We are so lucky to live here because we have such interesting neighbors. With a suet feeder, we have the constant company of a wide array of feathered friends — song sparrows with their ribbons of brown feathers cascading down their white chests; red headed house finches; and perky, little wrens, who will happily make their nests in your mailbox or your flower baskets. Shakespeare admired the tiny wren for its great courage. A wren will fuss shrilly and fly intimidatingly close if you approach its nest.
There is the adorable downy woodpecker, not much bigger than a sparrow with its martial black and white plumage and the males wearing a jaunty little red cap; the madcap flicker with its black bib, polkadots, and red cheeks; and even the majestic punk-rocker, pileated woodpecker, as large as a crow, in black and white attire, a great streak of black eyeliner and a red feathered cap tapering off in an awesome spike; the ostentatious flaming-red cardinal and his shy bride, the English starling so scintillatingly, beautiful when young. Starlings and house sparrows were brought to this country by the well-intentioned Eugene Schieffelin, who wanted us to have all of Shakespeare’s birds. Sadly, "the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men/Gang aft a-gley.”
There’s also the lovely, but loathsome, bluejay, so pleasing to the eye, but a devil at heart, whom I never like to see because of his murderous proclivities. (Better not to know….) Cold weather brings Canadian robins and snow birds. What an "infinite variety” resides in that aerial world beyond our windows.
This year for the first time since we moved here in 1985, we have bluebirds. Decades ago, bluebirds faced extinction, but enough people rallied to their cause and built nesting boxes for them that their population has survived. I’ll never forget the beautiful snowy owl, seemingly dressed in ermine, who sat on a branch outside our kitchen window, or the flock of cedar wax wings, looking like a group of masked bandits, who rested for a moment in our backyard while migrating. In warmer weather an arrogant, majestic red-tailed hawk haunts our backyard watching for chipmunks. Mourning doves sometimes drop by, so aptly named for if their mate dies, they never take another. One year, a mourning dove nested on our kitchen window sill, necessitating the construction of a black construction paper barrier so as not to scare the mother away from her nest. To the mother’s great distress, her baby was so homebound that in order to get him to leave the nest, she was forced to stop feeding him; but he would not leave the nest. Finally, in despair, watching the now big baby ignore his mother’s calls to see the world, I banged on the window. The baby, now the size of the mother, flew away before realizing what he had done. "All’s well that ends well.”
The largest bird ever to visit our yard was a heron who noticed we had a small pond, which I had dug and edged with a rim of uncemented stones. As he lifted one long leg to perch on the edge and observe the goldfish, the stone tilted, shifting him rapidly to an awkward position requiring the opposite wing to rapidly extend to compensate for the imbalance. With his weight shifted, the stone evidently shifted again, creating a lurch in the opposite direction at which point the no longer statuesque heron decided to lift off with the remnants of his dignity. Like Ichabod Crane, he never returned.
After years of happy goldfish, I finally gave up after an invasion of goldfish-eating frogs, who arrived from I wonder where. Who knew tiny frogs would grow big enough to eat goldfish? Or was it a raccoon? Probably not since the frogs were undiminished.
THE OTHER DAY on Hackamore Drive, I saw a young peregrine falcon, perhaps the same one who was pursuing an old crow, on a previous day, followed by another crow attempting to help his beleaguered friend. What a ruckus that was. Every now and then, the buzzards like to alight on the trees behind our house. Although, or perhaps because, they clean up carrion, they are not the most pleasant of fowls to keep company with; however, when vulture populations tank, there are environmental problems — such as the spread of disease. So hats off to the vultures for doing a job nobody else wants or even appreciates. On a macabre note, a group of feeding vultures is called “a wake.” And on a humorous note, a bunch of vultures in trees is called “a committee.”
The summer months are always filled with the antics of ruby-throated hummingbirds, who can fly like helicopters, straight up and down, hovering, or even zig-zagging with their wings a blur, beating so fast they hum, hence their name. With a feeder at the window, you can watch aerial antics that would shame any other bird or plane. We used to have hordes of them. We had one chap so territorial that we put up a feeder on the other side of the house so the females could eat in peace, only to discover he was bouncing from one side of the house to the other like a tennis ball over a net. Adding a third feeder, did make his life a bit more difficult, but not enough.
