Increased plumage helps redpolls survive the winter

Published 8:00 am Sunday, February 3, 2013

Column: Nature’s World, by Al Batt

My neighbor Crandall stops by.

“How are you doing?” I ask.

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“Everything is nearly copacetic. I’ve been as busy as Grandpa was the summer I tied his beard to the screen door. Every time someone came in, Grandpa went out. My truck has the hiccups. It got them after I visited some relatives who live a far piece from here. They live a far piece from everywhere.

Al Batt took this photo of common redpolls.

The road to their farm is so rough that no one would ever suffer from constipation after driving it once. It was a cold day when I visited. So cold that the snowmobiles were veering south. It was a good thing I showed up. I had to use my jumper cables to start their cows. They feed coffee beans to their chickens and then make a beverage out of the droppings. It’s called crappuccino. It was a nice visit, but my back is a little sore. I’d carried Still Bill’s new used recliner into his house while he was out. He got it from some people who are so rich that they sit on furniture only once.”

“I know that Still Bill favors inertia, but why didn’t you wait until he was home to help?” I say.

“I thought about doing that, but a chair is a lot easier to move when he’s not in it.”

Good natured

I watched four crows badgering an adult bald eagle feeding on a dead deer in a farm field. The crows appeared to relish the opportunity to hector the raptor.

Phil Morreim of Albert Lea has up to 20 cardinals coming to his feeders. I try not to be envious, but I fear that I am. I have a pair that visit my feeders. I am thrilled to have them.

I watched large numbers of common redpolls set upon the feeders. Redpolls are small finches (slightly larger than American goldfinches) that are brown and white with rose-pink breasts, red caps (polls) and black chins that come readily to feeders offering nyjer, millet or black oil sunflower seeds. Common redpolls are capable of surviving temperatures as low as -65 degrees Fahrenheit. One study found that redpolls have as much as 31 percent more plumage (by weight) in winter than they have in summer. They are capable of tunneling into the snow to stay warm during the night. This redpoll breeds in Alaska and northern Canada. Redpolls have throat pouches for temporarily storing seeds, allowing the birds to fill the pouches with seeds and fly to a safer and warmer spot to consume the food.

Q and A

Rod and Ruth Searle, of Waseca, spotted two red-tailed hawks perched side-by-side on a tree limb. They asked if it was part of the hawks’ courtship. It was. Another lovely part of their courtship is when the male and female soar together in circles at great heights. The female can be considerably larger than the male. Red-tailed hawks nest from February to June. The female lays one to four eggs, which take 28 to 35 days to hatch.

Jim Kehr, of Gaylord, commented on the large number of deer that he is seeing this winter. Deer prepare for winter by shedding their reddish-brown summer coat and replacing it with a heavier grayish-brown winter coat. Deer store fat reserves during the summer months because the food they eat in the winter lacks the nutritional value of green vegetation. They yard (congregate in sheltered areas) for protection from the cold. Research has shown that shelter is so important during extreme cold weather that deer will stay in a yard even if the available food supply there becomes low. Cedar thickets or pine plantations provide classic deer shelters. Just like us, deer try to limit the amount of time spent out in frigid weather. Winters lacking deep snow and offering warm days make it possible for the deer to move around more than they would in harsher winters.

Nature lessons

Groundskeepers found a way to discourage raccoons that were tearing up the new sod on the baseball field at Millard North High School in Omaha during the fall. They set up one coyote decoy near third base and another at the shortstop spot.

A new species of spider has been discovered in the Amazon. The 5-millimeter-long spider builds a decoy spider about five times its size to discourage predators.

Great-tailed grackles, loud and social birds that form gigantic flocks, are handsome. The males are black with a violet-blue iridescent sheen to their feathers that made them prized by Aztec kings in the birds’ original range in Central America. They resemble common grackles, but are larger with longer tails and bigger bills. The only location where they were once found in the U.S. was the most southern tip of Texas, but they have expanded their ranges north to Iowa and west to California. There are nesting records in Minnesota.

Not the Green Jay Packers

While on the subject of great-tailed grackles, I saw them everywhere as I birded about the Rio Grande Valley in southernmost Texas. This 275-mile stretch of the river is recognized as a world-class birding destination. Birders flock to it because of the more than 500 bird species recorded in that four-county area. I spent great (and grande) days in and around Weslaco. Estero Llano Grande State Park, Valley Nature Center and Frontera Audubon Center never ceased to amaze me. The birds were up early so I could fly. Green jays, great kiskadees, plain chachalacas, common pauraques, golden-fronted woodpeckers, red-crowned parrots, long-billed curlews, green kingfisher and crested caracaras entertained me. The birds were amazing and if they weren’t enough, there was sinfully good grapefruit.

Thanks for stopping by

“Always be a first-rate version of yourself instead of a second-rate version of someone else.” — Judy Garland

“Frost grows on the window glass, forming whorl patterns of lovely translucent geometry. Breathe on the glass, and you give frost more ammunition. Now it can build castles and cities and whole ice continents with your breath’s vapor. In a few blinks you can almost see the winter fairies moving in. But first, you hear the crackle of their wings.” — Vera Nazarian


Al Batt of Hartland is a member of the Albert Lea Audubon Society. Email him at