Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Southern Minnesota bird stories, past & present July 27, 2022

A tiny bird perches in a fountain at the Rice County Master Gardeners Garden, Faribault, Minnesota. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2022)

I HAVE A MIXED OPINION of birds. I appreciate them at a distance, but not necessarily up close, although I’ve grown more comfortable with their nearness as I’ve aged. Just don’t plunk me in an enclosed garage or other space with a trapped bird. Outdoors is mostly fine.

Unfolding of wings to splash in the fountain. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

Recently I observed a cute little yellow bird, a finch, I think, dip into a tree stump water feature at the Rice County Master Gardeners Teaching Gardens at the county fairgrounds in Faribault. With a zoom lens on my 35 mm camera, I photographed the finch briefly splash in the water before flitting away. There was something joyful in that sole moment of focusing on a tiny winged creature.

Water droplets fly as this bird bathes in the fountain. (Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2022)

We need such moments of simplicity. Of peace. Of birdsong, even if this bird isn’t singing. Moments to quiet our souls in the midst of too much busyness and too many distractions. And too much technology.

I remember how my mom loved the Baltimore orioles that one year, quite unexpectedly, showed up on my childhood farm in southwestern Minnesota flashing orange into the trees. She thrilled in their presence among all the blackbirds, sparrows and barn swallows. In her delight, Mom taught me that not all birds were like the swooping swallows I despised.

In my years of doing farm chores, I grew to dislike the swallows that dived as I pushed a wheelbarrow of ground feed down the barn aisle or shoved cow manure into gutters. That the barn ceiling was low only magnified their, to me, menacing presence. The swallows, I now acknowledge, were only protecting their territory, their young, in the mud nests they built inside the barn. And they ate mosquitoes, which I should have appreciated.

Yet I don’t miss the swallows or the rooster that terrorized my siblings and me, until the day Dad grabbed the axe and ended that.

More than 40 years removed from the farm, I seldom see barn swallows. Rather, in my Faribault backyard, I spot cardinals, wrens, robins and occasionally a blue jay. The front and side yards, however, bring massive crows lunching on remnants of fast food tossed by inconsiderate motorists who find my property a convenient place to toss their trash. I’ll never understand that disrespectful mindset of throwing greasy wrappers and bags, food bits, empty bottles and cans, cigarette butts, and more out a vehicle window.

And so these are my evolving bird stories—of shifting from a long ago annoyance of swallows to understanding their behavior, of delighting in the definitive whistle of a cardinal flashing red into the wooded hillside behind my Faribault home, of observing the feeding habits of crows in my front and side yards drawn to garbage tossed by negligent humans.

TELL ME: I’d like to hear your bird stories, positive or negative.

© Copyright 2022 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Back at the Rice County Fairgrounds April 21, 2021

Looking toward food stands and the Midway. To the right, is the outdoor entertainment center. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

VACATED. That word best describes my assessment of the Rice County Fairgrounds in Faribault during a recent walk there.

Many local groups have food stands at the fair. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
Picnic tables near the pork food stand. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
The presence of 4-Hers at the fair is strong. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

In the absence of people, the absence of animals, the absence of a carnival, the absence of exhibits, the place feels empty. No pulsating lights on the Midway. No smell of grilling burgers. No taste of sugary mini donuts. No shouts of kids. No feel of a prize stuffed animal clutched in arms.

The entertainment space to the left with the St. Luke’s food stand on the right. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

If everything works out COVID-wise, this fairgrounds will teem with people come late July. Animals will fill barns. Ribbons will mark prize-winning 4-H entries. Greasy cheese curds will satisfy those who crave fair food. The sounds of music and clustered conversations and happy kids will create a steady buzz of noise. Little hands will grasp adult hands and teenage hands will lock in fair love. People will reconnect. Celebrate. Experience that which was lost last summer, during the height of the pandemic.

Love this signage. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
The commercial exhibit building. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
Garden decor stored until the fair. The garden is next to the conservation building. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

This is the fair I imagine as I walk past shuttered buildings, as I pause to photograph buildings and signs and expanses of open space.

Just a snippet of the 32 barn swallow nests on Curtis Hall. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

And then I pause outside the 4-H building, Curtis Hall, to photograph the row of barn swallow nests mudded under the eaves. So many. Thirty-two. Too many. If there’s one bird I dislike, it’s the barn swallow. We have a history. As a child, I endured barn swallows swooping over me as I did farm chores. The swallows built their nests on beams above the barn aisle, my direct work route. I felt threatened by them as I shoveled manure into gutters, pushed a wheelbarrow full of ground feed down the aisle. My feelings for the swallow have not changed. Even though they eat mosquitoes, I still don’t like this bird.

Just another view of those swallow nests. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

That’s my sidebar from the fairgrounds, perhaps one you can relate to if you did farm chores like me.

The sheep arena is named after a Rice County deputy killed in the line of duty. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo 2021.
A view of the sheep barn. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.
Each of the livestock buildings is numbered. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

Fairs are rooted in agriculture. Prize animals. Prize vegetables. A once-a-year opportunity to showcase the best of barns and of gardens. But today’s fair is much more. Entertainment. Creativity. And, above all, a place for communities to come together once a year in one place. To celebrate. To connect.

The Rice County Fair office with the grandstand in the background. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo March 2021.

