A feather in our cap

The Mizzou golf course where ‘birdies’ and bluebirds fly.

June 6, 2023
Contact: Deidra Ashley, ashleyde@missouri.edu
Photos by Hanna Caldwell

With a carefree flip, a lapis wing slices through the moody April sky. At first, it is difficult to differentiate the bird’s shape, as its white underbelly and tail feathers disappear against the milky clouds. Seconds later, it calls, “chuiree” from an oak across the green. From a high branch, the telltale shape of the eastern bluebird’s plump and ruddy breast and short, straight bill is easier to see against the weathered bark. But then he’s off again, on a mission to find pine straw or a spiderweb to build his nest.

One might imagine this scene occurring at a nature preserve or farmland – but this sanctuary is in the middle of Columbia on the University of Missouri’s A.L. Gustin Golf Course. 

The 125-acre, university-owned golf course has 26 bluebird nesting stations and staff has counted nearly 3,500 fledglings on its bluebird trail since its inception in 1994. The 18-hole course also features six beehives and six one-acre or larger pollinator plots.

“At least a third of Columbia doesn’t know this place exists or the biodiversity we have here,” said Jim Knoesel, director of golf operations, emphasizing the transformation of Gustin from a traditional golf course with limited wildlife, to a haven for birds, bees and golfers.

“Over the last 15 years, this place has become a show piece for the University of Missouri and an example for the rest of Missouri and other golf courses,” Knoesel said. “It’s a feather in the cap for the university.”

  • a bluebird sits delicately on a tree branch
    Eastern bluebirds — Missouri’s official state bird — begin arriving at their breeding locations in March and April and migrate south in October and November.

For three decades, restoring the dwindling eastern bluebird population has been a passion of Knoesel and Isaac Breuer, golf course superintendent. That passion has been fueled by a desire to be good stewards of the earth and protectors of Missouri’s official state bird. 

“This property is much more than a golf course,” Breuer explained. “It’s a sanctuary for Missouri’s iconic birds, bees and plants that we are lucky to manage for the University of Missouri, and we are very proud of it.”

Gustin’s conservation glow up started in the late 1990s when Knoesel and Breuer worked together to make Gustin the first university golf course in the nation to be certified by Audubon International, a nonprofit whose mission is to create environmentally sustainable environments where people live, work and play. After achieving that feat, they took their efforts further and have been recognized as an Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary since 1997. Getting and maintaining that designation is not easy, and shows an organization’s leadership, commitment and high standards of environmental management. And their work hasn’t gone unnoticed.

The pair have won many awards and recognitions for their efforts and serve as subject matter experts for universities and turf managers throughout the United States. Breuer recently received the Conservation Award from Golf Course Industry Magazine, and Mizzou was listed in Sierra Magazine among 14 pollinator-friendly colleges in the US.

Locally, the City of Columbia awarded Gustin with the 2019 Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement Award, and Knoesel and Breuer have been instrumental in efforts to establish bluebird trails for The Country Club of Missouri and Columbia Parks and Recreation.

These efforts are on top of operating a thriving campus golf course, where more than 25,000 rounds are played annually. Each year, Gustin hosts multiple MU student philanthropy tournaments, one of the largest men’s amateur golf events in Missouri, and, its latest addition, disc golf.

As he reflects on his career at Mizzou and all the awards and recognitions he and Breuer have received, Knoesel said eastern bluebirds will always have a special place in his heart. “Someday when I’m gone, the thing I’ll miss most is seeing such beautiful, agreeable creatures,” he said. “They are always cheerful; they coexist with each other, with other animals and people.”

Breuer agreed: “The coexistence of golfers and nature shows there is room for all of us.”

Story written by Sarah Salmons

Get involved
Readers can put up their own bluebird houses and help our local population grow. If you’d like to take a tour and learn more about conservation efforts at the A.L. Gustin Golf Course, email Isaac Breuer at breuerd@missouri.edu.

Subscribe to

Show Me Mizzou

Stay up-to-date with the latest news by subscribing to the Show Me Mizzou newsletter.