Sunday, August 8, 2010

Backyard Nature

The World Around Us

This evening I sat in my backyard next to our swimming pool and watched the myriad activity in the bushes and the trees that line the rear edge of our yard, separating our home from the neighbor behind us. From the near edge of the pool I watched as a Cardinal timidly foraged for food beneath the bushes. He would pick up a few seeds, stop and look around, then pick up a few more. This went on for about five minutes and then he made his escape, taking short hops through the bushes, presumably returning to Mrs. Cardinal.

A few feet away, a much bolder Blue Jay was in engaged in similar activity. Bolder than the bright red Cardinal, the Jay took few pains to hide himself and loudly announced his presence, once he had returned to the safety of some higher branches. The big black crows are even bolder, every Spring staking claim to the small park in front of my home. They can be seen on the ground and in the trees at the four corners of the park, a bit reminiscent of “The Birds”, although I don’t think anyone has ever been attacked.

I live in a suburban area, close to some wooded areas and several bayous. Surprisingly, this populated neighborhood is teeming with a variety of wildlife. Besides the aforementioned birds, there are finches, doves, squirrels, rats, field mice, frogs, lizards, a rare snake and at least one turtle. Sitting outside in the late afternoon seems to afford the best view. The heat of the day has diminished and nighttime predators are not on the prowl.

So, in the early evening it is possible to see numerous lizards scurrying about or catching the last few rays of the departing sun. If I watch closely I can usually see lizards racing along the top of the fence or sunning themselves on top of the stone Hippo statues that guard our pool.

In a few weeks I will be treated to the hummingbird spectacle. Every year for about two weeks, in late August and early September hummingbirds stop in Houston on their way south. We always set up a feeder and manage to attract some of these diminutive birds. Watching their social order is sort of a metaphor for humanity. Usually, one hummingbird will claim the feeder as his own. He will take a drink and then fly away to perch on the nearby tree, all the time keeping his watchful eyes on “his” feeder. If any other hummingbirds try to approach he will swoop in and chase them away. Of course, the other hummingbirds want their fill of the sweet, fake nectar, so they will team up. One pretends to go in for a drink and allows himself to be chased away and, during this pursuit the others will saunter in for a leisurely swig. Not unlike many people really.

The rats and mice that I see create something of a dilemma. I know that they are vermin and carry disease, but it just doesn’t seem right to kill them. For a while we had a bird feeder in the backyard. This feeder fed not only birds, but also squirrels, mice and rats. There were several nights when our dogs would be outside barking nonstop and, when I investigated, I found them looking up at one or more rats taunting them from a branch high above the ground.

My dogs, actually, are very efficient at keeping our home free of such vermin. Before we took down the birdfeeder I found five dead rats in a week’s time. One afternoon I inadvertently witnessed the spectacle. In the middle of the day the three dogs, two Basset Hounds and a West Highland White Terrier, were outside barking in the continuous manner that signaled that they had something cornered. When I checked it out I saw them standing around something that was on the ground. Before I could intervene, Genevieve, our fat Basset Hound made a surprisingly quick lunge and in an instant a big rat lay dead. Don’t let anyone tell you that Basset Hounds are slow and lazy; she made very quick work of that execution. Needless to say, I took the bird feeder down that day and didn’t find any more dead rats.

There have been other rodents that have invaded our home. There was the time I went to check on our dogs early in the morning. They had been doing there nonstop barking routine, but by the time I went to see what all the fuss was about the noise had stopped. When I checked on them I found a baby possum lying stiff on the floor by their doggy door. I looked at it, lying rigid on the floor and assumed it was dead, but then my wife and I began to wonder; there wasn’t a mark on the little beast. We picked it up in a towel and carried it outside, locking the dogs inside. We laid the little critter among the bushes behind the pool and, as we suspected, the baby possum picked its head up, looked around and scurried away. It seems that possums really do play possum.

More recently, I sat and watched a field mouse make its was around the side of our house. It saw me studying its movements, but pretended I wasn’t there as it walked between our garbage cans and then stopped at our back door, reared up on its hind legs and pushed against the doggy door. Luckily, for the mouse, it was too small to push the door open, because just inside the door, asleep on a cushion was our West Highland Terrier, Coconut. I am sure that Coconut would have made short work of that mouse. Unable to break into our house, the mouse went on his way, still unperturbed by my presence.

In my recently released novel, “Joshua and Aaron”, the hero, Joshua Smith is given a pair of “goggles” that allow him to see the teeming life that exists apart from humanity, in the city around him. He is told that “we see and hear what we’ve been trained to see and hear.” There is a wonderful world around us; full of life; a gift from God. All we have to do is take the time to sit and watch; it’s a spectacle better than anything television or the internet can provide.