A birder in North Dakota nurtures diversity— both of the creatures who inhabit our wild spaces, and of the people who come to enjoy them.

By Alicia Underlee Nelson
February 22, 2021
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Marshall Johnson birder North Dakota
Marshall Johnson
| Credit: Courtesy of Audubon

Marshall Johnson, a Texan by way of California, first fell for the Midwest in college. Now he protects a vital bird migration route as executive director of Audubon Dakota. During his tenure, he has attracted more people to birding, turned around the finances of a struggling chapter and reestablished native habitat in 24 urban nature parks. Interview with Alicia Underlee Nelson.

AN Why does access to nature matter?

MJ With the lockdowns and just the overall stress of the pandemic, people are coming to nature for medicinal purposes, really healing a part of us that is hurt and broken. Our goal was to create nature parks within walking distance of more than 70 percent of North Dakotans. We could create little windows to nature and a respite for our community. We're also creating safe havens for birds and wildlife within urban landscapes. Nature parks are natural infrastructure.

AN Make the case for birding.

MJ It keeps you sharp. It gives you a purpose in nature. It helps you think and unwind. I often think of birds as the songstresses and troubadours of the sky, the playlist to our experience in nature.

AN What do we need to get started?

MJ Binoculars, a bird guide and a notebook. No matter where you're at in the Midwest, the greatest migration spectacle in the western hemisphere is already underway. Look toward water, whether it's a stream, a creek, a local wetland. Ducks and geese will be first. Then the woodland songbirds will move through our riparian corridors, and our shorebirds will return from Central and South America, along with grassland birds like the western meadowlark and bobolink. That bobolink in my backyard in North Dakota traveled up to 6,000 miles to be here with me.

AN How can we help birds?

MJ It starts at home. Go to audubon.org/plantsforbirds and enter your zip code to learn which native plants grow in your area and are best for birds. You can also be a thoughtful consumer and select products that are better for the land and wildlife. Our new Audubon Green Seal rewards meat raised on bird-friendly regenerative land with no neonicotinoid pesticides, antibiotics or hormones; safe animal handling and welfare standards; and a more bird-friendly rotational grazing approach. It was initiated in our region, and now we have ranches enrolled in 14 states.

Western meadowlark bird
Western meadowlark
| Credit: Rick Bohn

AN How have inclusive outdoors movements like Black Birders Week influenced your coalition-building?

MJ I think it has been a call to action to be more intentional about how we engage our communities—all of our communities. Something that I think about constantly is democratizing and diversifying the birding community. It has been at the root of how we built our office, how we go about our work. For historic reasons, certain people have been cut out of having access to the wild outdoors. Nature is for everyone. Birding is for everyone.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.