I’ve inadvertently fallen for my local squirrel community. This is a pretty common thing to do, I know.
On the west side of my house, I keep two huge, squirrel-proof feeders. The deck in summer is reserved for hummingbird feeders, so I can watch and photograph them from my kitchen window. In winter, I put up a seed feeder. It’s not squirrel proof. Which is how we got this scene in early January:
Matters progressed from there.
Being in a generally dark mood this winter, I couldn’t look this gift horse in the mouth and remove the feeder. So instead I opted to become a kind of Jane Goodall of squirrels, justifying my continued feeding of these rodents in the name of citizen science. I would learn about and report on the secret lives of urban squirrelry.
I don’t keep the feeder constantly full, because I’m mindful of my friends needing to find better suited food on the regular, and there are population issues to be considered. And also I just don’t want to have armies of squirrels on my deck at any given time. Conditions edged there one Saturday after a cold snap:
The outcome of this project has been that I’m now acquainted with individual squirrels and their temperaments, and in the larger community dynamics. My son and I have identified and named two of them, Slim and Stretch. Most of the squirrels that come to the feeder are female. (Another thing I’ve learned is that, when you see a male, it’s, uh, really obvious.) The ladies don’t tolerate much from the dudes. The last time I saw a male on the deck, Stretch casually shoved him into the birdbath.
The daily schedule works well for all parties. Chickadees, which lose up to 15% of their body weight on a winter night and need to get to the buffet pronto in the morning, arrive before dawn. House finches and juncos show up next. Squirrels mostly sleep in till well after dawn, spend the hours of 9 to 1 plying the feeder, then leave. The birds come back after that.
Squirrel gestation season, I’ve learned, is right now. Young squirrels stay in the nest till they are ready to follow their mothers around and learn the drill. The timing here works well, because the seed feeder will make way for the hummingbird feeder in about eight weeks, so the young-uns won’t get a false education.
They can learn how to handle the seed feeder next winter on their own, like their mothers did. Walking seven miles through snow, barefoot and uphill. Literally.
From my old blog from out west. The principle holds in Indiana in December, 2018.
Snow tells a tale of the mountain that’s hidden the rest of the year. It reveals the intensely, almost manically nomadic nature of deer, and records the passage of other animals. This morning we saw rabbit tracks interspersed with bobcat tracks, a drama written in the snow, but with no discernible ending. Did the bobcat get dinner? Or did the rabbit live another day?
Snow tells part of the tale, but doesn’t promise more than that.
While sitting with my mother a few hours before her death, I had one thought: this is what the mirror image of birth looks like. Both are ordeals, pieces of transitional work. She was exerting herself – to breathe, to get somewhere, to do something – even if that something or somewhere wasn’t quite identifiable. Then, when she became too agitated, the hospice nurse added medication, and things calmed down. The process became quieter and more internal, but it continued. It was inexorable.
Over and over, I have heard people who have witnessed it describe death as “beautiful.” I know more than one person whose experience of bearing witness to death reinforced to near certainty their belief of an afterlife. As usual, I’m an outlier.
I didn’t find my mother’s death beautiful, exactly. It wasn’t horrifying, either. It was authentic, gritty, and matter of fact – but on reflection, my mother was all of those things, too. So it makes a kind of internal sense. We are who we are as we die, as much as while we live.
More than anything, though, it reinforced my understanding of life and death as a collection of reliable, trustworthy processes that, with a few variations, mostly follow similar patterns. It’s this way from the beginning. Birth has its own logic, and its own unique script: there are stages of labor, all designed to gradually open the cervix. Pain escalates with each stage. The baby is out, then the placenta. We meet our mothers for the first time.
From there, we grow. Childhood development follows its own rhythm, and after that, adolescence marches along. Everything is a process: digestion, respiration, immune response, love, grief, menopause, aging, and then death. There is something reliable and therefore deeply comforting about this.
These processes exist throughout nature, both on an individual and systemic basis. When I was last hiking in the Pacific Northwest, I took particular notice of a phenomenon that had always interested me: nurse logs. When an evergreen tree dies and falls – or falls and dies, as the case may be – in the rain forest, a process begins. Bacteria and fungi begin to break down the dead tree’s lignin – the biopolymer that gives wood its structure and strength – making the formerly hard bark spongy and soft, and creating holes and niches in which small things begin to grow. Mosses and tiny mushrooms appear on the tree. Chipmunks and squirrels perch on it, dropping food and poo. A layer of soil begins to take shape, and eventually, seedlings sprout there, aided by the sliver of light created when the tree fell in an otherwise dense and dark forest. Some of those sprouts succeed and become full-fledged trees, rooted in the body of their forebear.
