Red-bellied woodpecker appears inexpertly named

Published 6:52 am Sunday, February 24, 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 don’t know how I’ve lived this long while doing my own cooking. I think I have a bad cookbook. The recipe said “set the oven to 180 degrees.” Now I can’t open the oven because the door is facing the wall. Whoever wrote that cookbook would be safe from any zombie looking for a meal of brains.”

“Leo Tolstoy wrote, ‘If you make it a habit not to blame others, you will feel the growth of the ability to love in your soul, and you will see the growth of goodness in your life,” I say.

Darcy Sime of Alden took this photo of a red-bellied woodpecker.

Darcy Sime of Alden took this photo of a red-bellied woodpecker.

The next time Leo wants to put in his two cents worth, he should pay me first. Speaking of cents, I went to a buffet yesterday. ‘Buffet’ is a French word that means ‘Get up and get it yourself.’ Anyway, I found a penny there. Sound the trumpets! Some people say that there is nothing great about finding a penny because you can’t buy anything with it. They’re wrong. You can buy a dream in a wishing well. I’ll save the penny for my old age. That’s because the one thing I know for sure is that the future will be much like the past, only much more expensive.”


The bird with a red belly button

At first glance, the red-bellied woodpecker appears poorly named. The faint red (or pink) wash on its belly is often impossible to see. It’s recognized by the black-and-white zebra barring on the back and the red hood, which is limited to the back of the head in females. This highly vocal bird has slowly extended its range north. One of the red-bellied woodpeckers feeding on sunflower seeds in my yard had an orange blush on his belly.


Is that chocolate I smell?

A former neighbor, Matt Eastvold, lives in Northfield. Matt told me that thanks to the Malt-O-Meal factory located here, the city sometimes smells like chocolate.

I won’t be sniffing the air for chocolate. I’m waiting for another scent. The smell of skunk means that spring is in the air.


Loons don’t do laundry

Judy and Larry Boyd of Red Deer are volunteers extraordinaire for the Medicine River Wildlife Centre in Spruce View, Alberta. The Boyds have a room in their house that serves as an emergency clinic. While I was visiting, that room housed a ruddy duck (so tiny), a rock pigeon and a Rouen duck (a domestic waterfowl that looks like an oversized mallard). The Boyds told me that a red squirrel had eluded capture in that room for a long time by making use of a secret hiding place under a bookcase. Helping birds isn’t all fun and games. Someone brought over a loon that had mistaken wet pavement for a lake. Judy picked the bird up and it promptly emptied its bowels on her clothing.


Q and A

Kathy Sabinish of Albert Lea spotted a shrew and asked about their habits. Our most common shrew is the northern short-tailed shrew. Shrews are often confused with mice, but a close look reveals some distinct differences. The shrew has a pointed snout, tiny eyes and an absence of visible external ears. Because of a rapid metabolic rate, a shrew must feed every two or three hours or starve. Prey includes mice, moles, salamanders, frogs, snakes, birds, insects, slugs, snails, spiders, millipedes and centipedes. Shrews also eat roots, berries, nuts, seeds, fruits and fungi if other prey is limited or if those materials are abundant. The salivary glands of short-tailed shrews produce venom that is effective in immobilizing prey. This enables them to prey upon animals much larger than they are. Shrews secrete a musky odor and have a foul taste that keeps most mammalian predators from eating them, but they serve as an important prey species for owls. Shrews do not hibernate and are active all year, relying on cached foods during times of limited resources. In the winter, shrews dig shallow tunnels through the snow (often under feeders) and rely on this subnivean space for both shelter and foraging. Short-tailed shrews breed between March and September and produce an average of six offspring twice a year.

“What is the largest songbird in Minnesota?” Songbirds or perching birds are called passerines. Passerines represent roughly 60 percent of all living birds. The largest songbird in North America is the common raven.

“How good is the vision of an eagle?” It has two to three times the visual acuity of a human.


Nature lessons

A reader said that he got rid of wasps (yellow jackets) without spraying or being stung. He put a gallon of water with a bit of soap and bleach in his shop vac. He made a funnel out of a small pop bottle, placed the homemade funnel near the entrance to the wasp nest, and used the shop vac to eliminate the wasps from the funnel. He said the vacuum cleaner sucked the insects out of his life. It worked for him, but be careful.

A bear isn’t a true hibernator. Its long nap is more properly called winter lethargy. Groundhogs are true hibernators. The name that many use for the animal, “woodchuck,” is derived from the Algonquian’s name for the animal, “wuchak.”

A 2011 journal Biology Letters article cites research proving that water-wrinkled fingers enhance the capability to pick up wet marbles. Prune fingers work like car tires to provide better traction. Our toes wrinkle in water, but it doesn’t help us run up walls.


Here’s looking at you

Each year, I give binoculars to a student who had demonstrated an interest in nature. This year, it was my great pleasure to present a pair of new Nikon binoculars to Nathan Wallin of Hartland. I hope he sees everything that he’s looking for.


Thanks for stopping by

“Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly; devils fall because of their gravity.” — G. K. Chesterton

“Our task must be to free ourselves from our prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.” — Albert Einstein




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