Column: That mysterious bird from The Long Winter’

Published 12:00 am Sunday, January 15, 2006

Nature’s World, By Al Batt

My neighbor Crandall stops by.

&8220;How are you doing?&8221;

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I ask.

&8220;I got up so early that the clock didn’t even have any time on it yet.

The early bird still has to eat the worms.

I wish I could go back in time.&8221;

&8220;When would you go back to?&8221;

&8220;I’d go back right before I ate all of those burritos for breakfast.

I got in a little trouble today.&8221;

&8220;There’s a surprise.

What’d you do?&8221;

&8220;I was down at the Hartland Pet Shop, Window Tinting and Notary Public.

I got a little bored, so I started feeding the fish.&8221;

&8220;That doesn’t sound like a bad thing.

What’s wrong with feeding the fish?&8221; I say.

&8220;Well, I was feeding them to the cats.

They escorted me to the door.

I guess the Hartland Pet Shop, Window Tinting and Notary Public is one of those assisted leaving facilities.

Well, I’m a shiver looking for a spine to run up.

I’ve got to get over to Ma’s.

She’s got a project for me. If it isn’t one thing, it’s a mother.&8221;

&8220;Here’s hoping you’re in heaven 10 minutes before the devil knows you’re dead,” I say.

“What’s that mean?” asks my neighbor.

“It’s an Irish toast.&8221;


Well, here’s to bread, eggs, milk, and cinnamon.”

&8220;What’s that?&8221;

I ask.

&8220;It’s French toast.”

Name that bird

Tom Jessen writes that his favorite Laura Ingalls Wilder book is &8220;The Long Winter.&8221;

It’s the story of the winter of 1880-81 out on the lone prairies near the brand new town of DeSmet. One afternoon in October of that year, Pa Ingalls went out hunting and brought back a mysterious little bird that crash landed in a haystack after the first blizzard.

“Pa did not come home till suppertime.

He came in empty-handed except for his gun.

He did not speak or smile and his eyes were wide-open and still.

&8216;What is wrong, Charles?’

Ma asked quickly. He took off his wet coat and dripping hat and hung them up before he answered.

&8216;That is what I’d like to know.

Something’s queer.

Not a goose nor a duck on the lake. None in the slough.

Not one in sight.

They are flying high above the clouds, flying fast.

I could hear them calling.

Caroline, every kind of bird is going south as fast and as high as it can fly.

All of them, going south.

And no other kind of game is out.

Every living thing that runs or swims is hidden away somewhere.

I never saw country so empty and still.’

After the storm let up, Pa went out again…but soon came back in.

&8220;’I got something to show you,’ Pa said.

He took his hand carefully out of his pocket.

&8216;Look here, girls, look at what I found hidden in the haystack.’ Slowly he opened his hand. In the hollow of his mitten sat a little bird.

They had never seen a bird like it.

It was small, but it looked exactly like the picture of the Great Auk in Pa’s big green book, &8216;The Wonders of the Animal World.’

It had the same white breast and black back and wings, the same short legs placed far back, and the same large webbed feet.

It stood straight up on its short legs, like a tiny man with black coat and trousers and white shirt front, and its little black wings were like arms.

&8216;I never saw anything like it,’ Pa said.

&8216;It must have tired out in the storm winds and dropped down and struck against the haystack. It crawled into the hay for shelter.’ &8216;It’s a Great Auk!” Laura declared.

&8216;Only it’s a little one.’

&8216;It’s full-grown, it isn’t a nestling.’ said Ma. &8216;Look at its feathers.’

&8216;Yes, it’s full grown, whatever it is,’ Pa agreed.

&8216;It’s never seen humans before…because it isn’t afraid of us.’

They set it on the floor and it walked a way. Then it pushed its webbed feet tip-toe against the boards and flapped its little wings. &8216;It can’t get going,’ said Pa. &8216;It’s a water-bird. It must start from the water where it can use those webbed feet to get up speed.’

Finally they put it in a box in the corner. It stood there looking up at them, with its round, bright black eyes and they wondered what it ate.

&8216;That was a queer storm all around,’ said Pa. &8216;I don’t like it.’

The little Auk would not eat. It did not utter a sound, but Carrie and Laura thought that it looked up at them desperately.

It would die without food, but it did not seem to know how to eat anything that they offered it.

The next day at dinnertime Pa said that the ice was melting on the edge of Silver Lake; he thought that the strange little bird could take care of itself on the open water.

So after dinner Laura and Mary put on their coats and hoods and they went with Pa to set the little Auk free.

Pa took the little Auk from his pocket. In its smooth black coat and neat white shirtfront of tiny feathers, it stood up on his palm.

It saw the land and the sky and the water, and eagerly it rose up on its toes and stretched out its little wings.

But it could not go, it could not fly.

Its wings were too small to lift it.

&8216;It does not belong on land,’ said Pa. &8216;Its a waterbird.’

He squatted down by the thin white ice at the lakes edge and reaching far out he tipped the little bird from his hand into the blue water.

For the briefest instant, there it was, and then it wasn’t there.

Out among the ice cakes it went streaking, a black speck. &8216;It gets up speed with those webbed feet,’ said Pa, &8216;to lift it from the…There it goes!’

Laura barely had time to see it, rising tiny in the great blue-sparkling sky.

Then, in all that glittering of sunlight, it was gone.

Her eyes were too dazzled to see it anymore.

But Pa stood looking, still seeing it going toward the south.

They never knew what became of that strange little bird that came in the dark with the storm from the far North and went southward into the sunshine.

They never saw nor heard of another bird like it.

They never found out what kind of bird it was.&8221;

The following is from &8220;The Birds of South Dakota&8221;:

Laura Ingalls Wilder, in her historical novel &8220;The Long Winter,&8221; describes an alcid found during a blizzard in October 1880.

We do not know the identity of this bird, but, in all likelihood, it was either an Ancient Murrelet or a Dovekie.

Both species have been recorded in Minnesota.

Murrelets are rarely scattered across North America by early winter storms.

Because Dovekies presumably originate from the northeast, and have not been found west of Minnesota and Wisconsin, they may be less expected.

Thanks for stopping by

&8220;Catch a passion for helping others and a richer life will come back to you!&8221;

&045; William H. Danforth


(Al Batt of Hartland is a member of the Albert Lea Audubon Society. E-mail him at