Meet Bob Janssen -- the bird man of Minnesota

  • Article by: JIM BUCHTA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 10, 2003 - 11:00 PM
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Bob Janssen is a back-yard birder, but his range extends to every corner of the state, including Interstate Park, where he is conducting a bird inventory, in part to determine the impact of development on habitat. ``Humanity is enroaching on those areas every minute we speak,'' he said.

Photo: Darlene Prois, Star Tribune

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Of the millions of birds Bob Janssen has seen in his lifetime, there's one he'll never forget.

A meadowlark.

Bob was 5. He was riding his bike near a cattail marsh by his south Minneapolis house when all of a sudden a bird shot up out of the marsh right in front of him.

"It was a whole new world," he said. "An epiphany."

That meadowlark started a lifelong passion for birds. Sixty-five years later, Janssen is widely recognized as the state's most prolific birder, because he can identify nearly all of the 427 bird species documented in the state by sight and sound, and because he's been doing it for longer than just about anybody.

Janssen has published two seminal books about birds in Minnesota, and he's in the midst of compiling an inventory of birds found in every one of Minnesota's 72 state parks for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The State Parks Avian Species Inventory is an endeavor akin to counting the screws, nails and bolts at all the state's Home Depot stores.

At 7:30 in the morning, commuters rumble down Hwy. 8 near Interstate Park. Janssen is on his second visit to the park to count birds for the inventory. It's difficult to have a conversation, let alone hear the birds. But Janssen can hear the birds above the din of the traffic.

Fee-bee, fee-bee.

"That's a chickadee," he says, peering into his binoculars. He stops to listen, then adds: "I just believe that birds sing for the joy of it."

When he was young, Janssen kept his love of birds a secret, holding it close to his heart, like the Peterson's Field Guide he kept hidden under his jacket when he'd race his bike to the marsh to look for more.

There were few people with whom he could share his interest. Birding wasn't a popular sport among young boys. It was considered an activity for little old ladies in tennis shoes, he said. When he was 10 he had his tonsils removed. While recovering, he read T. Gilbert Pearson's birding classic, "Birds of America" -- 10 times.

"Shhhh," he says, "I hear the rough-wing swallow." Even along the banks of the St. Croix River there's too much noise for me to hear it. I never see it, but Janssen knows it's there.

A self-taught birder, Janssen learned about birds by listening and watching every chance he got, even during duck hunting trips with his dad. Shooting, he said, wasn't his thing, though.

In the late 1940s, he helped organize a birding club and started traveling the state with kindred spirits. He later became editor of the Minnesota Ornithologists' Union quarterly publication, the Loon.

By 9 a.m. we've seen or heard 25 bird species, not as many as Janssen would have liked. "Should have seen twice that many," he says. The day before, at another state park, Janssen cataloged 60 species in less than two hours.

Throughout his life, Janssen has made sacrifices for birding: family gatherings, birthdays and vacations. Since retiring in 1994, he's been able to devote more time to birding.

Nearly every week for the past three years, Janssen has been driving to the far reaches of the state to visit state parks. He visits each park once a year for at least two years, following the same route through the park to record his observations.

Sometimes he's on the road 80 hours a week, but that's nothing new. Janssen's family -- his wife of almost 50 years and two grown children -- are used to sharing him with the birds.

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