Massive Bird Atlas Project Kicks Off in Wisconsin

Mar 2, 2015

Female cardinal in flight in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum
Credit Richard Hurd, Flickr

Over the next five years, thousands of volunteers and professionals will track down birds that breed and raise their young in Wisconsin. The data will be distilled into the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas II.

Data will be shared with federal and state agencies, and it might help drive comprehensive conservation measures - at least Bill Mueller hopes so. He directs the Western Great Lakes Bird & Bat Observatory.

At last count, over 230 bird species made their nests in Wisconsin.

“If you let a species become endangered, and you wait until then to starting doing conservation, it’s hugely complicated and it’s also hugely expensive and there’s no guarantee that it will even work. But if you work at the other end, when birds are still abundant, you have a much greater chance of success of maintaining their population,” Mueller says.

Thousands of volunteers and professionals will comb habitats, looking and listening for evidence that birds are breeding.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak - male
Credit Mark Peck, Flickr

“So let’s say for example you hear a rose-breasted grosbeak male singing on two days – seven days apart. That’s a low-level of breeding evidence,” Mueller says.

Mueller says the likelihood increases if you later return to the scene and see signs.

“You might see the female rose-breasted grosbeak carrying nesting material, that’s one additional piece of evidence getting closer to proof," he says." Then you might actually see the female bird on the nest…"

Or he says, you spot both parents feeding their young – eureka!

“Now, you have confirmation on that location. So all of these places for all the species are then mapped for the whole state of Wisconsin and the degree of breeding evidence for all of these 230 odd species, so it’s a massive undertaking,” Mueller says.

Trackers who are up to the challenge will slog into swamps or amid poisonous plants.

Bill Mueller at the Urban Ecology Center Riverside talking up the Wisconsin Breeding Bird Atlas.
Credit S Bence

Last week, Mueller was in a different habitat - a meeting room on Milwaukee’s east side.

About two-dozen people ventured out on a bitterly cold evening to learn about the atlas project. Mueller told them it’s an opportunity to drink in their surroundings.

“Every person that I know who has worked on a breeding bird said, after I was done with that I went to another level. I was able to go out in some natural area and see things and enjoy things as I never had before. And one of the chief ways that you do this is forcing yourself to slow down,” Mueller says.

Mueller’s message also includes a solemn note. “The worrisome thing is a full one out of every three of our Wisconsin breeding birds species is in decline.” Mueller adds, “and around the globe, 12 percent of all bird species are in severe decline.”

He says getting involved in projects like this, “you see the affect decreases in water quality, you see habitat degradation going on before your eyes, you experience the effects of climate change or urban sprawl,” Mueller says.

The years of careful observation ahead, designed to feed data into the atlas, is no mere game. The groups involved hope the multi-year project and the two million dollars it costs will translate into action.

Want to get involved with the bird atlas? Training opportunities are being offered around the state until May.