This entire process contains within it a kind of magical irony: A dead, fallen tree contains about five times more living matter than it did when it was alive. Death is painful and cataclysmic –like a massive tree crashing into a forest – and then, slowly, it becomes part of the material we use to grow our lives, whether we like it or not. When a giant in your world comes crashing down, there is pain, but after awhile, there are other things, like questions, epiphanies, understandings, growth, and realizations of our own strength. It doesn’t make it somehow “worth it;” it’s just how it is.
I don’t really understand why these processes happen, or where they come from, but they give me comfort all the same. The writer Elizabeth Gilbert once wrote of a letter she received from her friend, Martha Beck, who officiated Gilbert’s commitment ceremony with her partner, Rayya, who died half a year later. In that letter, Beck wrote, in part: “Death is every bit as common as life, and both utterly baffle me.”
I nearly cheered as I read that. Finally, someone else has thrown up their hands and admitted they have no idea what is going on here. I was delighted – thrilled, even. Because I, too, have no idea what’s going on here. I do not have the certainty others do; I would feel deeply uncomfortable with it. The stubborn ambiguity of why, which is often so hard to swallow, doesn’t sting as much when I think of the reliable, inevitable, inexorable processes that appear in every corner of life and death.
Who fucking knows? Not me. So while I’m here, I’ll do my best to live well, take growth from pain and loss, and try to do some good. That’s all I understand.
The rest is a mystery and therefore the source of all wonder. And I like wonder.
When I married my husband, I knew he’d been interested in reptiles from an early age. He was a bold kid, adept both at evading adult supervision and, thankfully, keeping himself just barely on the right side of the dirt when he did. That’s how he came to handle his first venomous snake – a copperhead – at the tender age of 9, while adventuring in a marshy area behind his childhood home in Houston that the kids called “The Bayou.” His parents had forbidden him from playing in The Bayou, probably because of the very thing that attracted him the most – the varied and occasionally hazardous reptile life that lived there.
Somehow, he made it to adulthood. Along the way, he owned several snakes, turtles, and lizards along the way. One summer, he worked with researchers who were bagging timber rattlesnakes for venom research. His job was to carry the bagged snakes down the mountain and back to the waiting vehicles. Fortunately, he’d learned safer ways of handling venomous snakes since his escapades with the copperheads.
It never occurred to me that my son might come to share his stepdad’s interest in reptiles, if only because the genetics didn’t seem to be there – his father has a straight-up phobia of anything with scales, and though I love animals of all kinds, snakes never really resonated with me. But he did develop an interest in reptiles. Actually, that’s putting it mildly. My son is obsessed with snakes, particularly venomous snakes, but any snake will do. One day three or four years ago, he asked Travis to teach him to handle our Rosy Boa, and from there he was off. Sean has studied snakes obsessively – their habits, identification, habitats, and venom. Sometime last year, Travis announced that Sean was now his superior at snake identification.
If there is any ideal I hold as a parent – and I hope there are several – it is “feed the obsession.” (Unless it’s video games, in which case my mantra is “tolerate and manage the obsession.”) Accordingly, when I discovered Snake Road, I quickly began organizing a family trip there. If you’ve read my writing about the Silver River monkeys, you know I’m a fan of idiosyncratic nature travel. This was a destination to please everyone.
Snake Road is a narrow gravel forest service road in southern Illinois, a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River, sandwiched between limestone bluffs on one side and spring-fed marshes on the other. In the fall, the reptiles and amphibians that have spent all summer plying the marshes leave the water, cross the road, and head up into the bluffs to find cozy dens for winter hibernation. In the spring, they come back down again. Because some 59% of Illinois’ reptiles — and even more of the state’s amphibians — live here, the forest service closes the road to vehicle traffic for two months in the spring, and two months in the fall, to allow the animals to migrate safely.
This, as you can imagine, creates a kind of herpetological paradise. Scores of people in spring and fall descend upon Snake Road to walk its 2.5 mile length, down and back, looking for migrating snakes and other critters. We went for the first time last spring, and again just this past weekend for the fall migration. On a Saturday in the middle of migration season, the small parking lot at the beginning of the road will be full, and 4 or 5 cars will be parked along the side of the road. An informational sign and the closed gate mark the start of the road.
