My backyard sanctuary is home to two new families.
Being an amateur photographer and Birder I use words like cute or sweet to describe the new families that have inhabited our decorative birdhouses on the patio. I call them chickadees but I’m not positive they are, so maybe one of you will know for sure.
Every year these little birdies spend a week or two preparing a new nest for their springtime babies. It is hard work to fly back and forth, collecting leaves, string, feathers, and twigs to weave elaborate homes for their soon-to-be eggs. Below you see our bird taking in a rather large piece of white, paper-thin material.
When the nest is built, the mother-to-be will unceremoniously enter the nest, lay eggs, and begin to brood. Although, we saw the birds building their nest, we were surprised when we peaked in one day and saw the mother looking back at us. Even if the mother were to be scared away, she will come right back for the two-week incubation period.
We definitely saw the little brown bird building the nest in the bluebonnet house, but during Easter weekend our son-in-law peeked into the white house and saw babies. How, we wondered and when did this happen?
Shortly after Easter the babies hatched in the bluebonnet house. We do not hear their faint cries yet, but there is quite a commotion that ensues nearly all day long as the parent birds fly back and forth, looking for food and bringing food to the babies. I read that when the eggs first hatch, the female will brood the young and the male will bring food. After brooding both female and male will search for food. Right now, I’m assuming the male flies out to locate worms, seeds, insects and berries. When his beak is full, he flies to one of the patio chairs and surveys the area. Then he will fly to the roof or a plant near the birdhouse, and after looking around, he will land on the perch, glance around, then stick his beak into the birdhouse.
Boo, Emmy Cat, and I are mesmerized at their beauty and diligence. We spend way too much time watching from the window and sometimes from outside, as I sit at the table quietly observing. Usually after a few minutes the birds will resume their work after they’ve decided I am no threat. Even the other birds watch with anticipation.
We have stacked more plants on the rack to deter any neighborhood cats or other animals from disturbing the new family, while we wish we could do more to keep them safe, nature has its way.
I would love to know from you fellow backyard Birders if these are chickadees? And are the brown ones in the same family? The brown and black/white birdies are both going to both houses! What’s going on? Boo said this is like an episode of Sister Wives!
Boo, the cat and I were all looking up toward the ceiling in the den. We stood up and walked, almost in synchronized form, following the sound as it moved around overhead.
“Whoa,” Boo said. “Whatever is in our attic is huge!”
After the third night of sounds, Boo determined it must be a large squirrel. At first, he used the regular sized trap we had once caught a rat with. He shelled some old pecans and put some inside the trap with a line of pecans leading up to the door. We continued to hear sounds the next night, so he went up to the attic and the trap was still set, but the pecans were gone.
Gol darn it!
Once more we tried the same trap and got the same results. No pecans and no squirrel.
A few days later, Boo came back from Home Depot with the mac-daddy of all traps and declared, “This will get him!” Him or her, whatever it was, could not out smart this trap. It was 32” long and 13” wide, with a large metal handle and a spring trap that was sure to surprise.
“Why don’t we just call Critter Ridders?” I suggested.
“No, it’s personal now. It ate half a bag of pecans.”
Looking in the pantry I gasped, “You gave that ‘whatever it is’ the good pecans from my friend Cynthia? I was saving those for another pecan pie.”
“I can’t set my trap with just any ol’ pecans, now. This is serious.”
And so, Boo went back into the attic, set the mac-daddy trap, and put the good pecans leading up to and inside. “This will get him.”
The next night was silent, so Boo went up to check and the pecans were gone, and the trap was still set. “Damn it to hell!”
“That bastard has got to be thirsty now after so many pecans, so Boo put a plastic container of water inside the trap and more pecans. “There goes our pecan pie,” I sighed.
Fast forward to 3:00 a.m. and a loud Snap! Bang! and Thud! We both bolted from the bed and Boo said, “We got him!” The last thing I remember was Boo saying he was going up to the attic to check. I went back to sleep, but the cat, with an anxious look, jumped into bed with me. I admit that later I realized I should have spotted Boo as he went up those creaky attic stairs at 3:00 a.m. but, I didn’t. I vaguely remember him saying it was a raccoon when he got back in bed. But the next morning Rocky Raccoon was in our trap sitting in the garage.
“He looks so cute,” I said.
“Well, he’s not that cute. He chewed up the water bowl and hissed at me as I carried him down.”
