Charles Flugum was the ‘Birdman of Albert Lea’

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 18, 2002

&uot;There can be a lot more to driving a farm tractor than just a straight row after row of tasseled corn or well-tilled soybeans. The tractor seat can be a mighty good spot from which to get better acquainted with nature.&uot;

These were part of the comments R. A. Baumgart wrote about Charles Truman Flugum, a farmer living southwest of Albert Lea, for an article in the April 4, 1976, issue of the St. Paul Sunday Pioneer Press.

Another journalist, Cary Moss, wrote an article about Flugum which was published in the May 1975 issue of the Minnesota Motorist magazine. Moss used the title of &uot;Birdman of Albert Lea&uot; for this article and said Flugum was a &uot;walking encyclopedia of bird lore.&uot;

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The reason for these two articles was based on the publication of a book in 1973 with the title of &uot;Birding From a Tractor Seat.&uot; The author of this book was Charles Truman Flugum of Pickerel Lake Township.

Flugum was born Oct. 11, 1905, on a farm near Thompson, Iowa. He graduated from Albert Lea High School in 1925, then received a bachelor’s degree in agricultural science from the University of Minnesota in 1929. Flugum began farming in 1930 on a 240-acre farm located about midway between Pickerel and Upper Twin Lakes and just south of what’s now County Road 17.

Growing up on farms in Iowa and Minnesota, Flugum developed a deep interest in birds. In time, he became a dedicated and mostly self-taught birdwatcher, plus. What has been described as a &uot;a somewhat secretive pastime while growing from boyhood to manhood&uot; in the article by Moss, became rather public in 1948. That’s the year Flugum attended the organizational meeting of the Albert Lea Audubon Society.

Moss said Flugum gave this new club a real boost by promoting the building and installing of bluebird houses around the area. He also served as the president of this club for three years and was a member of the Minnesota Ornithologist Union.

Several people suggested that Flugum should share his knowledge and observations of area bird life with others. This resulted in a regular column, &uot;Watching the Birds,&uot; for The Community Magazine.

This monthly magazine

was issued by Albert Lea’s Trades Publishing Co. The small magazine was started in 1917 as &uot;a chronicle of country living for rural Americans.&uot; In 1937 part of the focus for the magazine was shifted to becoming a program guide for Radio Station KATE. In its later years the magazine became in part a program guide for television stations in Austin, Rochester and Mason City, Iowa.

During its years of publication, The Community Magazine featured several local columnists. And from January 1952 to April 1964

Flugum wrote 137

&uot;Watching the birds&uot; column.

Each column had as its main topic one of the area’s birds or some aspect of bird life or bird watching. Flugum passed along observations and information about the crow, sparrow, bluejay, robin, swallow, pheasant, bluebird and cardinal. Other lesser known birds such as Cooper’s hawk, cedar waxwing, kingbird and the black-billed cuckoo were also featured in his columns.

One of his columns (September 1954) was devoted to the flocks of gulls and how they follow area farmers plowing fields. These birds are after any insects brought to the surface by the plowing. Flugum pointed out that several species of gulls are not sea birds at all. In this area Franklin’s gulls predominate. He ended the column by emphasizing, &uot;Without birds it would be difficult to bring any plants to maturity.&uot;

Those 12 years of writing columns resulted in Flugum being asked to speak to area Audubon clubs, civic groups and various organizations. He also wrote articles for birding publications such as Flicker and the Loon.

Flugum would have likely continued writing his monthly columns. However, The Community Magazine ceased publication in 1964.

Those columns could have become nearly forgotten reminders of the past. One of his sons, Merlin Flugum, decided that his father’s collection of columns should be revived as a book.

Merlin tried to interest several publishers in this proposed book. He was told on one occasion, &uot;If

it isn’t sex, religion, or a text book, it won’t sell&uot;

Merlin added a part time job to his schedule to pay for the publication of this book by a Twin Cities firm.

For a title to be used for the new book, Merlin relied on an observation his father had made on several occasions:

&uot;By the time I began farming on

my own, most field work was being done with tractor power, and I discovered that, as a vantage point from which to see birds at close range, a tractor seat is ideal. Birds that could not be approached within several rods by birdwatchers on foot would remain perched or walk confidently within a few feet of my noisy tractor. Apparently birds consider the driver to be part of the machine and do not associate the tractor with danger. … a farmer is in a good position (on the tractor) to see not only the birds of the field, but also the migrating birds …&uot;

From this concept came the title of &uot;Birding From a Tractor Seat&uot; for the book which was published in 1973.

The new book was well received by bird lovers and watchers all over the nation. Flugum’s collection of columns was given favorable reviews by Sports Illustrated and the AUK

bird magazine. And one person who reacted favorably to the book was Dr. Roger Tory Peterson, author of the famous illustrated book, &uot;Field Guide to Birds,&uot; used by so many people for identification purposes.

Charles T. Flugum died on Feb. 11, 1992, and is buried in Hillcrest Cemetery.

This year is the 10th anniversary of the death of the &uot;Birdman of Albert Lea&uot; and the 50th anniversary of publication of his first &uot;Watching the Birds&uot; column.