There is a communitarian aspect to the Snake Road experience; when you meet someone, there is always discussion of the species each party has seen, exclamations over each party’s sightings, or commiseration if no one has seen anything at all. If a snake is in a particularly interesting situation and is not moving, the news travels along this informational highway like electricity along a wire. Everyone helps everyone else out – as long as a given person seems trustworthy and snake-friendly.
This is how we found out about a young cottonmouth that had spent the night in a tree snag last spring, and was coiled up in the morning chill. And this weekend, it was how we found out about a timber rattlesnake that was basking in a tree just off the road. A man and his daughter had stepped into the woods to look for something else entirely, and the young girl had noticed the viper in a nearby tree. News of the rattler made its way quickly along the road, and before long, everyone was talking about it.
We made it to the tree at the same time several other folks did, and we all spent a long time admiring the snake, photographing it, not getting too close, but just close enough. Everyone there knew the signs of agitation that would demand we quickly retreat, but the animal gave no indication of being upset. It seemed to regard the people standing around it as no different from the other trees surrounding it. Timber rattlers are fairly placid snakes, which explains why our friend remained calm amid the clicking shutters and whispered exclamations of admiration.
Sometimes, though, you can walk endlessly along the road seeing nothing at all – or at least, you don’t think you do. Halfway down the road Saturday, I was walking along, looking for snakes along the expanse of the road, when my son cried out “Mom! Stop!” And there, right in front of me, was a Cottonmouth, head perked up with interest, that had blended so well into the gravel that my gaze had passed over him. I now have the distinction of almost stepping on a venomous snake because I was too occupied with…looking for snakes.
I was wearing heavy, high hiking boots, so the danger was probably mostly on the cottonmouth’s side. After staring at me resentfully for several seconds, the snake scurried across the road, back from where it had come, perhaps to try the crossing later. I spent the rest of the day looking exactly in front of my next step. I began to wonder how many snakes our eyes simply passed over without seeing.
Last spring, we saw eight snakes in one day and four during the next half-day. This weekend, the weather was cooler, and we saw only four on Saturday and two on Sunday (the latter being a baby DeKay’s Brown Snake, a species we’ve never seen before). That’s nothing like the estimates I’ve heard along the road of people seeing up to forty snakes a day, but it’s more than we would see walking along any other road. That, along with the cave salamanders a couple of teenage boys showed us, and innumerable frogs, made for a great weekend. It’s difficult to plan a trip to coincide with the best time for maximum snake-spotting; I suspect it’s too much a matter of immediate weather patterns to plan ahead. Perhaps next spring we’ll have more data.
I started writing A Robin’s Tale, the short story I posted last week, when I found a nest tucked under my back deck and I started to wonder about their lives. I discovered that nest the same way “she” found her nesting spot in the story: I was standing by the maple tree looking toward my deck at a completely new angle, and there it was. The nest was still in process, so when I ran to the deck to peer at it through the crack between the boards, there were no eggs. Three days later, there were two. Two days after that, there were four. I timed my furtive spying for the brief periods she was off the nest – usually just after five in the afternoon, for about fifteen minutes. I made it snappy every time, so I wouldn’t stress her out.
One fine and exciting day, a naked and yawping hatchling appeared when I took my quick and sly peek between the deck boards. The next day there were two. I waited, and waited, and waited, but the other two eggs never hatched. After a week or so, one of the two duds disappeared – probably pushed out of the nest by mom – but I could never find it beneath. The other dud stayed in the nest.
Once the babies hatched, mom was flying everywhere all the time, constantly bringing back food for those yawning mouths. Nature created robin hatchlings perfectly; I mean, they’re just huge, blindingly yellow mouths attached to a lump of undifferentiated flesh. Even the dimmest bird parent couldn’t fail to miss that target.
I did engage in a tiny bit of maternal anthropomorphism during this process. One night, when a serious storm was gathering, I gently placed the lid of a large plastic tub over the boards, so no water would drip through the cracks and onto the nestlings. (Mom was spending nights off the nest now to deter predators.) My husband noted, apropos of nothing of course, that robin babies have successfully weathered storms on the nest for millennia. Not under my deck, they haven’t, I replied, perhaps a little crisply. The nestlings were dry the next morning. Ahem.
