Patience has served Robert Janssen well as a Minnesota birder for nearly eight decades. It has served him well, too, in his forays into another vast world: book publishing.
Janssen, 82, has a new book, “Birds of Minnesota State Parks,” that was almost 18 years in the making.
Released last month by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the book had its start in 1997 when the DNR contacted Janssen in search of someone to “inventory” the birds at several state parks. “It took about a nanosecond to say ‘Me!’ and that started the whole project,” said Janssen, who had retired from the corporate world in 1994. He worked at Quality Park Products in Minneapolis for 38 years.
Janssen set up a system for four-year bird surveys at Afton, William O’Brien, Fort Snelling and Minnesota Valley state parks. In 2001, a state parks manager suggested expanding the surveys to more parks. Janssen and birder Jerry Bonkowski did field surveys at 35 parks “with no birding information,” Janssen said, and gathered other bird data on the remaining state parks. Their work lasted until 2007.
Over time, Janssen said, another DNR official suggested that his birding work be compiled into a book. Janssen submitted a sample, but the project went on the back burner for several years. Then, in 2012, having all but given up on the book idea, Janssen heard from Carrol Henderson, head of the DNR’s nongame wildlife program and also a prolific birder and author.
Janssen completed “Birds of Minnesota State Parks” in August 2014.
“The project for the state parks was great for creating a list [of birds] for each park,” said Janssen, whose surveys totaled 315 species of 439 documented in Minnesota. (Janssen said he’s seen 406 of them.)
One would be hard-pressed to find anyone in Minnesota with more birding knowledge in his head — and on paper. Janssen started documenting his Minnesota bird sightings in 1947, and is quick to pull up Excel spreadsheets (by species) of his observations. Sitting recently in his Golden Valley home surrounded by bookshelves thick with birding tomes, Janssen spoke enthusiastically about his specific love for Minnesota birds, his book projects, and how he acquired the birding bug.
On the book becoming reality
“I never thought there would be a finished book. The purpose of the on-the-ground surveys was to complete a bird list that each park had on a printed bird list, or they could get it on the computer. There was a completion phase to it. So the book was kind of a plus thing that came along. The day I saw the first copy of this book, it was a great joy to see the completion.”
On his latest project
“It’s a revision of a 1987 book that I wrote called ‘Birds of Minnesota,’ which is based on Thomas Roberts’ ‘The Birds of Minnesota.’ That goes back to 1932. … He influenced through his book, which I got at age 13, and I have read that book through and through and became a very provincial Minnesotan.”
On his sensibility
“I had to draw boundaries on what birds I wanted to be interested in. And even though birds don’t follow boundaries, humans do. … I’ve traveled around the country looking at birds, but they don’t have the same glow as they do in Minnesota. They are very much of a recreation if I go to Florida. When I get back and cross the boundary into Minnesota, they become a passion.”
On origin of his passion
“I was raised in south Minneapolis. At age 5, I was learning to ride a bicycle around a place that certainly doesn’t exist anymore in south Minneapolis. I rode by this grassy field, and a meadowlark flew right into my face. I rode home and told my mom I saw a meadowlark. It still occurs to me, how did I know it was a meadowlark? From that moment on, birding became my passion.”
On birding and life
“I wanted to be what they call a bird-watcher or a birder. My primary goal was the geography of Minnesota birds. Where and when you find birds in Minnesota was my passion. I made my living in the corporate world, so I lived a dual life. I went birding every Saturday but worked Monday through Friday, and my wife [Suzanne] made me stay home on Sunday.”
On a few favorite areas
“When I was a kid, before I was even driving, my father drove me to Frontenac, just south of Red Wing. That was the known spot for birding in Minnesota. The day I was there, it was full of warblers. This was even before Frontenac was a state park. … So when I did surveys at Frontenac it was a great nostalgia experience to go back there.
“ … The North Shore of Lake Superior was always the prime spot. Duluth turned into being the birding spot. One year, I went to Duluth on 34 Saturdays to look at birds. That was in the late 1970s or early 1980s. The North Shore was just an amazing place.”
On his favorite species
“I just love to watch turkey vultures fly. They are just such a unique bird in the sense of being able to balance flight … they can fly for hundreds of miles without beating their wings, by just floating on the currents of air. They certainly aren’t a beautiful bird, but they are an exquisite bird.”
On his personal goals
“I am this compulsive county lister. I have worked on beginning in the 1970s listing birds by counties. My goal is to get each of Minnesota’s 87 counties to 225 species [spotted]. I’ve only got five counties left to do that.”