Thursday, August 20, 2009


For the past couple of weeks I’ve been admiring a large flock of Canada geese that have taken up residence at a house near mine. The place is a mini-farm with a pasture and a pond, so it’s an ideal stop for migrating waterfowl. I haven’t noticed it attracting many birds in the past, but this year it’s goose central. There are always at least three dozen geese strutting around the property when I drive by in the morning. Occasionally they go for a group nibble on the grass across the road, forcing drivers to slow down and edge through the crowd. The folks who own the house seem to be the tolerant type. I haven’t seen any sign of them trying to evict the birds—but as it turns out, they didn’t need to. I drove by yesterday morning on my way to the park, and there was not a goose in sight, nor any sign that they’d been there. Same story today. Apparently, the anserine rapture arrived.

The absence of the geese made me feel a little sad, so I was happy to encounter a woodchuck when I got to the park. I love woodchucks. This one was standing up in a grassy area near a picnic shelter. He let me get within about 30 feet of him, then he turned around and ran toward the trees in that loping, faster-than-you’d-expect woodchuck way. He came to a narrow sidewalk beside the shelter and abruptly disappeared—just vanished, like Alice down the rabbit hole.

Woodchucks are burrowers, but they like to make their homes in sheltered places, usually along the tree line. I couldn’t believe this one had dug his hole right out in the open. When I got to the spot where he disappeared, I couldn’t even see a hole. I hunted a while and finally discovered a tiny opening under the sidewalk, clearly a rodent excavation. It seemed way too small for a fat woodchuck, but he had to be in there. I peeked inside carefully (woodchucks bite!), but it was too dark to see him, and he didn’t stir. I marveled at his brilliance. A concrete bunker might lack the charm of a burrow under the trees, but no coyote or bobcat will ever successfully invade his space.

As I type this, I can see “my” woodchuck rooting around under the bird feeders in the back yard. I worry about her safety, but I doubt she’d make use of a concrete bunker if I provided it. I suspect it’s hard to impose innovation on a woodchuck.

Groundhog photo by EIC from Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Battle ready

I just looked at my Blogger home page and realized it's been a full week since I posted anything here. That's pure neglect on my part, since it's certainly not for lack of things to report. Mid-to-late summer is the best time of year for critter watching. In the past few days I've encountered 4 spotted fawns with their mamas, a half dozen turkey families (baby ducks and geese have nothing on turkey chicks for cuteness), and one glorious summer tanager that defeated all my efforts to photograph him.

All those sightings were in the park, but the best show has actually been going on outside my kitchen window, where the adolescent mockingbirds are learning how to do what mockingbirds do best--and no, it's not singing. Mockingbirds do sing a lot, but like many humans who are eager to sing, they don't do it very well. Anyone who has ever been unlucky enough to have a male MB park himself nearby during mating season can tell you that "pleasing" is not the proper adjective for the mockingbird voice.

What mockingbirds do best is fight. They're particularly feisty during the nesting season, but they remain ready to rumble all year long. They love to fight each other, but they will happily fight other birds, squirrels, dogs, and occasionally people. Even felines are not safe. A few years ago we had a gray warrior at the house who would dive and snatch at cats whenever they made the mistake of wandering into his territory. You'd think a cat with any self-respect at all would have made short work of him. But no, the kitties invariably ran away, looking very put upon. Don't mess with the mockingbird.

All the teenage birds in my backyard these days are flexing their muscles and figuring out how much fun it is to win. They bully for the sheer joy of it. Jays and starlings will stage a feeder raid so they can hog the food, the mockingbirds will swoop down to terrorize the sparrows and finches just so they can perch on the post and spread their wings in victory. Yesterday I saw a mockingbird chasing a slow-moving black vulture across my neighbor's field. As far as I know, vultures present absolutely no threat to mockingbirds. I think Junior was just getting a kick out of harrassing a bird so much bigger than himself.

Of course, there's no blood shed during these encounters, and not even a meal at stake. Still, it strikes me as a little odd that I find all this violent behavior so charming in the mockingbirds. I'd despise it in a human being, or even a dog.

Photo of Northern Mockingbird from Wikimedia Commons.