Tornado Destroys Great Blue Heron Rookery At Mississippi National River and Recreation Area

A tornado that cut through the Mississippi National River and Recreation Area wiped out a great blue heron rookery there, killing nearly 200 birds. Top two photos were taken before and after the wind storm struck, third photo shows Ranger Gordonn Dietzman with injured birds, and the bottom photo is of a dead heron. Photos by Ranger Sharon Stiteler, www.birdchick.com

The human toll from the recent onslaught of tornadoes is staggering. Culminating with Sunday evening’s destruction in Joplin, Missouri, most of us can’t even begin to comprehend how destruction like that would impact our lives.

Nevertheless, life must go on for most of us, and that meant rangers from Mississippi National River and Recreation Area were out on Monday and Tuesday assessing the damage from a tornado that plowed through the greater Minneapolis area and completely destroyed a great blue heron rookery on a small Mississippi River island.

Herons tend to nest colonially in trees above water or swampy habitat. While not endangered by any means, these large, charismatic birds are a favorite with birders and non-birders alike. The rookery in North Mississippi Regional Park, a park within the confines of MNRRA cooperatively managed by the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board, was a major attraction for folks who enjoyed watching the activity from shore, as well as the rangers who offer nature programs that often used the rookery to illustrate points about birds and ecology.

Sharon Stiteler, a ranger with MNRRA, is an avid bird-watcher who saw the rookery as a great opportunity to connect people with nature.

“The rookery was a valuable resource for our canoe programs,” Ranger Stiteler said on Tuesday. “It was just a few miles north of the downtown area of Minneapolis and right on one of the major Twin Cities highways. It was a testament to how adaptable birds can be to urban areas, and that if we take care of our river, we can live together with these large graceful birds.”

On Monday, many herons could be seen circling above the island, likely confused by the disappearance of their nests, eggs, young chicks, and even the trees that had held the nests. Dozens of birds were killed or severely injured in the storm.

Well-meaning park patrons arrived at the park Monday, but had to be warned to stay away from injured birds. An adult heron can easy blind or otherwise badly injure a person. By early morning on Tuesday, NPS rangers and representatives from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Animal Humane Society, and the Mississippi River Watershed Management Organization arrived, many volunteering their time, to both protect park patrons and begin rescuing the birds that could be captured.

Estimates are that more than 250 nests were destroyed and perhaps as many as 180 birds killed. John Anfinson, chief resource manager at MNRRA, confirmed more than 50 dead chicks alone. Several chicks were captured alive and sent to a wildlife recovery center. Some adults as well as chicks needed to be euthanized due to extensive injuries. While the team failed to find many birds to be rescued, Mr. Anfinson says most people appreciated the cooperative effort of the rescuers.

No one knows if the herons will return to nest again. It’s unlikely they will rebuild nests this season, as it takes roughly three months to construct a nest, hatch eggs, and raise young to fledging.

Next year the herons may return to MNRRA, but a disturbance of this type often causes a colony to abandon a site permanently. Heron nests are relatively flimsy and the birds have evolved to deal with storms by moving on.

Whether they return or not, Ranger Stiteler says this disaster for the birds has brought out the best in the people tasked with the stewardship of the few remaining natural areas along the upper Mississippi.

“Often, people perceive government as this big unwieldy thing, but this shows that in a short amount of time we were able to gather the skills and talents of state, federal and non-profit groups together for the greater good,” she said.

For people or birds, when a disaster strikes, they pick up the pieces and soldier on – often with a little help from their friends.

Comments

We often forget the toll mother nature takes on wildlife. Interesting story, here's hoping the herons return.

One of the things that surprised the wildlife rehab folks in Minnesota was that many people who had lost property or even been injured themselves in the storm were still calling in to check on the toll on animals. I think it's cathartic at times for people who have suffered personal loss to turn around and care about something that may seem insignificant. It's also a testament to E.O. Wilson's concept of biophilia, I believe.

In the long run this is really a non-event for the heron population, but the rangers are saddened by the fact that the area may lose such good ambassadors for nature. Hopefully they will return somewhere urban and keep up the good work!

Very touching, the people calling to check on the birds. Thanks for sharing the story, Kirb.

Some positive news: many of the surviving adult herons are already building a new rookery a short ways downstream — even closer to downtown Minneapolis. Here's an article.

Yes, McGhiever, I've been hearing some great reports from Minneapolis about that. Looks like the birds have more determination and ambition than we gave them credit for!