We live downtown in a city of millions of hurried people, but there are stranger kinds of life to be found in our own back yard.
In the spring I bought cheap wooden birdhouses at a craft store to decorate a theme party and afterwards hung them in the gazebo to add a little effect to summer evenings. Summer passed without effect, since the bugs were out and it was hot. At the end of August a yellow-bellied sapsucker hopped into one of the birdhouses to check out the real estate; it was so thrilling I hung up on the person I was talking to on the phone. She disappeared completely, but the birdhouse bounced a bit while she checked its dimensions for a couple of minutes and peeked out the hole. Then she flew off. Fingers crossed she comes back for brooding.
The raccoons -- there's no point in getting rid of them and (like human babies) they're lucky they're cute. In the middle of the night they dig small, round holes in the grass to pry out grubs, then visit the small pond in the back corner to wash them before they eat. In the morning the lawn looks like a putting green for a cheap miniature golf course. Once a mother raccoon with two kits the size of Beanie Babies waddled across our front garden in broad daylight. She took one in her teeth, climbed a yew bush at my study window and stuck it to a branch as if it were a Christmas tree ornament. She did the same with the second and then hurried off. The kits stayed there all day as I worked and watched them from a foot away. The mother fetched them around five o'clock and off they went to their new nursery, probably somewhere in our roof.
Another time when I was reading in the garden a dart of movement on the stone deck turned out to be a three-inch, ruby-red salamander that must have hitchhiked in on a planter from Fiesta Gardens. It shimmied around the plants for a few minutes and disappeared.
We kept a bird feeder for a few winters to welcome sparrows, bright red cardinals (I prefer the female, actually, which is a more subtle orange), finches, and squirrels. College-age kids hired to clean the deck one spring disturbed a family of rats under the porch that, unknown to us, had moved in to eat the buffet of corn and seeds that fell below the feeder. When half-a-dozen rats scurried out into the garden a girl from the crew shrieked, ran to her car and refused to come back. She cried in the passenger seat, arms folded on her chest like a protester against the one percent. We don't have a feeder anymore and hired a pest controller, but it would be worth another family of rats to watch that drama again.
So many birds come to visit: the red-tailed hawk snacking greedily on a poor sparrow, sitting on the fence. A majestic peregrine falcon, its wings outspread as if it were the Phantom of the Opera, hopping down the roof and taking wing towards the pigeons next door.
Speaking of sparrows, they are around both summer and winter, hopping back and forth in the garden in a group as if doing committee work: evaluating the food supply or checking the fitness of the laundry exhaust for winter housing and holding a meeting to discuss their findings with cheap cheeps. They still chatter in the branches of the yew tree beside the kitchen during minus 25 degree winter weather, convening, wasting precious calories. I never find any sparrow bodies and wonder if they are incorporeal, feathered fairies.
In recent weeks it has been both uplifting and heart-breaking to observe a hardworking, distraught female robin that has built two nests for two eggs each and lost three of four fledglings. From the first hatching one was eaten by a raccoon, which left a stripped-clean feather on the porch like a used toothpick. Another died a quiet death next to the pond due to some kind of internal illness and was buried in the grey bin.
This frazzled mother then made a second nest in the crabapple tree near the front bay window, oblivious to the chaos of cars, construction and cyclists ten feet away. Me, however, she glared at whenever I peeked from inside to check on the progress of her second set of fledglings. When we returned from holiday the nest was deserted and I thought she had abandoned it because of Hydro workers digging in a corner of the garden.
But on the last day of summer I saw her under the bushes in the back, leading the last fledging of the four -- bigger than she was, bratty, insistent, following her on a worm-hunt and demanding its dinner. The fate of the other one is a mystery.
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