Walking our rescue dog Benji, I have discovered we also have many four-footed neighbors less visible than our feathered friends. I’ve been lucky enough to see a beautiful red fox more than once. Because of their long fur, we don’t realize how small foxes are — less than 10-20 lbs; but suburban foxes are even smaller. Foxes supposedly have the most diverse diets in the animal world. They eat everything from birdseed, to earthworms, insects, fruits, berries, rodents, including rats, and, yes, sadly, birds — but not on the disastrous scale of cats. A fox's bark sounds a bit like a small dog with a cold. I’ve recently noticed scat in the neighborhood that suggests we might now also have coyotes, “a marvelous, witty fellow," in residence. Coyotes are extremely shy and very clever, revered by Native Americans as the trickster. If they have moved into the neighborhood, this is very bad news for our foxes.
We also have possums. One night, I put an apple pie out to cool on the front steps, opened the door, and found myself looking at possum preparing for a bite of tart. Fortunately, he did not faint dead away, which is what happens when a possum “plays dead” — they literally pass out, look, and smell dead. (Don’t ask.) We have also had moles revealing their presence with tunnels running through the yard, shrews that look like mice with long noses and have conferred their names to abrasive women because they (the shrews) make high pitched, twittering noises and are very territorial.
IN WARMER WEATHER, bats and larks dip and soar in the twilight, both helping rid us of noxious insects. I also used to hear a bobcat frequently at night in the warmer weather. Its cry is perfect for Halloween. As far as mice are concerned, one year we had a not so unique experience, I was told, with field mice who had painstakingly moved piece by piece about 5 lbs. of cat kibble from our neighbor's garage into various, nooks, crannies, pipes, and tubes of our car in our garage. How hopeless they must have felt upon discovering their store “ever lost;” their little souls “full of discord and dismay.” Unfortunately, I further, inadvertently shocked the world of field mice one day when the weather was beginning to get cold. I was trying to get rid of an old, leaky outside water hose that I had not used for some time. When I started to unroll it from the wind-up housing, a small field mouse emerged, carrying her tiniest — about the size of a third of a raisin — babies. It looked like there were 10. They had no fur; their tiny eyes were not yet open. They were newbies, no question. They were hanging all around her like a large necklace. Desperately trying to get them to safety, she plunged to the ground in an act of adrenalin fueled courage (which we call “hysterical strength”) that would be the equivalent of my jumping from a second story window clinging to 10 newborns. With lightning speed, she disappeared under the cement step close by, having saved all the babies but one. Horrified by what I had inadvertently done, I ran inside, grabbed a tissue and a paper cup, ran back outside, put the newbie inside the cup swaddled by the tissue so at least he wouldn’t be on the cold ground, and left, hoping that his mother would retrieve him. When I checked the cup a short while later, the newbie was gone. "Love conquers all."
We all know about the deer population. But at one point, we even had a deer that looked like a cow because of large white spots on the body. This aberration is the result of inbreeding. Our befuddling “Cowdeer” seems to have been a brief phenomenon — evidently, not the best adaptation for natural selection.
One of my funniest mammal experiences was discovering a small child, about three years of age, judging by his size, running around in circles holding onto the bird-feeder post causing the bird seed to fly out everywhere. Wondering how he got into our backyard, I suddenly realized I was looking, not at a child, but at a very large raccoon, who disappeared as soon as I opened the door.
There was also the monkey I saw, but was afraid to mention, which turned out to have escaped from his cage at a neighbor’s recently back from Africa. And of course, we all know about the squirrels, who like to sashay slowly in front of any dog on a leash. Recently I have noticed squirrels missing tails or with fur damaged tails. A new predator?
