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Spring is for the birds

Bird expert Al Batt showed a slide of a starling during his "Gardening is for the Birds" presentation at the Alexandria Technical and Community College Saturday. The bills of starlings turn yellow during the breeding season. The session was just one part of the Douglas County Master Gardeners' Let's Get Growing Workshop.

It's been a l---o---n---g winter.

So long that Al Batt, the keynote speaker at the "Let's Get Growing" Workshop in Alexandria Saturday, said it's like having relatives staying at your home. It reaches a point when it's high time for them - and winter - to go.

And to start thinking about bird songs, green grass, tomatoes, flowers, the return of monarch butterflies and how your hands feel when they're working the soil in your garden.

Batt delivered those tantalizing images of spring during his "Gardening is for the Birds" presentation, which drew a winter-weary crowd of about 250 people to the annual workshop hosted by the University of Minnesota Master Gardeners of Douglas County.

He began by answering a question that he's been asked many times in the last few weeks by backyard bird watchers: Where are the birds?

He ticked off a number of possibilities - they've run out of food and are seeking it elsewhere, they're being preyed upon by cats or hawks in the area, or the answer could be in your bird feeder. Birds won't eat the seed if it's musty.

During a slideshow, Batt sprinkled in plenty of humor and light-hearted observations, including these tidbits:

• Chickadees love peanuts. Batt added you can't be in a bad mood after hearing a chickadee. A longer-than-normal call of "dee, dee, dee!" signifies a warning to other birds that a predator like a hawk is in the area. Chickadees hide seed in the fall to help them through the winter. Studies have shown a chickadee's brain gets bigger in the fall, perhaps to help it remember where it put the seeds, Batt said.

• Woodpeckers are making their spring "drumming" sounds right now, loudly pecking away into tree bark. A key difference between the hairy woodpecker and the downy woodpecker is the size of their bills. The hairy woodpecker's is larger.

• Cardinals are going through their spring mating rituals. The male will touch the bill of a female, gently passing her some birdseed, as if to say he's sorry for neglecting her all winter long, Batt said.

• It's kind of a shame that so many people dislike grackles, Batt said. But if you don't want them around, he suggested adding safflower seeds to your birdseed.

• The bluejay offers a glimpse of the summer sky in its wings. They also love peanuts.

• Nuthatches are often seen walking down a tree, not up it. Batt said it's looking for what other birds might have missed.

• An old saying predicts that spring will not arrive until it has snowed on a robin's tail three times.

• Owls love to eat skunks. "It's like pepperoni pizza for them," Batt said.

• Bald eagles are much more common to see these days. Batt said he spotted five of them on the way to the workshop yet he didn't see his first bald eagle until he was 14. Female eagles are larger than the males. Eagles are scavengers who will eat dead cats and raccoons.

• Not all red-tailed hawks have a red tail. They grow into them.

And lastly, Batt offered one sure-fire way to keep squirrels out of your birdfeeder: Smear some Bengay on the pole. Batt tried the trick once and saw first-hand what happened. "After the squirrel took a little taste, its tail went 'poof' and then it ran around and around in circles...Bengay does work."

About Al Batt

A Minnesota native, Al Batt writes three humorous weekly newspaper columns and is host of a nature radio show carried in Austin, Albert Lea and Mankato. He has been named Birder of the Year by Wild Bird Magazine, has received the Ed Franey Conservation Media Award from the Minnesota Izaak Walton League, and was honored with the National Eagle Center's Hero Award.

Al Edenloff
Al Edenloff is the news and opinion page editor for the Echo Press. He was born in Alexandria and lived most of his childhood in Parkers Prairie. He graduated with honors from Moorhead State University with a degree in mass communications, print journalism. He interned at the Echo Press in the summer of 1983 and was hired a year later as a sports reporter. He also worked as a news reporter/photographer. Al is a four-time winner of the Minnesota Newspaper Association's Herman Roe Award, which honors excellence in editorial writing.  
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