Boo fed him a few more pecans and drove him to a park about a mile away from our house. We were so happy and both of us were proud of Boo’s courage and ingenuity. “It’s the water that got him!” he said, and we high-fived.
THREE separate people told us that one mile was not far enough away and that sometimes raccoons will come back to the same house. We laughed!
One week later, early one morning while the cat and I were sittin’ ugly, we heard something in the attic. Emmy cat jumped to the top of her kitty condo and sat looking straight up at the ceiling, then her wide green eyes looked at me like ‘what the heck?’
When Boo got up, he went straight to work preparing the trap, water, and pecans, and two nights later…Snap! Bang! Thud!
This time I spotted Boo as he ascended the treacherous steps to the attic. I heard the usual string of cuss words as he yelled down, “He’s back, and he broke off the handle of the trap.”
I don’t know if you are familiar with raccoons, but they have long, slender arms, with long, sharp nails. That’s how he was able to get the pecans without even going into the trap the first time.
Boo began the slow descent down the rickety attic steps, while both hands held the trap. One step at a time, slowly he tried to stay balanced while Rocky continued to move around. He had thrown an old towel over the cage to help protect his hands from Rocky’s clawing.
“Be careful, Babe!” I hollered, trying to be supportive while standing behind a large shovel, ready to defend myself if necessary.
Before I knew what happened, the trap, raccoon and all, tumbled down the last few steps and landed upright on the garage floor. “Boo!! You dropped him!” I yelled.
“What about me? That bastard tried to claw me while I was carrying him down. He might have rabies. I could have fallen too.”
Well, Boo had to go to work so Rocky spent the day and night in his cage with the rest of the pecans. Boo even rigged a water dispenser to the top of the trap so he could get water.
The next morning when I went out to check on Rocky, he didn’t move and didn’t open his eyes when I rattled the trash cans and made more noise.
“He’s dead!” I whispered to Boo, while he was still asleep. “I think the fall killed him.”
When Boo came outside, Rocky perked up and opened one eye. He was still alive!
Boo bungeed the trap to the inside of the truck bed and we took off for greener pastures, so to speak. As we drove, Rocky put his arm out of the cage and with the air in his face, seemed to be enjoying a leisurely ride in the sunshine. He looked at me with his beautiful brown eyes and almost smiled. Approximately ten miles away, we found a lovely, wooded area and let Rocky out of the cage. He paused just for a split second, as if to say farewell, but instead he pooped in his cage which fell onto the truck bed then he sprinted out into the woods. Our raccoon days were over.
Lest you think we are foolish, or suckers for pecan-loving raccoons, we will somehow find the point of entry. For right now, Boo declares we do not need professional help, but I am asking for prayers that no accidents, hazards or other rodents befall us, and that Boo is able to repair the damage that no doubt is on the roof and in the attic. But for now, I will bid adieu.
No matter the species, I can strangle any root system or poison any shoot system in the modern botanical nomenclature.
I do enjoy plants, especially herbs like mint and basil and flowers such as magnolias and azaleas. I have tried for decades to keep small cacti and large-leafed friends alive, yet like a demented serial killer I can destroy what I admire.
Relatives and friends have tried over the years to break the curse of my plant murders. Just last year Cousin Claudia, who can work magic in any yard with her easy-going optimism, gave me a “condo warming” gift: an air plant. “You can’t kill it,” she said as she set it atop my great-grandma’s pie safe where it gasped its final breath thirteen days later.
I have a knack for overwatering or under-watering green things. In 2018 when we planned to sell our house, I needed indoor and outdoor plants to help give our place a welcoming vibe, so my Master Gardener friend Cynthia showed up to help. She is a modern day Artemis who is in tune with nature’s trees and flowers as well as the woodland creatures. She chose hearty plants from Home Depot for us and wrote detailed directions for their care before she left me alone with the blooming babies. Cynthia also got me a teen-aged ficus for staging the place for prospective buyers. She decluttered our home and had chrysanthemum “pops of color” for the front yard. My place was as neat and clean as a young private awaiting her first morning inspection from a hard-nosed drill sergeant.
Thankfully, our house sold in less than a week, and Cynthia swooped in to rescue the nervous yet brave plants from my clutches because she’s known me for many years and has witnessed my starving, drowning, or burning of healthy plants. Even if she believes the deaths were caused by neglect and not premeditated crimes, I wonder if she’d let me off with involuntary manslaughter if she were a juror at my trial for killing more plants than a low-grade natural disaster. Against her better judgement, Cynthia entrusted me with the ficus after she ran out of room in her Nissan Cube when she packed up the staging plants to offer them a safer home .
