Al Batt: Bird sighting segued to jail time for 1940s government official

Published 9:00 am Saturday, December 9, 2017

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

My neighbor Crandall stops by.

“How are you doing?” I ask.

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“Everything is nearly copacetic. My family is like my Christmas lights. Half aren’t too bright and half don’t work, but we do have some fine cooks. I love the good food of the holidays. I may drag through a day, but when there is food on the table, I get washed up quicker than a reality TV show star. Shopping is exhausting. I’m tired. It’s no wonder. I’ve been walking since I was a year old. Pop started doing sit-ups so he can eat more at Christmas. He said he did one repetition. I told him that it’s not a repetition unless he does more than one. I’m taking Pop to get his false teeth checked to see if they can be made to fit better. The way it is now, each time he sneezes, everyone yells, ‘Duck!’”

Nature by the yard

It appeared to be nearing its end, but looks can be deceiving. It was a box elder tree that didn’t know how to die. It was covered with noisy birds. European starlings. A group that wanted America to have every bird mentioned by Shakespeare brought them here and released the birds in Central Park in the 1890s. Starlings have become one of the continent’s most numerous songbirds. The feathers starlings sport now have white tips, giving them spotted looks. By spring, the tips have worn away, leaving dark and iridescent brown feathers. Scientists call this a “wear molt.”

A warbler, Hiss and Nixon

In 1948, Alger Hiss, an American government official, was accused of being a Soviet spy. His guilt hinged on whether Hiss knew Whittaker Chambers, a former member of the U.S. Communist Party. Chambers reported Hiss’s excitement about seeing a prothonotary warbler on the Potomac River. This bird sighting linked the two people and eventually led to Hiss’s prison sentence for perjury and Richard Nixon’s rise to political power. Nixon, an obscure Congressman before the hearing, was a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee, which brought him national attention.

Chambers testified that he and Hiss had been friends while they were members of the Communist Party in the 1930s. Hiss denied knowing Chambers or being a Communist. To bolster his claim that he knew Hiss, Chambers said that Hiss was an amateur ornithologist and had mentioned seeing a prothonotary warbler along the Potomac River. Hiss, in his book, “In the Court of Public Opinion,” maintained he’d have told even casual acquaintances about his sighting of a prothonotary warbler because he was an avid birder.

Congressman John McDowell, a committee member, underscored Hiss’s contention by saying, “To discover a rare bird or an unusual bird or identify a bird that many other people have seen is a great discovery in the life of an amateur ornithologist. You can usually recall almost everything around it. It is like winning the ball game or the yacht regatta. You can recall the time of day, how high the sun was, and all the other things.”


“Is the eastern meadowlark the state bird of any state?” The western meadowlark is the state bird of six states — Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oregon and Wyoming. The eastern meadowlark is the state bird of none. The northern cardinal is the state bird of the most states, seven, which include Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, Virginia and West Virginia. The northern mockingbird has the honor in five statesArkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas.

“I have a problem with wasps in my wood duck house. Any ideas would be appreciated.” Rubbing a bar of soap on the ceiling of the house might do the trick, as paper wasps prefer attaching their nests to horizontal surfaces. The soap makes it difficult for the wasp nest (made of wood pulp and saliva) to stick to the box. Putting static-cling plastic or stapling a piece of smooth plastic to the ceiling of the box might act as a deterrent. Some people use wax or petroleum jelly on the wood. I don’t recommend either. Wax could attract bees and petroleum jelly could soil feathers. I’m hesitant about spraying insecticides inside a nest box as the birds could absorb them. While working in North Carolina, I had lunch with locals who told me that they kept wasps from building nests on their wrap-around porch by painting its ceiling a sky blue color. Seemed odd, but they swore by it.

Albert Lea CBC

The Albert Lea Christmas Bird Count will be on Saturday, Dec. 23. Meet at the Caribou Coffee inside the Hy-Vee supermarket in Albert Lea at 7:30 a.m. For more information, email Mike Majeski at

Meeting adjourned

“Be happy in the moment, that’s enough. Each moment is all we need, not more.“ — Mother Teresa

“Just living is not enough — one must have sunshine, freedom and a little flower.” — Hans Christian Andersen

Do good.