FYI: The Rice County Fair is tentatively set for July 21-25 in Faribault. Whether it happens depends on all of us. See my previous post.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Buffalo plaid and barn swallows at an elegant wedding reception August 16, 2011

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Lindsey and Brent were married at St. Paul's Lutheran Church in Wyoming. See my educational note at the end of this photo regarding seating during a wedding ceremony.

LONG GONE ARE THE DAYS of crepe paper streamers, tissue paper wedding bells and bud vases of carnations decorating tables at wedding receptions. That would have been my reception in the Vesta Community Hall 29 years ago.

Now when I consider that décor, I practically slink onto the floor in embarrassment. But it was what it was and no one expected more in 1982. We had a good time celebrating and that’s what counted.

Today it’s all about elegance and this and that and even hiring a wedding planner to coordinate the big event, because, truly, weddings have become events as much as celebrations.

On Friday my niece Lindsey married Brent in Wyoming, Minnesota, with the reception following at the Majestic Oaks Golf Club in Ham Lake. Now if you want to picture the polar opposite of my small-town community hall reception with the meal catered by an area grocery store and served on, gasp, Styrofoam plates with plastic ware, then Lindsey and Brent’s reception would be it.

Lindsey and Brent's reception was held in an elegant banquet room at Majestic Oaks.

The name Majestic Oaks suits the elegant banquet room décor. I felt rather like royalty dining at a round table swathed in a white tablecloth and set with hefty silverware—including three forks—under airy chandeliers and mini-white lights wrapped in gauzy fabric.

I didn’t need to fret about where to sit as tables were assigned. My husband and I were seated at table 13, which didn’t prove at all unlucky.

At this reception, guests didn’t form a buffet line; we were served at our tables. When I saw my nephew eating a flower—which I initially thought was a radish—from his dinner plate, I gasped.

My meal of chicken, green beans, potatoes and, yes, that edible orchid.

“You can eat orchids,” my sister-in-law informed me (she should know; she works in food service) and I replied with something like “I’ll wait 20 minutes to see if Jeremy’s OK before eating mine.” I didn’t and I did—eat that orchid. Tasteless. I prefer my orchid in a vase, although eating one certainly presented a moment of Fear Factor entertainment.

The bridal party’s entry into the banquet hall also proved entertaining as the attendants tried to outdo each other with dance moves. I had to ask my 25-year-old daughter why the maid of honor, my niece Katie, was wearing a buffalo paid shirt upon her entrance.

“Because she walked into the reception to the song ‘Minnesota Gurls’,” Amber told me.

The maid of honor and best man entered the reception hall wearing plaid shirts in the spirit of true Minnesotans.

Oh, yeah, sure, ya betcha, I thought, like I’ve ever heard of that spoof on Katy Perry’s “California Girls.” But I appreciated the nod to Paul Bunyan and Bemidji, where the bride’s parents attended college and where you’ll find Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox statues.

The bride skipped the plaid when she walked into the banquet room.

All in all, I’d rate the reception venue as fancy schmancy based on my experiences as a wedding guest. Yet, one moment stood out as downplaying the elegance aspect just a bit. That would be the barn swallows nesting in their mud nests right above the balcony doorway. One wedding guest suffered the misfortune of being pooped upon.

A discussion ensued between my husband and me as to how the bird crap problem (both upon the guest and on the balcony carpet) could best be addressed. He suggested blasting the pests with a high pressure water hose, but then noted that swallows are a protected bird. I didn’t believe him, but he is right.

IN SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION, my niece’s wedding proved educational as follows:

  • Barn swallows are a protected species and will poop on you whether they are in a Redwood County barn or outside a fancy Ham Lake banquet room.
  • Orchids are edible.
  • California girls are not the only ones with a song devoted to them.
  • Do not sit behind the tallest member of your extended family during a wedding ceremony.
  • Always do a last-minute check on directions to your hotel because road construction may have occurred between the time the invitations were mailed and the wedding date. Do not assume that, when you spot your brother’s law office across the street from the gas station (where you are asking for directions to the hotel) at midnight that you can break into the law office and spend the night there because you can’t figure out where the heck the hotel is located and neither can the convenience store clerk because the hotel name constantly changes.
  • Brides should not crash other bride’s parties. Show up twice and security, aka the bartender, will be alerted. My question to the party-crashing bride: Was Lindsey and Brent’s party more fun than yours or were you too inebriated to realize that you were in the wrong banquet hall?
  • Finally, young men who enter the women’s bathroom looking for a woman named Rosa will be stopped. By me.

HERE ARE SOME OTHER favorite wedding shots:

Maid of honor Katie tucked her iPod into the sash of her bridesmaid's dress.

My sister-in-law Rosie, the bride's mom, gave out last-minute instructions before the ceremony. She appeared calm to me. Now whether she really was that calm, I don't know.

I love this sweet shot that shows my niece Jocelyn with her daughter Meghan before the wedding service. Meghan, who will be two in October, was the flower girl. She walked down the aisle, oh, yes, she did.

The more I look at this photo, the more I like it. The image of Lindsey and Brent entering the limo reminds me of two celebrities swarmed by fans and the paparazzi.

One of the groomsmen opened his window and I snapped this image.

Photographing guests photographing the bridal party.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling