by Nick Minor, Allison Haaning, and Isabella Armour

On May 28, we had a session all about birds. We used bird specimens (from the University of Minnesota’s Bell Museum of Natural History) to examine differences within a species, differences between distantly related species with shared names (American and European robins), wing coloration, and specialized beaks. We also tried our hand at identifying local Minnesota birds by sight and call, and we made bird feeders to attract local birds. Oh–and there was live red-tailed hawk demonstration from the University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center!

Out of all the animals on earth, few reconnect us to nature quite like birds do. We explored why and learned some new things along the way.

Where to start? Before we learn anything else about birds, we have to learn their names. Naming things allows us to communicate more clearly and organize collective knowledge. Bird species are often very distinct from each other, in both appearance and sound, and their names often reflect this. For example, did you know that cardinals were named for their resemblance to Catholic Cardinals, clergy members who wore long red robes and peaked hats?  Bet you can guess how hummingbirds got their names!

Cardinals were named by Europeans in North America after the Catholic clergy members of similar appearance.

Many common Minnesota birds can also be identified by their appearances and calls. Throughout the year, even in urban areas, there are often at least ten bird species to be found. At the right place and the right time, bird species may number up to triple digits! The ability to put names on species as we observe them furthers our awareness that we share this planet with other numerous other captivating organisms. Learn your Minnesotan neighbors  from this video:


Which birds do you recognize? Which are new to you? For more information about these species, check out

Once you look for them, birds are everywhere! In virtually any habitat from pole to pole, we can observe a rich diversity of bird species. Wherever we look, even in highly altered urban landscapes, we can find nesting house sparrows, fluttering pigeons, yammering red winged blackbirds and so much more. All we have to do is open our eyes and ears. This ubiquity makes birds the perfect plugin to the natural world no matter where you live. How could we not wonder about them when they’re always around?

With just a little effort, we can get closer to our avian neighbors. One way to do this, of course, is with bird feeders. We hosted a simple, take-home-bird feeder making station where market-goers could construct their own feeders. For instructions to make one of the bird feeders we made, visit

Allison Haaning (UMn graduate student) and Isabella Armour (UMn undergraduate student) are ready to make bird snacks!

Another way to get closer to birds is with a little help from optics. Starting early in the 1900s, advances in binocular technology allowed naturalists a new way to observe species in the field – one that did not involve shooting them. Instead, naturalists could go out into the field and observe birds’ behavior as well as their plumage. Thus, a new era in nature observation was born. Along with the invention of the field guide by Roger Tory Peterson, binoculars are one of the most historically significant technologies for enhancing people’s understanding of nature. We wanted to share this with market-goers, so we brought binoculars from the Bell Museum of Natural History to demonstrate their use. Do you have a pair of binoculars at home?



Another reason why birds are so fascinating is, of course, their beauty. What could be as striking as the red of a male Northern Cardinal against the white of a snowy Minnesota winter? What could be as soothing as the song of an American Robin on a warm summer evening? Birds have aesthetically pleased us humans as long as we have coexisted with them. In birds, beauty takes on many different forms. Each of the earth’s approximately 10,000 bird species is unique, and there is even variation between individuals birds within a species. All of this variation leads to a spectacular diversity of beautiful forms, but here’s the big question: why does this exist?

We explored this diversity with some carefully selected specimens from the University of Minnesota’s own Bell Museum of Natural History. These specimens hail from around the world, each telling their own unique story and providing a treasure trove of valuable data to scientists.

Nick Minor (UMn undergraduate) displays an array of bird specimens.

We had a specimen of the diminutive European Robin to compare to the American Robin. European explorers named the American Robin after the European Robin, which shares an orange breast. But even though they are similar in appearance, 200 years later we would learn that these two “robins” are not closely related at all!

The American robin was named after the little European robin (foreground) because the they look similar.

We also had a couple specimens of the Yellow-headed Blackbird, a larger relative of the familiar Red-winged Blackbird. Both specimens were females, but one lacked dark coloration. Why? Likely some genetic mutation or illness made the white female unable to produce dark pigment. But notice that she still has yellow color. This shows that this bird produces the dark and yellow colors in fundamentally different ways: the birds produce the dark color themselves but get the yellow pigment from their diet.

These two birds are the same species, but one had a genetic mutation and can’t produce dark feathers, but it can get a yellow breast from nutrients in its food.

Some exotic, tropical specimens were also on display. We brought the extravagant Lovely Cotinga, a member of a family of birds that we might as well call South America’s birds of paradise, and the colorful Collared Aracari, a small toucan with obvious serrations on its bill for mashing up tough, tropical fruit. We also brought the metallic green Great Jacamar, which hunts large aerial insects and kills them by beating them against branches with its large bill, and a Paradise Tanager, a representative of one of the most diverse families of birds on earth.

These tropical specimens are even more brightly colored than some of our local birds!

We learned so much from our bird specimens and we explored techniques to get closer to our local birds, but we didn’t have birds stop by and check our feeders.

Katie Burns and Jamaica of the Raptor Center talk about the lives of red-tailed hawks.


Representatives from the University of Minnesota Raptor Center filled in the missing piece, arriving part-way through the morning, with Jamaica, a very-much-alive Red-tailed Hawk! Red-tailed hawks live throughout much of North America, feasting on different kinds of prey in different areas, they eat a lot of small rodents, but in some parts of the US they get more adventurous: in the American Southwest they can grab rattlesnakes! We saw an example red-tail skull that showed the large eye sockets of these birds: they use eye sight as a primary hunting tool! You may often see these hawks on roadsides, where they have open space to spy prey. We learned that roadside trash is especially dangerous for hawks: mice come and snack on the trash and then hawks can be hit by cars as they swoop in for their meal.

Jamaica is a big bird, but only weighs about three pounds! Check out those talons!

Birds are engaging to us not only because they are everywhere, or even because they are beautiful, but because they are so very wonderfully alive. Coming in so many forms, birds have the power to get us out of our own heads, every now and again, and remind us that there are exciting, mysterious, and surprising things happening around us all the time.

And all we need to do, then, is take a step back and look.

Many thanks to all those who joined us on May 28th! Special thanks to the Minnesota Raptor Center and the Bell Museum of Natural History!

P.S. Here are some handy bird-related resources for diving deeper into birding: – Come here to explore local citizen science data to find species and contribute your own observations to science. – Do you have a birdfeeder? Using this citizen science project, your observations could contribute to science. – One of the best online bird guides. – The National Audubon Society’s online bird guide, which recently got a beautiful design overhaul. – The website of the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union, one of the pre-eminent bird groups in Minnesota. – Minnesota Audubon coordinates birding trips, conservation outings, and everything in between for Minnesota birders.

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