Antlers for fighting; ain’t easy being a baby bird

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

I live in a forest. Growing up just outside the red-stained cities of the Iron Range I never considered that I’d one day live even further away from stoplights and pizza delivery than I already did. But here I am in the woods of Itasca County. The deer stroll by out front, more like neighbors than animals. We recognize the frequent visitors. Wonder who the strange new doe is. What’s her deal? She looks rough.

We’ve been out here long enough for me to feel a little guilty that I don’t know more about the animals. Even though the deer, birds and squirrels are my close neighbors, I treat them much like most folks treat neighbors in town these days. “I saw them in the alley. They seem nice … in an abstract way I never intend to confirm or explore.”

I happened across a new book recently, “The Three-Minute Outdoorsman: Wild Science from Magnetic Deer to Mumbling Carp” by Robert M. Zink from the University of Minnesota Press. Zink is a Minneapolis city boy turned ornithologist turned full-fledged outdoorsman, now a recognized professor, scientist and expert on the very animals I see every day. He spent several years studying birds at Lake Itasca right here in northern Minnesota.

In a book of short essays, Zink presents questions designed to quickly tackle specific topics of interest to those who spend time in the Minnesota (or midwestern) woods. A whole section is dedicated to my new friends the deer. As the title indicates, one of the more fascinating tidbits is the fact that deer, like many animals, are sensitive to the earth’s magnetic field. When they are not under stress, they’ll naturally orient themselves along a north-south line when eating or sleeping.

The Three-Minute Outdoorsman

“The Three-Minute Outdoorsman: Wild Science from Magnetic Deer to Mumbling Carp” is a new book by Robert M. Zink from the University of Minnesota Press.

The reader finds a macabre edge to many of Zink’s findings. As quickly as Zink informs us that Minnesota chickadees are the smartest chickadees in the country, he also describes a squirrel eating baby chickadees like they were ears of corn. And don’t ask how they found out the Minnesota chickadees were so smart. You probably won’t like it. Indeed, it is nature itself that has the macabre edge: and also laboratory science.

Much of the book is oriented around hunting, something I’ve never much cared for. Nevertheless, the science behind Zink’s understanding of the outdoors kept me turning the pages. We learn how deer antlers developed through evolution, not only why (to fight) but how, and why it’s all connected to the rut (life is, to some degree, entirely about the rut). In related news, reading about duck genitalia you will cause you to lose sleep. Rest assured, it’s much worse for female ducks.

Since watching birds in a nest under our deck has become a cherished annual tradition, it pained me to read how difficult it is for a baby bird to survive into adulthood. Geese, ducks, ground nesters and tree nesters alike all face a cold reality. As Zink writes, “the babies are essentially living guts with a head and legs.” Some birds are born better prepared to move out of the way of danger. Many of these are eaten by large pike they never saw coming.

The primary takeaway is how delicately balanced the natural world is and must remain in order to survive. People who love and responsibly manage the outdoors are key to the equation.

At its core, “The Three-Minute Outdoorsman” by Robert M. Zink is the perfect book for people who love hunting, fishing and science more-or-less equally. Fans of just one of those pursuits will still find something of interest hiding in the tall grass of Zink’s bright, entertaining style.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, April 20, 2014 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


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