As the babies’ feathers came in, I started to make plans based on my reading, just in case one of them fell out of the nest prematurely. The parents will still attend to fallen hatchlings that can’t quite fly yet, but it’s still dangerous for the baby. I kept close watch on my dog, Thomas, to make sure he didn’t venture toward the area on his morning sojourns, and mentally began planning how to fence in a fallen baby in a way that would protect it from predators, but still allow the parents to care for it. My husband bit his tongue this time, wisely saying nothing about the course of nature or centuries of fallen nestlings.
In the end, none of that came to pass. I checked on the babies one morning, and they had gotten so large they looked like they were about to bust the nest to pieces. And that was with just two of them. I can only imagine how cramped it would have been had the third and fourth eggs hatched. (That there were only two of them may explain why neither ever fell from the nest.)
A couple of hours after I checked on them, I went outside to do something and the nest was eerily quiet. I peered in one last time. The nest was empty, as abruptly as it was filled. No parents, no babies. Just the one dud egg, looking a bit rotten and worn.
And I admit it; I was pouty and sad for about half a day. (My son is almost sixteen, and it did occur to me that the universe was providing me with a trial run for dealing with my own rapidly emptying nest.) There was no sign of them for about two days, and I was wondering where they had gone. Then one day in late afternoon I saw them, hanging out with their dad. (After fledging, dad takes over kid care while mom goes and starts a second, or even a third, nest.) It appears that they moved to a huge bush that straddles my property line that birds seem to love.
Only about 25% of robin babies make it through their first year. I still see groups of at least three robins hunting worms in the yard, so I can’t be sure if both of them made it, but I’m reasonably certain at least one of them did. I have no idea if mom has made another nest, or where.
I hope they both survive and learn the ways of robins this summer, before joining the great flocks of their kind come winter. And I hope that maybe one of them will return to make another nest. We do have rain protection here, after all.
She flew into the yard for the first time on a Tuesday afternoon, drawn by a clear, crisp song. The stiff coldness of the air had broken, leaving the world feeling like a refrigerator that had been left open. The ever-lengthening days were pleasant enough, but nights on her favorite branch still required her to puff her belly feathers to warm her feet.
She landed on a rock to listen and look. The territory was appealing. A stream bisected a long expanse of grassland that must be filled with worms; beyond it were trees of many varying sizes, and a large brush pile of useful material. There was a wooden platform north of the creek, on which other birds would light from time to time – a pair of doves, two blue jays, four or five cardinals, and a tiny ruby-throated hummingbird. Though there were several dogs in the area, she saw no cats. There were no doubt hawks lurking about, but bluejays would usually chase them off if they flew too close. Blue jays could be miserable tormentors, known for plucking baby robins from the nest for no reason other than reducing the competition. But as long as the jays left her alone and focused exclusively on the hawks, their presence could be a benefit.
This was a gamble, of course. But her life thus far had taught her that every proposition involved at least one big risk, one giant leap of faith. The trick was deciding which leap to make.
The gentleman who’d claimed the territory was sufficiently attractive as well. A competent musician, his was the song that had called her from the sky as she made her persistent way north. He was perched on the grayish-white bark of a broad sycamore branch, thoroughly involved in his song. She evaluated him carefully. His head was an even, dark charcoal grey, and his perfectly rounded chest was a rich auburn. She listened for a few more moments, and considered the whole.
This would do nicely.
She could hear the worms.
She stood with the gentleman in a large square of leaf litter, listening to them move in the new soil. One golden day the previous autumn, the gentleman had watched from a maple branch as two humans dumped dead leaves inside a perfectly bounded thirty-by-thirty foot patch of earth. Humans were always doing such things, moving about here and there, tailed by a big oaf of a dog, and he hadn’t bothered to wonder what they were doing. But when the ground began to thaw the following spring, more worms than he’d ever heard in one place began to move under the decomposed leaf litter.
He showed her the spot soon after she arrived. They both stood, mesmerized, listening to the worms chewing their way through the soil: a birdly dinner bell. To them, it sounded like what a person might hear when human feet were crunching on gravel. Unable to restrain herself, she ran to a spot where the sound was loudest, brushed aside the leaf litter with her beak, and yanked an earthworm from the ground.
