Student summer intern Alex Peters is working on getting the Medicinal Garden at Matthaei ready for its opening on August 2. She’s also a recent convert to the joys of birding. Here, Alex shares her bird discoveries at Matthaei.

Last fall I took an ornithology class at the University of Michigan and part of the lab assignment was to keep a bird-watching journal. This entailed going on birding outings, recording the species I saw and any observations, and inputting my data into (a site where birders upload their checklists; useful for other birders and for conservation). I really love the problem solving associated with successfully identifying a bird and the sense of accomplishment when you identify a bird you have never recorded before. I have been birding in the Midwest since taking that class. One highlight so far has been going up to the Upper Peninsula with the U-M Ornithology Club to see snowy owls and shrikes.

Closer to home, Matthaei Botanical Gardens is a great place to spot a large variety of birds. The Botanical Gardens’ wooded trails and its proximity to Fleming Creek make for good habitat for many bird species. I’ve compiled a list of eleven species I have seen while working as an intern in the horticulture department, along with a map of where they were spotted. No doubt there are many more to see here at Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum!

Note: The IUCN status included with each bird is a measure of conservation status and guides conservation efforts around the world. Each species is measured on a scale (starting from the lowest risk of extinction): least concern, near threatened, vulnerable, endangered, critically endangered, and extinct. For more information about the IUCN see

1. Eastern bluebird – these colorful birds are always a treat to spot. They happily nest in some of the nest boxes in the Gaffield Children’s Garden and I tend to see them in the big cottonwoods up there. Hopefully they take advantage of the native bird garden as a source of nesting material and food. Size: slightly smaller than an American Robin. Habitat: open grassland with surrounding trees. Diet: mainly insects with supplemental fruit. Found in MI: in the summer while they breed. IUCN status: Least concern, increasing as more people install nest boxes.

© Beth Donald

2. Mourning dove – these common birds are probably best known for their lilting call. Unfortunately this summer I have known them as the birds that most often get trapped in the greenhouses and conservatory. Birds tend to fly in through open doors and then get confused by the glass walls and we need to come to their rescue by opening vents in the roof or even resorting to catching them with nets. This summer I have released mourning doves on at least four different occasions. Hopefully they will have learned by now! 
Size: slightly smaller than a pigeon. Habitat: open woodland. Diet: Seeds, foraged on the ground. Found in MI: year-round. IUCN status: Least concern.

© Ken Schneider

3. Killdeer – if you follow our Facebook page, then you have most likely seen some photos of killdeers and their nests. Killdeers nest on the ground and have a pretty amazing adaptation to ward off predators. Not only do they have a very piercing warning call, they will lure predators away from their nest or chicks by faking a broken wing. When the predator (humans included!) is far away from the nest, the adult bird will end its performance and fly away. 
Size: same as American Robin but with longer wings. Habitat: open grassland and shores. Diet: mainly invertebrates such as worms, snails, beetles, and larvae. Found in MI: during the summer while they breed. IUCN status: least concern, but decreasing.

© Kevin Bolton

4. Chipping sparrow – these small birds, unlike the mourning doves, have figured out the intricacies of the greenhouses. They come and go as they please and every year they nest in a scented geranium in one of the staff greenhouses. The second brood of chicks has recently started to fledge (when they start to leave the nest for the first time). It’s great to watch the parents feed the juveniles and teach them how to fly down the work corridor (photo below). 
Size: small sparrow, same size as a chickadee. Habitat: open woodland. Diet: seeds, and insects in the summer. Found in MI: in the summer while they breed. IUCN status: least concern.

© Kevin Carver

Photo: Carmen Leskoviansky

5. Eastern kingbird – this is a very striking bird that is usually seen perching on fence posts or trees in fields. There they wait until they spot their prey—flying insects—and swoop down to catch them midair. I spotted this bird sitting on the wire fence surrounding the Campus Farm. 
Size: slightly smaller than an American Robin. Habitat: open fields and near rivers. Diet: insects. Found in MI: in the summer while they breed. IUCN status: least concern, but decreasing.

© Christopher L. Wood

6. Barn swallow – I get to see these little guys every day as I walk into work. They like to hang out by the parking lot and twitter as they swoop through the sky. Like the Eastern kingbird, these birds catch insects in the air and are avid flyers. One barn swallow likes to fly into the horticulture offices and hang out in the rafters. Every year these birds try to build nests in and around the dump truck. Size: smaller than a bluebird. Habitat: open areas and towns. Diet: insects. Found in MI: in the summer while they breed. IUCN status: least concern.

© Eddie Y.

7. Rose-breasted grosbeak – the males of this species are a beautiful sight to see in the trees and underbrush of our natural areas. They have very large beaks that they use to crack open nuts and seeds. These birds will visit feeders and can be found in second growth deciduous forests. 
Size: smaller than an American Robin but larger than a House Finch. Habitat: deciduous forest. Diet: fruit, seed, insects. Found in MI: in the summer while they breed. IUCN status: least concern, but decreasing.

© Gary Tyson

8. Gray catbird – one of my personal favorites. These guys look sharp and have a call that is likened to a cat or a baby crying. I always love to hear their ridiculous noises, but they also mimic other bird songs and string them together to make their own unique melodies. 
Size: similar to an American Robin. Habitat: disturbed forests and dense thickets. Diet: insects and fruit. Found in MI: in the summer while they breed. IUCN status: least concern.

© robinsegg

9. Cedar waxwing – These beautiful, masked birds almost look like they were painted. While I was working one weekend recently my fellow intern Chad found a baby cedar waxwing (pictured below) near the parking lot. Because it was an older fledgling with feathers and open eyes, we left it on the ground after moving it into the shade. Sure enough, after a few minutes the parents came swooping down to feed their offspring. 
Size: smaller than an American Robin, similar to a bluebird. Habitat: around fruiting trees, open woodlands, along streams. Diet: fruit, and insects in the summer. Found in MI: year-round. IUCN status: least concern.

© Ben Thomas/GBBC

Photo: Alex Peters

10. Ruby-throated hummingbird – the only species of hummingbird that breeds in Michigan. They can be found zooming through the ornamental gardens and if you are lucky you can see them perch on branches or wire fences. I most often see them in the Gateway Garden at Matthaei sampling the annual flowers. These birds are quite territorial and can be seen chasing other hummingbirds or different bird species away. 
Size: very small; 3-4 inches. Habitat: deciduous forests and open areas. Diet: nectar and insects. Found in MI: in the summer while they breed. IUCN status: least concern.

© Michael Hogan

© Michael J. Andersen

11. Bald eagle – I did not realize how common it is to see bald eagles soaring in the skies in Michigan. Fellow intern Gus and I were lucky to spot a juvenile bald eagle up at the Campus Farm. It had landed on a research bug box and dove down to the ground. I didn’t see it catch anything so maybe it was still learning. 
Size: one of the largest birds in North America (length: 2-3 feet; wingspan: up to 80  inches). Habitat: forests near large bodies of water. Diet: mainly fish supplemented with small birds, amphibians, and mammals. Found in MI: year-round. IUCN status: least concern, formerly endangered. 

Alex Peters
For more information about these birds go to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website

Photos by Alex Peters, Carmen Leskoviansky, and also gathered from