That spunky ficus managed to stay alive for eighteen months. When this year’s February snow surprised Texas, I brought the plant inside, hoping it had more life to live. Yet in days its leaves developed black spots as it shriveled in the corner of our guest bedroom/office and bid adieu to the cold, cruel world. I soon discovered I had horribly over-watered it when after the snow had melted, I hauled it outside and heard water sloshing around in the heavy planter it was set inside.
I used to feel guilty about dismembering, suffocating, maiming, and torturing innocent plants that came under my care. So many people love digging in the dirt, planting seeds, and tending their flowers and vegetables so that they later enjoy the beauty and bounty of their gardens.
In 1970 my favorite movie was Barbra Streisand’s On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. Her Daisy Gamble character coaxed flowers from the soil by singing to them. The movie’s opening begins with “Hey, buds below! Up is where to grow!” as Barbra sings, skips, and swirls around an expansive rose garden while hundreds of flowers bloom with the help of the camera’s time-lapse magic. I loved that song (“Hurry, It’s Lovely Up Here”) almost as much as I loved the 66 groovy outfits that costume designer Cecil Beacon had Barbra changing into during the movie. Her flowered babydoll p.j.s matched her flowered sheets which matched the flowered wallpaper of her bedroom!
Drowning or starving plants is not the worst confession I could make. It’s not like I throw every curse word I have ever heard at my cat when she meows incessantly at three a.m. for food. Or I fear newborn babies because they look like fragile, unpredictable aliens. I’m not a monster!
And to be honest, I have not killed every plant I have ever owned. I still have a weak ivy Cynthia left behind when she staged my house. A perky good luck bamboo from Crystal lives on my kitchen window sill. Crystal follows the law of averages rule when it comes to plants. She once told me, “I plant so many plants, trees, and vegetables, something is bound to survive!”
So my murder rate is close to 87% if I consider all the plants I have ever known.
Does a lawn count? The front yard of the home we sold had more St. Augustine grass than bald, brown patches two years ago. Also, the backyard had winter rye grass whose soft green blades stayed alive long enough for us to close the deal on the house. However, my son Evan was responsible for readying the backyard and planting those grass seeds. He even called to remind me to water the yard regularly until the tiny green shoots poked out of the dirt as if Barbra Streisand’s voice beckoned them to a world of promise.
In March I started 7:20 a.m. walks through my eclectic neighborhood.
Early mornings I pass subsidized apartments, an elderly elementary school, a head shop, a short strip mall that includes a convenience store with an impressive mural of Ice Cube on its side wall, a local take-out pizza joint, a Mexican restaurant, and a hair salon. A mental health hospital is a few blocks away, and a very unpopular Sonic is across the street from us.
I begin my walks down a sidewalk-less street with mostly trailer homes. I turn onto a shady street of duplexes and small houses. Later I follow a busy street towards a tiny park with lots of trees and a few backless stone benches. I pass a Korean Catholic Church before I head back home down a wide street with bike lanes on both sides. After I pass the elementary school, I turn onto my own street of apartments where people work on their cars and hang out after work. I hear music and conversations more often in Spanish than English.
Lots of cats roam my street, and one cat gives me the willies; I call it the opossum cat because of its weird white face and its pointed nose and menacing stare. A black dog with huge balls and stubby legs appears some times. He wears a frayed grey collar without tags that was once blue. He’s a curious guy without menace. His walk is brisk and reminds me of Tramp from the early Disney movie; he’s resourceful and scrappy and free.
After I’d been walking for several weeks at the same time each morning, I began connecting with some people. Brisk Walking Woman was my first connection. She lives close by, makes fast laps around the streets, and wears a wide-brimmed orange floppy hat.
Near the park I pass Scraggly-bearded Man in a motorized wheelchair with a small white dog on a leash. He is often barefoot, and I once helped him untangle the dog leash from his wheels while the dog sat in his lap and barked at me. The man and I both wore face masks; I was equally fearful of his dog biting me as I was of catching the virus.
In July after I’d said hello to Young Gardener tending her raised bed of flowers and vegetables, she offered me fresh tomatoes! Score!! I later gave her blueberry muffins, and after swapping names, we now swap fresh produce and baked goods.
There’s also Wonderful Woman who carries a cane for protection and has a sunny smile to match her bright disposition and bold colored wardrobe.
I also wave to Tie-dyed Lady who wears her dog leash around her waist and Tall & Handsome Guy who walks a hyper black and white puppy that gives my hand puppy-nips when I pet him.