And so they began to run, each in the direction of a sound, to stop, listen, and strike: run, freeze, listen, strike, pull, gobble.
Down the hatch. Repeat.
Brunch that day was delicious.
As the days gathered, she began to feel restless, the way one feels when it’s past time to accomplish a task, but the resources to do it aren’t available. There was plenty of food; that wasn’t the problem. There was just something missing. She occupied her time flying from branch to branch, landing on shed roofs and under piles of brush, on the rock bridge over the stream, and in the Y of the sycamore tree. Over the course of the days, she began to know the place. There was a small pile of dead ornamental grass on the slope north of the stream, and more twigs than could ever be exhausted in the brush pile. But nothing to bind it all together, which somehow she knew it needed to be.
Some assembly was required, it seemed. But with what?
She was perched on a sugar maple branch one gloomy late morning, preening her feathers, when she heard it – the terrifying, shrill call of a hawk. She looked around for somewhere, anywhere, to go. In the space of a single second, her eye was drawn from the maple at a new angle toward a railing underneath the big wooden platform. Instinct lifted her wings before she even knew where she was going. No sooner had she landed safely on the railing than an unholy scream charged the air. Two blue blurs zoomed past her like compact avian superheroes, zipping toward the sycamore where the Cooper’s hawk had landed. She peered out from her newfound alcove to watch the scene unfold.
At first, the hawk pretended to ignore the jays as they fluttered and swooped at the much larger bird, beating their wings furiously and disturbing its peace, like a cloud of stable flies might harass a horse. At first, the hawk hopped in place a little, hoping to dislodge them. When that failed, the bird stretched out its beautifully mottled, almost striped wings, as if to remind the jays who was the bigger, stronger character. But the jays were relentless, and not intimidated. At length the hawk, wearing an expression of the utmost weary annoyance, lifted its massive wings and flew north from the sycamore, leaving an audible woosh, woosh, woosh in its wake. Unsatisfied with this concession, the jays took off and tailed the hawk until it was safely out of the territory, before zooming back triumphantly.
When not alarmed, blue jays are slow fliers, and hawks can easily pluck them from mid-air. These birds were simply unwilling to tolerate that particular threat in the yard. On that day, no matter the jays’ otherwise antisocial tendencies, the enemy of her enemy had been her friend.
Today, there had been a net under her leap of faith.
After the hawk was gone, she took a moment to survey her surroundings. She had landed on a broad wood beam with plenty of space. Filtered sunlight shone through the narrow space between the boards above her head. The space was so well sheltered that she could feel none of the breeze that whistled through the trees across the stream. But most importantly, she had never noticed this space before. And if she hadn’t noticed it before, it was unlikely the jays had either. And no hawk would fit into this small area.
She had a place.
In the middle of the night, her favorite sleeping branch began to sway alarmingly, first a little bit, then constantly and more dramatically. This branch, ordinarily well protected from the elements, was now moving back and forth and up and down in a hard, constant wind. With a brief flap of her wings, she moved closer to the trunk, hoping to find a more stable perch. Raindrops began to pelt the leaf cover above; one, then two, then ten, then a hundred all at once. A loud crack of thunder sounded in the distance. She snuggled closer to the trunk and fell back asleep to the steady sound of the rain.
Morning arrived to reveal that she now had everything required to build her nursery. Flying out from the sugar maple in the pre-dawn gray, she saw the creek running vigorously, perhaps even too much for the big oaf dog to jump over. On the walls of the creek she found her last ingredient: a coating of thick, brown mud. Meanwhile, earthworms were everywhere, having chosen the rainy morning to make the trip to new territory, unburdened by worries of death from dehydration. She plucked a couple of them from the grass for breakfast, and was on her way.
The gentleman brought her twigs and grasses – in the end, exactly 354 pieces of dried grass and twigs, and one large tuft of tail fur from the big oaf dog – while she patiently and diligently carried beakful after beakful of mud back to the nook where she’d hidden from the hawk. After applying each pat of mud to the carefully arranged grasses, she hopped into the bowl of the nest and tamped it all down with her feet and breast. In between mud collecting trips, she added a piece of plastic bag floating down the swollen creek, and later on the afternoon of the second day, several of the long ornamental grasses from the north slope. These dangled two feet from the base of the completed nest, giving it a Rapunzel-like quality. On the morning of the third day, she and the gentleman perched on the railing, considering their work. It was finished.
