Swallow nest house

A reader wondered what the point is of this seemingly half-built birdhouse in Spring Lake Park.

Q: Is this for bats or swallows?

A: Swallows.

Q: Is it true that some people can never be satisfied?

A: It is. For years, Ask Us Guy’s boss has suggested the Ask Us column need not be so lengthy — that a nice, concise column would be preferable, that it’s OK to just answer one question some weeks.

Always responsive, Ask Us Guy submitted this week’s column, totaling one question, seven words, and it was deemed too short.

So, here’s a bit more detail. The question was accompanied by a photo of a little birdhouse-like addition to the restrooms at Spring Lake Park in North Mankato. Except the birdhouse just had a roof and a back wall. No floor, sidewalls, front wall or little round hole for the front entrance.

Ask Us Guy forwarded the question to North Mankato City Administrator John Harrenstein.

“Swallows,” Harrenstein answered. “... They were donated by a citizen.”

For readers who pay scant attention to birds, swallows don’t need tree branches or a platform to build a nest. They construct the entire structure with little chunks of mud, tied together with grass or hair or feathers, and can affix it to a building wall, often just below the eaves. The nesting spot added to the Spring Lake Park restrooms attempts to attract swallows to that location with a small metal thingy that protrudes from the wood to give the nest-building swallow a starting point.

Ask Us Guy is guessing that the motivation of the citizen/donor was probably something like this, from Birdnote.org: “Barn swallows love the insects that we humans consider pesky, especially mosquitoes, gnats, and flying termites. A single barn swallow can consume 60 insects per hour or a whopping 850 per day. That’s 25,000 fewer insects per month that might have joined your summer barbecue. Considering the hundreds of thousands of barn swallows all over the country, well… that’s roughly a buzzillion bugs that aren’t bothering us humans.”

Q: Why are the coronavirus statistics kept secret? Why do we only hear how many cases are in Blue Earth County? Why can’t the MANKATO Free Press report how many cases are in MANKATO?

With the virus counts going up in Blue Earth County, many of us are becoming more vigilant. If the majority of the cases are in Mankato itself, and we knew it, I would think we would see more masks, social distancing, and people accepting the status as serious.

Going one step further, it would be very interesting to know how many employees of the major crowd-gathering establishments (without identifying individual stores) have tested positive for the virus (Walmart, Sam’s Club, Hy-Vee, Cub, Target, Menard’s, Home Depot, etc.).

A: OK, Ask Us Guy recognized that the capitalization in the reader’s question indicates that the reader is taking a little bit of a dig at The Free Press. It reminded him of an instance a few years back when he was in line at one of his favorite fast food places when a drive-thru customer stormed back into the restaurant, lifted the lid off his sandwich — displaying for the manager only a couple of pickles, some mustard and ketchup — and wondered, “If I order a cheeseBURGER shouldn’t there be a BURGER? And for that matter, if I order a CHEESEburger, shouldn’t there be some CHEESE?”

But Ask Us Guy just wants the reader to know that if The Free Press HAD ACCESS to specific COVID-19 statistics for the city of Mankato, The Free Press would REPORT those statistics.

The Minnesota Department of Health tracks that disease information and releases the numbers by county rather than by city, which is standard public health practice, said Doug Schultz, an information officer for the department.

“We do this, first of all, because, especially in the early stages of an outbreak, providing the city of a case could potentially identify an individual,” Schultz said. “We also keep to the county level of cases for practical reasons: There are 87 counties in Minnesota but thousands of cities. We don’t have the resources to be sorting and plotting cases by city for mapping and reporting purposes. ... Even providing cases by county location is somewhat arbitrary, but you have to draw a line somewhere.”

Schultz also suggested that city-specific case information wouldn’t be as valuable as the reader suggests.

“Just because there are lots of cases in one county but very few cases in another county just across the road doesn’t mean the risk of getting COVID-19 is any less or more in either place. The risk is the same,” he said. “Similarly, if we were to report cases in Mankato, someone who lives in North Mankato or just outside the city limits could get the wrong impression of their risk if it looked like there were no cases there. Minnesotans everywhere should assume that the virus is in their community, that anyone in their community, their neighborhood, could have it, and take the necessary precautions to prevent spread to themselves and to others. Finally, as a general rule, if there is a relatively large city in a county, one can safely assume that the majority of cases are or will be occurring in that city.”

As for reporting whether cases are occurring among workers in supermarkets or big-box retail stores, Schultz said that data is not tracked unless a spike in cases is detected — something that hasn’t occurred so far in the pandemic. He noted that, while numerous employees and customers are in those stores, it’s a very different scenario than a meat-packing plant where workers are side by side for hours at a time.

“We would expect the number of cases in such facilities to be relatively low because of the greater ability for social distancing in such facilities, the more incidental, short-term contact between employees and customers, etc.,” he said.

Contact Ask Us at The Free Press, P.O Box 3287, Mankato, MN 56002. Call Mark Fischenich at 344-6321 or email your question to mfischenich@mankatofreepress.com; put Ask Us in the subject line.

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