Robert B. Janssen’s birding statistics are astounding: Over several decades of seeking birds, he drove around Minnesota 2.5 million to 3 million miles, enough to equal about six trips to the moon and back; visited all of the 1,800 or so places named on a map of Minnesota, from giant Minneapolis to tiny Theilman; for many years, birded at least once annually in every Minnesota county; and has seen or heard at least 225 species in each county, and about 400 species overall.
That is a huge amount of birding, and much to the gain of birders young and old, experts and novices, he's packed much of that information into the newest edition of “Birds of Minnesota.”
The book, an update of one that first came out nearly 90 years ago, is not a field guide. There are many of those to help identify birds, both in print and in scores of apps.
Instead, it’s a reference book, a kind of who’s who of birds, where they've been seen, at what time of year, whether the birds’ numbers are rising or falling, etc. It lists the 443 species ever seen or heard in the state, from common robins and blue jays to the crested caracara, seen but once in 1994 in Scott County. The book lets you judge just how unusual a bird you’ve seen is.
It’s a heavy book, weighed down by all the love and passion that Janssen, a superstar of Minnesota birding, brings to seeing birds. The book also includes sightings and information from many other sources. But Janssen is the one who compiled so many of the statistics, and drove all those miles over the years.
So this book is really Janssen’s, with some help from his friends, said Jerry Pruett, of Rochester, a Southeast Minnesota birding expert. He helped with the book, contributing a picture of a screech owl, and was part of a party of birders who helped Janssen in May 2019 get his final three birds in his final county (Rock County) to hit the 225 mark. The final birds were a wild turkey, Ross’ goose and finally, an American avocet. When he hit 225, “everybody threw their hat in the air,” he said.
By comparison, Pruett proudly said he recently found his 100th bird in Mille Lacs County so he could say he has broken the 100 mark in all the counties.
The two have been birding together about a half-dozen times.
“He really is a nice guy,” Pruett said. “Can you believe it? This guy is about 86 years old, and he is just as active as someone 20 years (younger).”
When driving around with him, he might ask you to take a more circuitous route because he hasn’t been on that road — he knows, because he has a county map showing which ones he has seen and which he hasn’t.
Janssen could do such a gargantuan task of again updating his classic because ”he’s very organized,” Pruett said. “He says he keeps a list of lists.”
In the introduction to the book, Janssen says he was enthralled by Thomas Sadler Roberts’ first edition of “Birds of Minnesota,” which first came out in 1932, though Roberts began his birding in 1879. Janssen vowed he would someday update that book. In 1947, he began to keep birding lists and grew to become a birding legend.
Minnesota can never come close to Costa Rica, which boasts around 850 species. Still, Kim Eckert, another Minnesota birding superstar, notes in his introduction that Minnesota is one of the best birding states in the country. In has four of the eight most sought-after birds.
The reason is geography, Pruett said.
Three of the major biomes of the continent join in the state. The deciduous forests, which include much of this region, extend to the Atlantic Ocean; prairies in the south and western part once spread to the Rocky Mountains; and the coniferous forests of the northeast extend to the Arctic. Also, we have the Mississippi Flyway, the most used in North America and Lake Superior.
Each biome, flyway and giant lake attracts different birds, ones either flying through, nesting here or living here year-round. And virtually every one of those species is in Janssen’s book.