Though she didn’t know it, a story had been brewing deep in the center of herself as she’d gone about her nest-building. Underneath her reddish feathers and beyond her skin, under layers of muscle and fat, lay an organ with the graceful and improbable shape of a cluster of grapes. One of the grape-like objects had become much larger than the others, and that oddball grape grew bigger and bigger, until one day, after a long breakfast in the earthworm field, it popped off the bunch. Then, like an errant child in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it fell down a chute. As the yolk worked its way through her oviduct, her body released a shower of substances on it – first watery albumens, and then, further down, some calcium compounds to wrap it all up in a neat, self-contained package. These shell-forming substances were tinged with a lovely blue pigment called biliverdin – the same stuff that would give a human a queasily greenish bruise, but in her case, formed the color known as robin’s egg blue.
Thus formed, the egg continued its travels until, immediately before emergence, it turned 180 degrees on its horizontal axis, and presented itself blunt end first.
And so she found herself, one mid-morning, perched on the edge of her long-awaited nest, staring down at a single, perfect blue egg. She had done this. She felt a curious sort of avian satisfaction; this was good.
And yet, even as she beheld the egg, another of the grapes was growing inside her.
She was going to need more worms.
All in all, she created four blue eggs. As she developed her daily routine –a pre-dawn breakfast in the worm field, then back to the nest for a day of egg-laying – she began to shed the downy feathers on her chest, just under her tummy feathers. By the time she had produced those four perfect eggs – and not a moment before – she settled into the nest and pressed her nearly bare belly against them, transferring just enough of her one-hundred-and-four degrees of body heat to her brood-to-be to spur them to grow within their shells. Thus warmed, the contents of the eggs began to alchemize into chicks.
She had no memory of her own hatching the year before, but she had required a full day to emerge from her shell. Her escape commenced when the oxygen supply in her egg became a bit too scarce. For many days, oxygen had been flowing from the pores of her shell into the narrow blood vessels lining its inner surface, and from there into her body. But near the end of her development, as she came to resemble less a white spot on a yolk and more a lumpy mass of incipient robin, that arrangement became insufficient to sustain her. So, like all other robins before her, she set in motion an elegantly choreographed race against time.
First, she began the process of shutting down the blood vessels that had been her lifeline from the beginning, and sucking the blood from those vessels into her body. Then, she used a small but sharp protuberance on the tip of her mandible to puncture the air sac at the blunt end of her egg, where her head lay. That accomplished, she took her real draught of air, inaugurating her young lungs and bathing her cells in energy-giving oxygen. From there, she drew the remainder of the yolk into her body from the stalk connecting it to her intestines – another energy source for the transition at hand.
After that, she had a few hours of air left in the now-punctured air sac. Time to get busy. Enabled by a newly developed muscle in her neck, she began to thrust her beak and egg tooth against the inside of the shell, repeatedly and persistently, until she met success. Once she had pecked out a hole in the shell, she took a first breath of sweet, out-of-the-egg air, eagerly sucking in an energizing oxygen rush. This was her only sensory experience of the unknown outside world to which she was steadily, faithfully hurtling herself; she would have no vision for another five days, when her eyes would pop open at last.
She continued pecking, but now she could bring her shoulders to bear against the egg as well as her feet, which were tucked into the pointed end of the shell and offered leverage. From time to time she would rest, tired from her first real exertion. But eventually, thanks to oxygen, the gifts of physiology, and her own efforts, she won her freedom at last. Her first act as a hatchling was to open wide her enormous, swaying beak and beg an unknowable someone for food. Blind, instinctive faith was rewarded when her mother landed on the edge of the nest and transferred a meal from her own narrower, adult beak to her bright yellow mouth that nature had designed to be unmistakable.
Comfortably full and exhausted, she settled into the nest next to a sibling and fell immediately asleep.
It was a good time to retreat under the wood boards. The mild spring temperatures had been fleeting, and heat had arrived. The light near the nest was dim all day, except for thin slivers of sun slipping through the cracks in the afternoon. Light was entirely absent at night, as the nook was entirely out of reach of the moon.
Every afternoon at 5, when the sunshine had reached such a golden intensity she could no longer resist its lure, she flew out from under the platform and joined the gentleman in the grass to hunt worms or forage for berries. She stayed out no longer than ten or fifteen minutes at a time. That was plenty of time to fill her belly before flying back to the nest, where she would carefully turn each egg to prevent the chick from sticking to the shell.
