Crunchy snow means it’s cold outside

Published 9:15 am Saturday, January 29, 2011

Column: Nature’s World

My neighbor Crandall stops by.

“How are you doing?” I ask.

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“Everything is nearly copacetic. It was even better before I walked into the Inconvenience Store and asked the young man clerking there if they had any small notebooks. ‘Sorry,’ he said, ‘We’re all out.’”

“It’s difficult to keep everything in stock,” I add.

Al Batt

“He was polite enough, but he must be related to you. He was dumber than a stump. I asked him if he had any wooden pencils. I like to chew on them while I do my taxes. ‘No, we don’t have any of those either,’ said the kid without taking his eyes off his cell phone. I could do without pencils, but I was hungry. I asked if he had any beef jerky or salt and vinegar potato chips. He informed me that the store did not. Asking for things not there made my lips dry. I asked if he had some lip balm. ‘Nope. No lip balm here.’ That did it. I lost my natural saintly manner. ‘For crying out loud,’ I yelled, ‘If you don’t have anything, why don’t you close the store?’”

“What did he say?” I ask.

“He gave me that look as if I needed to buy a clue and said, ‘I couldn’t do that. I don’t have the key.’”

Crunching snow

I watched the birds at the feeders. A downy woodpecker hacked at the suet. He made it look delicious. The feeders needing filling. When it comes to a bird feeder, I believe in the saying, “Fill it, and they will come.”

I walked to the feeders and began filling them. A chickadee landed on the feeder before I had completed the loading. It grabbed a sunflower seed, gave me a look with its tiny black eyes, and flew away. I marveled at the tiny spectacle of the familiar.

The snow crunched under my boots. It sounded like a ravenous man eating dark toast. When I was a boy, Mark Trail in the comic pages of the newspaper told me that snow begins to crunch at 14 degrees. I’m not sure that is exact, but the colder the snow the louder the crunch. No matter. I was dressed for the cold so I found the crunching comforting. I don’t want to be overdressed for no reason.

The shadows were creeping out of the trees. They were shortened by the sun high in the sky. The trees presented a dignified scene as they stood in the snow and soothed the wind.

It all seemed right and satisfying.

A gray jay by Al Batt.

Nothing like a cold bath

A wood duck drake floated in a narrow waterway. Snow loomed far above the water that was partially open on a frigid winter day. I used binoculars to appreciate the beauty of the duck. The duck enjoyed my company less than I enjoyed his. He slowly floated away from me until he was out of sight around a bend in the stream. I remained close to the water as a small flock of starlings flew in. There were trees of various sizes near the water and the starlings employed the trees as diving boards and perches for preening. Starlings appear to delight in a bath. A Polar Bear Club could just as well be called the Starling Club. The starlings chattered noisily as they splashed about in the water. They beat the water with their wings so loudly that it nearly drowned out their conversations. The sounds of the avian water park quickly attracted other birds. Blue jays, chickadees, juncos and goldfinches promptly joined in the fun. Maybe the wood duck was a lifeguard.

Why do birds bathe on a winter day in glacial Minnesota? For a bird’s feathers to perform as they must, they need to be kept in prime condition. A bath helps maintain the quality of feathers. It keeps feathers clean by removing dust, dander and debris. A bath moistens skin and aids in maintaining the insulative properties of feathers. If feathers become damaged or dirty, it could affect the feather alignment. That, in turn, could hinder the bird’s flight capabilities. That would be detrimental to the bird’s ability to find food or to escape from predators. Shabby feathers make a bird more susceptible to cold temperatures because of an inability to fluff its feathers for warmth.

Q and A

“Why is the camp robber also called a whiskey jack?” The gray jay is known as a camp robber, Canada jay, moose bird, carrion bird, meat hawk, venison hawk, lumberjack, timber jay, gorby, whiskey john and whiskey jack. It’s called the camp robber because of its habit of pilfering untended food. The gray jay caches food. Whiskey jack is a corruption of the name of a mischievous prankster prominent in Algonquian mythology — wiskedjak. Gorby derives from the French word corveaux (crow). The whiskey jack can be quite tame and some folks believe it is bad luck to injure or drive off a gray jay.

Nature lessons

The migration of the monarch butterfly lasts longer than the average monarch’s lifespan.

Sundogs are “rainbows” of light on one or both sides of the sun. Other names are false suns, mock suns or parhelia. They are typically seen at a 22-degree angle to the sun. In very cold air, ice crystals floating in the air can create sundogs. The ice crystals bend rays of light coming from the sun by 22 degrees. Cirrus clouds, made of ice crystals, can create sundogs. Cirrus clouds often move over before a storm arrives. Sundogs can be a sign that rain or snow is on the way, but not always.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates there are approximately 1.5 million auto-deer collisions per year.

Albert Lea Christmas Bird Count

Thanks to those who counted birds on Dec. 28; 45 species were seen. The top 10 species in number in descending order were house sparrow, rock pigeon, dark-eyed junco, American crow, black-capped chickadee, American goldfinch, blue jay, European starling, mallard and wild turkey. Record high numbers were logged for the rock pigeon, Eurasian collared-dove, red-bellied woodpecker, black-capped chickadee, white-breasted nuthatch, dark-eyed junco and northern cardinal.

Thanks for stopping by

“I have never found that criticism is ever inhibited by ignorance.” — Harold McMillan

“The old Lakota was wise. He knew that man’s heart away from nature becomes hard; he knew that lack of respect for growing, living things soon led to lack of respect for humans too.” — Chief Luther Standing Bear


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