youth look through binoculars at bird feeders

Ornithology at the Bell: Then and Now

Learn about the history of ornithological research at the Bell and where it is going next!

Published04/13/2022 , by Emily Dzieweczynski

For 150 years, birds have been at the heart of the Bell’s story. Some of our earliest directors were avid birders, including T. S. Roberts, who published The Birds of Minnesota. Our art collection is brimming with the work of natural history illustrators who were captivated by the beauty of birds. Ornithological research has been at the forefront of the Bell’s scientific pursuits for decades and continues to evolve as new generations of students come to the university with a fascination for all things avian. 

On an early spring morning, I found myself rolling out of bed to join the early birds. A team of students and scientists from the University of Minnesota had graciously invited me on a research trip to the Itasca Biological Research Station to learn more about the work they’re doing currently and ornithological research at the Bell across time. One of the major goals of this trip was to provide an opportunity for the current graduate students to practice bird handling skills and research methods. The four graduate students on the trip, Bri, Anya, Claire, and Simone, along with Bell curators Sushma Reddy and Keith Barker, spent the morning setting up mist nets, doing point counts, and collecting data whenever they were able to catch a bird. All the work was peppered with birdwatching breaks and walks through the woods.

 

A grouping of four images of students putting up mist nets to catch birds

Students setting up mist nets and bird watching

 

It was a slow morning with the nets but eventually, we started to catch a few birds. As I lurked behind the camera, Barker expertly retrieved a bird and demonstrated to the group a few different grips. “This is the bander’s grip,” he explained, which, as the name alluded to, is typically used when banding the bird’s leg. “I’ll bet you can guess what this grip is called,” as he expertly rotated the bird into a new position, “photographer’s grip.”

 

Two side by side images of a hand holding a bird

Left: bander’s grip; Right: photographer’s grip

 

Later that evening at a cabin on the edge of the lake, we met someone named Robert Zink. As a fairly new member of the Bell’s staff and unfamiliar with its rich history, the name didn’t mean much to me. I soon learned, however, that Zink was a key contributor to the Bell’s love affair with birds. Turns out, he was the first Breckenridge Chair of Ornithology, starting in 1993—a prestigious position now held by Reddy. Zink set up the first DNA sequencing lab for systematics at the University of Minnesota and, in a lot of ways, is considered responsible for ushering in a wave of DNA research at the Bell. DNA research has rewritten the bird tree of life, and today graduate students in our labs benefit from advances in this technology, allowing them to learn new things from old specimens.

 

Robert Zink with some of his research subjects – fox sparrows. The plumage patterns of these sparrows vary greatly across their range

Robert Zink with some of his research subjects—fox sparrows. The plumage patterns of these sparrows vary greatly across their range.

A black and white gel image from Zink's research in the mid 1990s shows how painstaking this work was in the early days of DNA research. You can see that each nucleotide was labeled with handwritten notes.

A black and white gel image from Zink’s research in the mid-1990s shows how painstaking this work was in the early days of DNA research. You can see that each nucleotide was labeled with handwritten notes.

 

As the trip continued, I realized that no conversation about the history of ornithological research at the Bell would be complete without discussing the story of the Midwest Peregrine Falcon Restoration Project—which is as much a story about research as it is about conservation. By 1967, scientists had determined that the widespread use of DDT was what was causing raptor populations to plummet and in 1973, when the U.S. Congress passed the Endangered Species Act, peregrines were one of the first species listed. Although efforts had begun to reestablish peregrines in rural areas and nature reserves, they were met with no success. This is when former Bell director Bud Tordoff and Pat Redig, director of the University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center, had the idea to release young falcons in urban areas. The idea was that in urban areas there was an abundance of food in the form of small birds, potential nesting sites on building ledges, and no predators. The idea worked and the Midwest peregrine falcon population had a rapid rebound, as birds fledged from urban sites moved beyond cities to establish nesting sites. The success rate was so good that in 1991 the program was ended and in 1999, the peregrine falcon was removed from the Endangered Species list.

 

Pat Redig and Bud Tordoff placing captive-bred peregrine chicks into a hack box, 1980s.

Pat Redig and Bud Tordoff placing captive-bred peregrine chicks into a hack box, 1980s

Tordoff and Redig on Multifoods Tower in downtown Minneapolis, 1985.

Tordoff and Redig on Multifoods Tower in downtown Minneapolis, 1985

 

In one fell swoop, I saw pieces of the Bell’s history meet current ornithological research and the students being trained to continue this work into the future. After returning from Itasca, I met with Simone and she reflected a bit on where she sees their department going. Since Reddy became chair, ornithological research at the Bell has shifted to have a biogeographical focus—which is essentially the study of why biological species are where they are and how they got to those places. According to Simone, everyone in the lab is doing something that has a spatial relationship—from community assembly of raptors, to research in Malaysia. Simone’s research has a huge spatial component, as she’s comparing bird brains in rural and urban environments.

 

Simone holding one of the birds she is researching, the black capped chickadee

Simone holding one of the birds she is researching, the black-capped chickadee

 

Not only are these students making strides in new ornithological research, but they’re also centering a new system of values, with an emphasis on diversity and access. In fact, Simone picked her research topic with accessibility in mind, as she felt it was a relatable entry point from which she could engage with the public about science. Additionally, this summer, the students and some curators organized a program called Expeditions to the Bell. During this event, students demonstrated to the public how bird specimens are prepared—allowing them access into a little-before-seen world of natural history and science. 

While the Bell’s rich history of ornithological research is enough to write home about (and certainly to write a lengthy blog post about), I can’t wait to see where we will go next. These students will undoubtedly usher in the next-new wave of DNA research, the next generation of conservation movements, and a world of other questions we are yet to ask. 

If you’d like to learn more about the ornithological research going on at the Bell join us for Spotlight Science: Ornithology on April 23! This in-person event invites visitors to engage in conversation with scientists—like those from the Reddy and Barker labs, mentioned in this post. You can also try your ear at identifying common bird songs, play a Build a Bird game, examine specimens up-close, and explore other hands-on activities. Then, see even more birds in our new exhibition, Seeing Birds, now on view.