Every now and then during the day, the gentleman would fly into the nook to bring her a particularly tasty worm or a fat berry. This was a quiet time for both of them; in another week, if their efforts were successful, they would be flying endlessly to and fro, filling large, demanding mouths with food. After a time, the gentleman would take over caring for their fledglings, and she would start the entire process all over again. She may even complete a third brood before winter came.
She was a long way from winter now, suspended exactly between her first and second. There was enough to appreciate in a winter’s life; the security and warmth of a large flock, the trip south to find fruit, and the end of it, when, tired of berries, everyone dispersed and moved north to find worms and start new families. But she was here, now, participating in the anticipation of the season at hand, including her four blue eggs. It was a timeless rhythm, a robin’s rhythm, circular and complete.
On the morning of the thirteenth day, she took leave of the nest during the golden hour, as she did every day. When she arrived back on the railing, the egg in the northwest corner of the nest bore a nearly imperceptible crack. She nestled back onto the eggs, unaware of the events unfolding beneath her. An hour later, though she couldn’t see it, just the barest tip of an egg tooth protruded from the split shell.
As she sat there on the cusp of success, the golden light dimmed and the clouds gathered. And the crack in the shell grew wider still.
The sky darkened, and the distant call of a hawk intermingled with a low rumble of thunder. Wind began stir the grass on the worm fields.
Beneath her, a piece of shell split suddenly and irretrievably from its larger whole, leaving a tiny, wet head in its place.
It was going to be a long night.
In the course of coming up with this story I read the articles here, here, and here. I also read this amazing book excerpt here. For the principle that robins use their hearing to hunt instead of just their vision, I read this study. (I understand this is one study, but it sure is an interesting one.)
Robins are cool.
My young neighbor is fond of playing in the narrow seasonal creek that bisects my property and his parents’. At any given time of day I might look out from my writing perch in my sunroom and see him crouched over, examining a dead fish, fistful of mud, or any number of objects from the creek that make the mother in me want to insist that he wash his hands immediately.
However, my inner kid is apparently as strong as my inner mom, because I can do nothing but approve of this behavior — so much that last week I found myself by the creek with him, along with my husband and son, after he’d found two baby snapping turtle hatchlings.
I have to admit I was very impressed with this find. I went to work on documenting it immediately, before encouraging him to release his new friends back into the wild to enjoy their natural lives. And as I edited the photos, I realized that the creek sessions that have been unfolding beyond my writing perch are live-action ecstatic experiences of childhood.
Ecstatic childhood memory is a concept I’ve been fixated on since I first encountered it several years ago in a piece by environmental psychologist Louise Chawla. The idea is this: children lose themselves in particular places in the natural world, either places their families literally own or the children can feel some kind of ownership of, such as public lands. And as they play, fondling dead fish and whatnot, their child’s sense of wonder starts to wire memories into their brains — ecstatic memories. Chawla characterizes these ecstatic memories as “radioactive jewels” that continue to fuel creativity for the rest of their lives.
It’s lovely to get to watch it happening just beyond my window.
The ducklings have things to say.
My favorite nature writers are the ones who ground themselves in the rational, but stay open to the mystical. Too much rationality and all you’re reading is dry, scientific observation. Too little and you’re reading overwrought nonsense. Terry Masear hits the sweet spot in her memoir Fastest Things on Wings: Rescuing Hummingbirds in Hollywood, about her experiences as a hummingbird rehabilitator in Beverly Hills. (The book was published in 2015; thus its qualification for my “late to the party” designation.) I loved this book – really loved it, so much that I read all but the two final chapters last fall, and simply set it aside because I couldn’t bear for it to end. This week, with the hummingbirds due back in less than a month, I decided to read the whole book again. And this time, I would face the truth that all good things must come to an end, and finish it.
Masear began her adventures in hummingbird rehab in the spring of 2003, when her Abyssinian cat walked into her house one morning and gifted her with a nestling, depositing the unharmed baby gently on the floor in front of her. After calling around, Masear located Jean, a longtime hummingbird rehabilitator who would become her mentor and colleague, and brought the infant bird to her.
The following spring, fate called again. Late to teach a morning class at UCLA, Masear stepped out in a downpour on the way to her car, only to catch sight of a hummingbird chick dangling by a single claw from his wind-destroyed nest in a nearby ficus tree. Back to Jean’s she went, baby in tow.
