People-Watching Animals

Recently, I’ve started collecting photos of backyard animals watching me watch them. I don’t mean our eyes meet across the yard as I’m photographing them going about their foraging/nesting/mating/romping activities; I mean I’m catching them chilling somewhere (usually on a branch or on the fence) expressly checking me out.

I spend a fair amount of time outside, sitting with my camera, trying to be quiet and emanate good energy and be aware of my surroundings. Animal watching is something I do for the purpose of education and enjoyment. It’s something I do daily, but as a choice, a hobby.

But if I were an animal, people watching would be a matter of survival. I’d have to be aware of where the humans were and what they were doing; if they were dangerous; if they had anything to eat… As humans encroach on animal habitats, and human-animal interactions become more frequent and common, people-watching becomes even more crucial for animals.

But let’s say an animal feels relatively safe in a backyard, and he has enough to eat and enough experience with the resident humans that he isn’t actively terrified of them…can people watching ever become fun for him? Is there a point at which a particular human can become better than benign?

In other words: am I imagining things or might any of these creatures find watching me entertaining?

And what do I look like to them?

A short list of what I have going for me as a potential people-watching target: my hair is drey-like; my skin coverings (also known as clothes) are often the colors of wildflowers; I sometimes smell like lavender; I emit a great variety of calls; I seem to have an additional arm (my camera) that I point and click at animals, but that’s otherwise harmless; I share food in the form of seeds and nuts (even better, sometimes I massively spill seeds and nuts while filling our feeders); I seem to have an alliance with a passel of dogs; I’m easy to spot; my burrow is large and above ground but I’m often just sitting outside it.

On the list of cons: I’m a person and maybe inherently suspicious.

And it’s because I’m a person that I think it’s important to remind myself that I can be watcher and watched one, that my time outdoors is a dialogue, that so much more than what I’m aware of is out there…that every day, I should open my eyes wider.

A Little Death

Today I held one of the chipmunks while it took its last breath, cradled in my hands, my fingertip against its slowing heartbeat.

Having so much life in the garden means there’s also at least a little death. Sometimes that looks like a shattered eggshell, or a mess of feathers, or a ransacked burrow…and sometimes that looks like a body. Sometimes, the life is already gone…and sometimes, there are a few minutes left.

I don’t know what animals feel at their hour of death or at any other time (for that matter, I don’t know what my fellow humans feel at any given moment either), but I have felt enough loneliness and fear in my life (haven’t we all?) to know that company and love matter in anyone’s darkest hours. All animals included.

This morning, I held the chipmunk and prayed; at other deaths, I’ve whispered words of comfort to the dying as I wept. I don’t think there is one right way.

Some might say these are just little lives, little deaths, but I believe they are occasions for compassion; occasions to love and to console a fellow living creature however we can; to be a small imperfect peace for another until they rest in Peace.


The Bird at the End of the Racket

A few days ago, there was what can only be described as a terrific racket coming from somewhere in the back garden. I’m not great at identifying bird calls, but this didn’t even sound like a call, and honestly, I wasn’t even sure it was coming from a bird. It was an awkward sound- not distressed, but screechy and croaky and strange.

I looked around to see if I could spot anything out of the ordinary, but there were no obvious predators to trigger anyone’s alarm call; sparrows and doves were happily feeding below the feeder in the back corner, and chipmunks were scurrying back and forth on the ground.

But the noise kept sounding.

I looked to the bushes and the shorter trees. A couple of robins were going back and forth from their nest in the Japanese maple, gathering worms to feed their newly-hatched babies; a cardinal couple was perched on the fence feeding seed to each other.

The noise came again and again, growing grating.

Then I started climbing on things (a lawn chair, the vegetable garden boxes, the stone sitting wall) so I could see higher into the branches of a few of the taller trees…and that’s when I noticed a grackle flying in and out of the dominant tree nearby- a tall Dawn Redwood. Even following the adult grackle’s path, I had a hard time finding the fledgling. It was high up and obscured by so many branches. My long lens helped me see better than my eyes could, and eventually I was able to match the sound with the beak, and capture a photo.

Here’s our grackle teenager, the bird at the other end of the racket: ugly-cute and awkward; hungry; determined to sing a call he’s only half-learned as loud as he can into the world.

How could I be annoyed at his racket anymore, even as it continued the rest of the afternoon? I’ve been him before.

Mulching & Other Manual Labors

It’s true that a garden is never finished, but, sometime in May, there’s a short moment when it can look deceptively in order.

Of course, this moment lasts less than a day or two and may be just a hallucination induced by the exhaustive labor of mulching.

I’m speaking from experience. Last week, my husband, kids, and I spent 9 hours spreading 9,000 lbs. of mulch. We had planned to chip away at this project over several days, but ended up having to do it in one. When the delivery truck arrived, it turned out the load didn’t fit on our driveway…which meant the ginormous pile of mulch had to go on the street…and so was required to be off the street by the next morning, when the street sweeper was due to pass by. So there was nothing to do but toil.

And toil…and hydrate…and carb load…and toil some more.

Outdoor manual labor forces you to be in the moment and in your body in a particular way. You become really aware of what your body is capable of (as the ginormous mulch pile slowly shrinks), and feel which muscles are firing (as both strength and soreness set it). Water is not something you drink for its general health benefits, but something you feel the need for immediately and continuously, as you sweat (and sweat and sweat). You eat pizza (and don’t bother counting the slices) during a break because your body craves carbs and salt and fat to keep going.

As the hours pass, you see the comings and goings of animals, and you feel a different kind of kinship with them; not the imaginative kind you usually feel, but a physical kind. When the breeze blows, you all pause to lean in to it and cool off together.

