he looks at historical records from Los Angeles County.

He came to the U of M to go deeper — to gain the statistical analysis skills to bring together huge amounts of data to understand the range of variability among bird species: Cyclical changes, directional changes (like climate change), and range changes.

It’s not a nostalgic or romantic pursuit, he emphasizes. “It helps us imagine what the potential would be for the future.”

What are the steps needed for possible reintroduction of certain species? In Minnesota, Safran has been working with the staff of the Three Rivers Park District, who have been restoring habitat since the 1960s.

“They have been monitoring species, [resulting in] this amazing data,” he says. Safran is helping them find out how birds respond to habitat restoration.

“These studies of change in urban and suburban areas,” Safran says, “will be very useful as we seek to make human-dominated landscapes better places for animals.”

Itasca is a special place

Itasca Park studies are a bit special, researchers say, because the old growth forest in the park transitions fairly quickly to prairie as one moves west. Plus, the park has been managed to preserve its natural beauty (if not its original habitat). 

“These bird populations [may be] highest in the park, because there’s the most natural conditions for them to find their natural foods and not be bothered by human activities,” says Brumm. “So if we have evidence of decreasing bird populations in the park, it’s also possible those populations are even more reduced outside of the park.”

He adds that we don’t know that for certain — not yet — but keeping track of bird numbers in relatively pristine ecosystems may help us better understand what happens when we transform lands, waters, and habitats to extract resources for people.

Adds Biology Professor Jonathan Schilling: “The long-term data helps us keep a pulse on what a natural system should look like. If we are managing for a human-disturbed system, we have some kind of a benchmark for … if we [choose to] naturalize or rewild” an area.

Farrell, who was an ecologist before she was a librarian, says: “Making sure that people have this historical information that they can use in new research is just very important to me. That’s why I continue to do projects like this.” She hopes that future class members at Itasca also take a look at this bird census data and perhaps create trend reports or comparisons.

Schilling currently researches fungi: He often hears questions about how to forage for mushrooms. He points out that, when curious yet non-scientific people take a mushroom foraging class, they often discover they want to dig further into the field. They might want to know more about the symbiotic relationships between certain tree species and types of mushrooms, for instance. Some of them will become nerds, he adds.

“And we need more nerds, I think.” For the birds, the trees, the mushrooms — and everything else.

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Meehan, T.D., LeBaron, G.S., Dale, K., Krump, A., Michel, N.L., Wilsey, C.B. 2022. Trends in relative abundance for birds wintering in the continental USA and Canada: Audubon Christmas Bird Counts, 1966-2021, version 4.0. National Audubon Society, New York, New York, USA.



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