Recently I encountered Tiny Woman who has grey and black curls and walks her dachshund near the elementary school and waves at me across the street.
Waving to my walking friends reminds me of a Dan Hertzfeldt’s cartoon: “Billy’s Balloon.” In the cartoon, a stick figure kid gets lifted into the sky by his red balloon, and while he’s floating into the clouds, he sees another kid being carried upward by a yellow balloon. They wave at each other from across the distance. They smile. Then an airplane ploughs right through the kid with the yellow balloon.
My walks connect me to others, and when we wave hello and make mundane comments about the high humidity or the welcome breeze, life seems almost normal. Yet underneath the brief bits of friendliness lie the uncertainty and fear that never fully go away.
My face mask hangs from my left ear when my sidewalk is empty for blocks ahead. About fifty percent of early walkers I see have masks.
Last week Wonderful Woman was on my side of the street, and after I said, “Feels like fall,” when I passed her, she pulled down her mask and said, “ What? I can’t understand you.”
So standing a few feet from her, I pulled down my own mask and we had a one minute conversation as I shoved worry and fear into a back room of my mind next to paranoia and uncertainty. I feel the need to connect to others as much as I feel the desire to stay safe. May we handle our connections with equal amounts of compassion and safety.
“Those Bastards!” I heard Boo hollar from the family room window.
“Those dang squirrels have eaten every bite of the bird seed and are now taunting the Bluejays.”
We stood side by side, noses pressed against the window watching as the squirrely creatures took over the backyard.
“It’s like a gang has taken over ‘the yard’ at Alcatraz. Instead of the Bloods and Crips, it’s the Flying Nuts and the Angry Birds,” I said.
A few years ago our daughter and son-in-law gave us the Yankee Flipper bird feeder, which was our eighth bird feeder in five years. It was pricey, sturdy and guaranteed to keep squirrels away from the bird food. “Guaranteed!”
The Yankee Flipper is designed to spin and flip anything heavier than a bird. I hate to admit it, but we had a blast watching as it spun, and then gently tossed the squirrels into the grass. No squirrels were harmed in the process, but it provided hours of entertainment as we watched our pesky guests become dazed and confused.
Squirrels are a member of the rodent family. They include tree squirrels, ground squirrels, chipmunks, groundhogs, flying squirrels and prairie dogs. (I always thought a tree squirrel and a ground squirrel were the same thing.) There are red squirrels and black squirrels and our usually brown ones. Who knew there could be so many different species?
What is a squirrel’s purpose in life? I used to think they were so cute, but now they dig up my plants and eat my bird seed. Remember Granny from the Beverly Hillbillies? She was always cooking up a mess of stewed squirrel or roast possum. Sounds like the Keto diet gone amuck. And talk about attitude…squirrels taunt birds and upset the cat with high pitched chirping, squeeks, scraping and barks. They act entitled and indignant all at the same time.
Just for fun I read about having a squirrel for a spirit animal. Who would openly admit this, I wondered? To have a squirrel on your totem pole means you are very resourceful and that you prepare for the present and future. And if you dream about squirrels it means you need to lighten your load of clutter and unnecessary items, and that you need more fun in your life. I tell you this because I know there are still squirrel lovers out there, although the number may be dwindling.
Lest I digress, the Yankee Flipper motor had to be charged occasionally to keep the twirl and flip going. But, as the years have gone by it has lost its ability to juice up.
Our birds love the large feeder but the problem is the squirrels think it is for them, too. I personally have watched as a squirrel hangs between the feeder and the tree, perpendicular to the ground, swinging to and fro until he can make the leap. Sometimes they jump from the tree onto the top of the feeder and shimmy down to the food. I must admit, they are agile little daredevils. When we open the backdoor, they freeze to see who it is. If it’s me, they hang loose and gingerly take their time climbing back up the tree. If it’s Boo, they disappear in a matter of seconds and perch high enough to chatter and backtalk until he goes back in.
“I won’t go down without a fight” Boo saluted. “They have met their match. Remember when we went to Yosemite, and they taught us to clap our hands loud and yell ‘Hey bear’ if we came across a grizzly?”
“Yes, Babe, but….” As I turned to look his way, I saw him in his Ranger hat and filling up a water gun, but it was too late. He was heading out into the back yard.
‘I give up’, I whispered to myself and moved closer to watch what would happen next. Squirrels are nuts, and Boo… is Boo.