I spend a fair amount of time outdoors, but not usually in the middle of the street outside my house. Mulching, I got to see the feeding and perching of birds that like our front yard better (robins and doves especially, and their slightly disheveled fledglings). I saw rabbits and chipmunks dashing across the street, and squirrels making tail signals to each other in some of the big oak trees. I saw red tailed hawks soaring.

There were more people, too. Neighbors driving to and from work, and school drop-offs and pick-ups, and appointments; police patrols; delivery people; landscapers (who all stopped and had nice words of encouragement); dog walkers (my favorite!)… Whereas the back garden always feels like a sanctuary to me, the front of the house is busy and social.

My husband and I finished just before the sun set (our kids having gone inside a few hours prior, to ward off accusations of child labor). Everything looked good, briefly, finally, during the golden hour.

Mulching and gardening/landscaping (or really manual labor in general) doesn’t get much appreciation in society. It’s not intellectual work, it doesn’t pay well (if at all), it’s messy… But I think to engage in outdoor labor, regularly or time to time, is important. It gives you an appreciation for your body and respect for the land; it requires presence.

And it’s satisfying. When you are sore and exhausted the next day, it’s not just an amorphous daily tedium that’s responsible; with gardening, you have something- something blooming and beautiful- to show for it.

Annual Sheep & Fiber Fest Field Trip

Sometimes I like to put on my green gardening boots (with cartoon goats on them) and go out into the country for the day (especially if it involves actual farm animals). And so, last weekend, my husband, daughters, and I went to one of our state’s Sheep & Fiber Festivals.

It was a beautiful day— blue skies, puffy clouds, and shades of green everywhere.

We drove an hour and a half, first into the city, and then beyond— and I got to do one of my favorite things to do in the car when I’m not driving: take iPhone photos and edit them through a painting app. I love spending the drive looking for moments of beauty and then having these little mobile postcards.

Good friends of ours invited us last year, and we went with them this year as well. As should anyone who ever invites me on an agricultural excursion of any kind, these friends know that I will show up with great amounts of enthusiasm…but not a lot of savvy; I need guidance about what to wear, what to expect, and how not to wander towards the food tents (as a vegetarian).

We watched shearing and spinning, admired artisanal wares, shopped for yarn, petted sheep and goats, and watched sheep herding demonstrations.

Like last year, the festival filled me with appreciation for all that I don’t know how to do with my hands and shook me out of the rural fantasies I sometimes entertain. I may be able to crochet, but it’s good to be reminded that my family’s warmth does not depend on my skills. I love the company and inspiration of animals, but I don’t have the temperament for or inclination towards animal husbandry.

Basically, when in the country (as opposed to in the garden, or the capital W wild), I’m just a tourist with a camera. I always get some good photos though.

And a weekend in which you get to kiss a sheep is not a bad weekend at all.

In which one of the new chipmunks chooses a new home…

Now introduced to the world, weaned, and savvy(ish) about some good feeding and hiding spots, the new chipmunks have been choosing their new homes this week. Some may have ventured out of the garden, but it looks like a couple have chosen to make their burrows within its borders.

The easiest of them to spot is the one who chose to make his/her home in one of the vegetable boxes. Specifically, the box where the tomato, pepper, and basil seedlings are (though he/she did check out the box with lettuce, peas, and carrots first).

The boxes are stone, so they hold the heat nicely, and they are full of rich, well-draining, deep soil. They provide some nice lookout corners in various directions. And, best of all, they’re close to food (which we are not opposed to sharing)!

Here are some photos I took of the young chipmunk’s scouting, before his/her burrow building began:

In Defense of Sparrows

When I started birdwatching (and knew basically nothing except to look for beaks and wings), one of the first species I managed to identify and photograph clearly was the sparrow. It wasn’t hard to find and differentiate at all! It let me get so close!

This was that first photo, of a sparrow sitting on our garden fence after the rain.

At the time I thought maybe this was a sign I was special, chosen as a safe and trustworthy human by sparrow-kind. But probably…I just happened to be there, with a camera. Sparrows are everywhere and incredibly habituated to humans. Some people’s “spark birds” may be rare or colorful or endowed with a particularly beautiful song; mine was the common, brown, scrappy sparrow.

Sparrows were brought to the New World (whimsically) as a familiar species from the Old Country and (more practically) as pest control for the larvae of the linden moth. I love the idea of an overwhelmed immigrant finding solace at the sight of an Old World sparrow on a sidewalk in 19th century New York…it’s romantic and comforting, and those are things we like our animal stories to be. Of course, that scene is tempered by the knowledge we have now, that that sparrow introduction was the beginning of an invasion that has had ecological repercussions in the years since. Once here, sparrows thrived too well and too quickly; they multiplied, ate butterflies, destroyed flowers, and crowded out native birds. They became a bit of a well-intentioned disaster.

So is it right to love them?

The thing about sparrows is that the same attributes that make them pests- their adaptability, their relentlessness, their number and frequency- also make them irresistible. You can find a sparrow almost anywhere, anytime…and observing them, you can’t help but be moved by their chirpy spirit.

The sparrows in our garden frequently try to eat seeds that are too big for them; they dart in and out of our vegetable garden boxes; they sit outside my husband’s home office window and stare at him while he works (causing him to dub them his “minions”); they stare at my dogs; they get stuck upside down in our suet feeder; sometimes they get stunned or soaked by rain; they sun themselves on branches or rocks after taking awkward dust baths; they fly into our Cleveland pear tree at dusk and chatter in such a crescendo we can hear it from inside the house. They have become familiar and funny; they’re our small, eccentric, feathered neighbors.

Sparrows aren’t impressive, but they’re good enough birds to get started birdwatching with; you can find them wherever you are, any and every day, and that’s something I not only appreciate, but love about them.

Also, occasionally, a moment with them still takes my breath away.