One story I have never been able to resolve involves a family desperately in need of marriage counseling and/or child therapy, who had the most earsplitting quarrels one would ever want to hear in the attic over our heads. Squirrels? Raccoons? Whoever they were, they didn't return after a wire mesh screen was tightened. A friend with the same problem bravely opened the attic loft door just long enough to fling several boxes of moth balls into the attic before slamming the door shut. This act of bravery expelled the unwanted guests, but left the house smelling of naphthalene for a disquieting period of time. Perhaps, not the best approach to getting rid of unwanted guests in the attic.
When we first moved into River Falls, we had a constant migration of displaced animals because of construction in nearby Avenel. The most surprising was a large black snake who was very persistent about trying to move in. He would squeeze under the garage doors and drop through screen doors. We were literally haunted by a large, long, black snake. You never knew where he might turn up next. On another occasion, I saw a strange sight in the backyard which required close examination because my mind could not comprehend what my eyes were seeing, which turned out to be frog legs sticking straight out of a snake’s mouth. I ran to the garage, returned with a broom, and gave the snake a wallop below where the frog seemed to be lodged. The next few seconds are a blur that ended when I saw the frog blinking in the bright sunlight. The snake was nowhere insight. The year we had the terrible drought, many of us had toads seeking shelter in window wells, a toad strategy that required various human stratagems to assure they could get out.
ONE AFTERNOON, a gigantic, scary, prehistoric creature lumbered past our house on a mission. It was the biggest snapping turtle I have ever seen. Probably the biggest snapping turtle anybody has ever seen. It went straight into the neighbors’ freshly mulched front yard to lay its eggs. Not a good choice. To save her from being run over on Brickyard Road, my son and I, worried the entire time about retaining all our digits, managed to get her into a large, paper yard disposal bag. It took the two of us to lift the bag, whose bottom threatened to give way at any moment. As we carried her across the road, her neck seemed to be growing like a snake coming out of a gigantic eggshell, growing at an alarmingly rapid rate like Alice in Wonderland’s neck after drinking the magic potion. The rapid elongation of the turtle’s neck necessitated constant realignment of our fingers along the edge of the bag, which started to tear. Fortunately, we made it across the road before the bag gave way. When we dropped it, the ancient snapping turtle slowly exited and disappeared down the hill to the stream without so much as a word of thanks.
At times we have had strange animal sightings like that of the aforementioned monkey. I will never forget the day my neighbor Ellen Kruse knocked on our door asking me to verify what she was looking at. I looked out to see what, after googling, I discovered to be a wallaby, not in the best shape, poor thing. It was starving and was seen by many trying to get food from garbage bins. I called the National Zoo. I was told that under no circumstance could they help because the animal might have a disease that could wipe out the entire population of the zoo, I was then told, “You would not believe the number of calls we get like this. People import wild animals illegally. When the animal gets too big or poses other problems, they simply turn them loose.” Her list included feathered as well as furry foreigners. This leads me to the stories of the mountain lion, or perhaps African lioness given the information from the zoo. It was seen by many in the neighborhood years ago. One neighbor tooling around at night on a small motorbike only escaped because he was able to flee downhill. A tracker was unable to catch it. Like the wallaby, it disappeared.
We used to have wonderful butterflies — tiny, iridescent, blues flitting about in dancing pairs that made the whole garden sparkle, small whites that reminded you of the snow, majestic monarchs, black swallowtails. Now they are all gone because people spray for fear of mosquitos. One morning, I went out into the backyard when we still had numerous locust trees that all came down later during the derecho. I looked up to see the sunlight filtering through the leaves and what looked like glittering threads of diamonds running through the tree branches in every direction. Countless spider webs had caught infinite dew drops that sparkled with rainbow colors everywhere I turned. The rays of sunlight filtered through leafy shadows and the dewdrops refracted the colors of the rainbow with the magic of a walking dream thanks to the industrious work of spiders in the trees. It is a magical moment requiring the synchronicity of time, light, temperature, and silken threads floating in the air. A startling, magical moment.
Keep your eyes and ears open for the neighbors who don’t greet you with a verbal hello. They will make your life a lot more interesting.
The writer is a resident of River Falls since 1985. She has written a children's book, a book about women's names, and has blogged for Psychology Today, Nameberry, The Freelance History Writer, and Atlas Obscura.