This time, the hook stayed in. Masear began working with the hummingbirds herself, pausing her teaching each summer to focus exclusively on hummingbird rescue. Fastest Things on Wings loosely follows the 2008 hummingbird rehab season, and features two particular hummingbirds, Gabriel and Pepper – the former a familiar-looking male who collided with a limousine during a courtship flight display, and the latter a wounded female who was found in a chafing dish during an outdoor luncheon.
The narrative is not linear, and jumps back and forth in time, as one rehab experience calls to mind another from the past. But it works, and if you can hang on as the story darts about like, well, a hummingbird, you will absorb more information about the species than you ever imagined, as Masear brings the reader into a kind of fascinated intimacy with the tiny birds.
We learn about hummingbirds’ outsized intelligence, and their astonishing memory, both geographic and temporal – they’re known to return to the same spot, within feet, on the same date every year – as well as the hummies’ astonishing physical abilities. Masear shares the stunning feats of migration achieved by hummingbirds, including the ruby-throated’s all-at-once, eighteen hour trip across the Gulf of Mexico twice a year, and some rufous hummingbirds’ seven-thousand-mile round trip from Central America to their breeding grounds in Alaska, and back again.
But it’s the interplay between the birds and people that takes the story to its deepest places. Human beings are both a blessing and a curse to hummingbirds; their populations have skyrocketed thanks to human adoration, resulting in countless backyard sugar feeders, and even gardens planted solely to attract hummingbirds. But at the same time, the human world is gravely hazardous to the tiny creatures. Masear recounts stories of hummingbirds trapped in houses with skylights, stranded in swimming pools, and caught under windshield wipers.
Even when people try to help hummingbirds, they often fail them unintentionally, through simple ignorance. Dirty feeders can cause agonizing deaths by fungal infection; delicate claws can be ripped out by the loops in the terry-cloth towels people too often use to pick up an injured bird; rescue birds fed the wrong thing – or the right thing for too long – can die easily.
Beyond that, the same human love that has enabled the growth of hummingbird populations can be hazardous when taken to an extreme; indeed, Masear notes that managing the emotions of the people who call her is an enormous, and taxing, part of her job. Callers are routinely hysterical and must be calmed down, especially if they share some blame for the hummingbird’s predicament.
Worse still are the people whose emotions cannot be managed, like the social worker who, abandoned by her own mother, became convinced that the female hummingbird who nested in one of her trees was “not a responsible mother.” The caller refused to be persuaded by Masear’s patient lecture outlining a hummingbird mother’s modus operandi: leave the nest when the chicks are a few days old to deter predators, and return every half hour to feed the growing nestlings. Insisting that she knew better than Masear, and no doubt projecting her own trauma onto the baby birds in her yard, the woman cut the nest for no reason, and delivered the chicks to rehab. Her refusal to manage her own emotional life thus deprived an adult hummingbird of her chicks and added unnecessarily to Masear’s already crushing workload in the middle of rehab season.
Masear’s struggles with the human element are a constant in her journey as a rehabilitator, particularly the public’s decidedly non-scientific view of her charges. In one breath she marvels at how everyone seems to think hummingbirds are messengers from their dead relatives, but then acknowledges the serendipity and mystery of her own introduction to the birds. But to Masear’s credit, though she is open to the unanswerable, she never wavers from the view that the observable, quantifiable hummingbird universe offers plenty of wonder on its own. There is no need to turn them into spiritual messengers, or anything other than what they are.
In the third chapter from the end, Masear finally works out the human obsession with hummingbirds: they are, she realizes after an agonizing discussion with a distraught caller, a mirror for our own mortality and vulnerability. “Their deaths,” she writes, “as small and insignificant as they seem, have the power to drive the hard truth of our own mortality straight home. Because in the end, as much as we work to deny it, our fundamental condition is not so different from theirs.”
Fastest Things on Wings isn’t just a beautifully, expansively, and humorously written memoir, though it is certainly that; it’s a book that feels necessary to anyone who loves hummingbirds and undertakes to feed or observe them. As Masear explains in the book, hummingbirds are increasingly a primary player in the world of urban nature. Having drawn them in, we ought to learn as much about them as we can in order to minimize the risks we pose to them. Fortunately, Fastest Things on Wings is a delightful and absorbing way to gain that education.