A Backyard Report, With No Deeper Meaning Intended

IMG_0213The flock of goldfinches — about 20 of them — that lives in my backyard, coexisting with house finches, sparrows, wrens, jays, and the occasional black phoebe and grosbeak, serve as an early warning system. Lately, at least once a day, these energetic little yellow peckers disappear into the ficus trees, or into a neighbor’s yard. This is a reliable predictor of the imminent arrival of a red-tailed hawk.

The raptor that’s been recently hunting in my yard has been so ravenous for avian flesh that he chased a mourning dove into my kitchen! Right through the back door! The dove played dead on the counter, near the sink, and the hawk, its chest heaving heroically, pushed off and with a mighty flap of its wings, left the building.

The omnipresent mice (and rats) that live in the foliage around my property have learned to do their business strictly nocturnally — which is annoying and slightly discomfiting when one is trying to sleep and the sound of scurrying feet can be heard on the roof.

At least the rodents haven’t come inside. The brazen interlopers around here are the raccoons, a family of whom make nighttime raids on my dog Ella’s food bowl, which sits beside the cat food bowl, both of which sit not far from the cat door, which to my horror, works very well for wild masked thieves. The other night I caught them sneaking inside. I was in the next room, the kitchen, and I heard a suspicious crunching and scraping sound, despite the usual eater — Ella — being asleep under the piano. I tiptoed into the laundry room, where the pets have their meals. Two rather large raccoons regarded me warily. If they were scared they didn’t show it. Indeed, one kept on chewing Ella’s nuggets of lamb and rice, reaching for another handful with a nimble paRaccoons emphasizing their cutenessw. I eventually impressed upon the furry fellows my displeasure at their presence, and Ella aided with copious barking, and they soon left, waddling down the stairs and into the dark. Fifteen minutes later they returned. Ella and I chased them away again, and I barricaded the cat door with a container of laundry detergent. The laundry room floor was covered with muddy footprints, and the pets’ water bowl was unappetizingly cloudy.

Since the entrance was blocked, they haven’t been back inside our house. But hummingbirds have, and so has a wayward nuthatch. Frightened and confused, beating themselves repeatedly against a windowpane they can’t see or comprehend, these little creatures were doomed to exhaust themselves. Gently as I could, I cupped them in my hand, marveling at the wonder of a tiny bit of natural magic resting in my palm. Then I released them outside, where they would face even greater dangers. Like my cat.

Sam the Tabby has developed a taste for birds. Although he’s well fed with ocean mix pellets, he much prefers hunting for finches, who he tortures briefly before performing a crude decapitation. No matter how much I discourage his murderous behavior, I can’t fight millions of years of evolution (or intelligent design). But last week I caught Sam red-pawed. He had stalked below the birdbath and with one athletic leap had snared an unsuspecting goldfinch. I saw this happen from my office and immediately bolted outside, screaming in protest as I dashed down the steps. Startled by my tantrum, Sam stopped batting the bird and slunk off into the rose bushes.

I looked closely: the finch seemed to be hyperventilating, and its eyes were half-closed. I assumed it was in shock. So I lifted it gingerly to the edge of the bath, which has a three-inch wide flat ring around it, and placed him there in the sun. His petite talons were curled up and his wings didn’t move, but he continued to breathe. I left him and returned to my office, where I looked up regularly from my work. No movement. Ten minutes later I went back outside to see if the finch had died. He was still breathing. I left him alone. A few minutes passed. Then a group of birds lighted on the bath. They surrounded the injured finch and seemed to be investigating, though they never touched him with their beaks. A couple of birds hopped into the water, splashing about as their comrade rested nearby. And then, as though awaking from a slumber, the paralyzed goldfinch stood up and flew away, very much alive.

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