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Chet Baker, Attention-Seeker

Tuesday, May 31, 2011


As I watch Mether garden I think about how to divert her. She is very focused when she is gardening.

All she seems to think about is where to bury this plant, and where to bury that plant. To a certain extent I understand that; it is like when I have a bikkit I need to bury and I trot around the house  and yard looking for just the right place to put it. Mether does that, too.

 Phoebe tries to help. She points out bunnehs I can chase. There are a lot of them and my work is never done.

But usually I hang around watching Mether work. Suddenly it comes to me! One way to get a gardener's attention is to mess with their stuff! Sometimes I drag her buckets around.

But other times I get right up in her face. So when Mether comes up the sidewalk dragging a heavy bag of potting soil I spring into action!

I grab the bag and shake it! Potting soil flies everywhere!

That works. She laughs and dares me to do it again.  So I do! I shake the bag and growl and tear it! I spill the soil! She cannot pot plants if she has no soil! Ha ha ha ha ha!

She says I am a Very Naughty Terrier and I need a Big Spanking! Those are just the words I was hoping to hear!

They send me into a Full Google Run!

and when I am done running and she is done laughing she goes right back to gardening. Obsessed.

 I am underwhelmed, but I stay close by for the next opportunity to distract her. Which leads me to my second ploy: telling her I need to be checked for ticks. Then she will run her hands over me, which I adore.

When I have been checked for ticks, I deploy my third tactic:  looking disgruntled, but at the same time sweetly kissable. I stand between her and what she is trying to do.

That one always works, because I always look sweetly kissable, no matter how disgruntled I am. 

But notice she is still carrying a plant.

All photos in this post by my sister Phoebe Linnea Thompson. 

Chet Baker's Lament

Sunday, May 29, 2011


A Boston terrier needs someone to play with. Boys like my brother Liam are good for this. They understand. They usually have balls with them.

The play should be active and raucous and rough. Liam bounces my tennis ball hard on the concrete and I leap after it!

and I snatch it away from him if I can. I catch a lot of sweet air when I leap. 

Boston terriers need to play a lot. I have just interrupted the writing of this post to bring my ropus to Mether. She tugs and we growl at each other ferociously and she kisses me on the nose when she pulls me in, which breaks the mood a little bit. I like it when she tries to grab my front paws. I growl very loud then! I sound like a wookie from Star Wars!

Mether has this greenhouse out back she calls the Garden Pod. And this is where the problem starts. She gets all antsy and has to empty it out when the sun gets warm enough to bake in. I like to bake on the sidewalk or the deck in the sun. I believe that is why they call me Chet Baker.

So she gets obsessed with gardening in early May and it goes right through the whole month.

Everywhere she goes she carries a plant.

The back of her car is lined with plastic seed sacks, the kind I love to shake! and it is usually full of plants. Just when I think she is winding down she goes and gets some more plants.

Plants, plants, plants...margeurite

and peach verbena

and cuphea in hanging baskets for the hummingbirds (another thing she is obsessed with)

and fancy geraniums like Frank Headley (ditto, obsessed)

which she grows herself all winter in the Pod which has a nice heater I can stand by while she dithers and clips and repots plants

plants, plants, plants, plants, all of them she grows all winter long

and then she must decide where they all will go--in baskets and planters, because these are the kind of plants that are candy to bunnehs, bunnehs I chase! Bunnehs I think about all the time!

but I am not obsessed about bunnehs the way she is about her plants.

What I am obsessed about is getting enough attention from Mether. I have sat waiting for attention for so long I have worn the hair off the tip of my little screw-tail. Phoebe says it looks like a tick now and is gross. She says I need a tail hair extension. Mether thinks the naked tip of my tail is cute, which is why I love Mether so much.

In the next post I will share my secrets for getting attention.

Most photos in this post by Phoebe Linnea Thompson. Thank you, Sister, for helping me tell my story.

Making the Baby Bird Rounds

Thursday, May 26, 2011

I had 21 bluebirds and 15 Carolina chickadees to keep alive, in weather like this: 48 degrees and raining nonstop. 

I hand-fed 18 of the bluebirds four times that day (four were too old to feed; I risked causing premature fledging), and after feeding them I left bug omelet on the roofs of their boxes and those of the chickadees, and to a bird each parent fed that stuff to its babies as soon as I was gone. The older babies got fed--I just crept up and put some live mealworms mixed with bug omelet on top of their box and the parents did the rest.

I'd just get back from rounds (some of the boxes are about five miles away from my house) and it would be time to cook up another couple of omelets and head out again. I was thankful for the bluebirds who'd gape for me right off the bat, like this little shaver. Oh, they were hungry!

                                                         photo by Liam Thompson

The Carolina chickadees were tricky. They're smarter than bluebirds, and they won't gape for just anybody who whistles at them the way young bluebirds will, so I had to leave food for the parents on their box roofs. It worked. The parents fed it to them.

I found one chickadee baby choking down an enormous green caterpillar. It was swallowing it just like a snake, lying on its belly, working that thing down its gullet, tossing its head back and forth as it forced the oversized item down. Amazing. You can see its tiny wings thrown out for leverage. There are nine in this nest. Thereby hangs another story for another time. Yes, that's my doing, too. Update: All nine of the chicks in the photo below are fledging as of 11 AM Thursday, May 26! Lots of chickadee-dee-deeing going on in the backyard right now, clown-lipped babies popping their heads out of the hole...what joy!

In any clutch, I find the runt (see it at the bottom) usually begs the most vigorously. I love runts.  They know they have some catching up to do. These are bluebirds, about Day 6.

 Here's a nest of 11-day-old bluebirds with their bug omelet. I use a bent dentist's forceps for feeding.  I had to force-feed about half the bluebirds since they wouldn't gape. The older they are, the less likely they are to gape, even if they're starving. They're suspicious of this big colorful ape with a forceps.

The tree swallows sat moping, hungry in the rain, but they ignored both bug omelet and live mealworms placed on their box tops. They'd just step aside as a mealworm would crawl by. Aerial insectivores are very tough to help, being hard-wired to take their food only on the wing.

Hang in there, little swallow. The rain will stop, sometime.

Luckily this pair had only eggs yet laid. Five, and they kept them warm through the cold spell.

It was a heck of a day. I gave up on accomplishing anything but pulling these baby birds through. I just stayed in my rain suit and tromped from box to box.

photo by Liam Thompson

But the rewards were immense--live, warm baby bluebirds and chickadees, who were 100% stronger and healthier at the end of that long, long day than they were at its start. They'd all have died if I hadn't made the effort, and knowing that made it all worthwhile.

photo by Liam Thompson

My photographer was pleased, too.

monkeycam photo by Liam Thompson

Saving Baby Birds

Tuesday, May 24, 2011


 I remember a stranger at college coming up and introducing himself, saying that he knew me because someone had told him to look out for an “unusual-looking woman on roller skates.” After thinking about whether I like that description for oh, thirty years, I have embraced it. Unusual works for me. There are a couple of ways in which I am unusual, which readers of this blog will probably readily identify. I can see you there, wagging your hands wildly. “I know! I know!”  No, it’s not being able to identify any kind of animal poop, though that certainly plays a part in my makeup. Here, it’s about feeling unusually responsible for birds.

 I have this trail of bluebird nest boxes, about 25 or so, that I check once a week from April through August. And pretty much every year there is a period when, if I didn’t do something unusual, birds in those boxes would die. We’ve just made it through such a time, in this thoroughly crappy, cold, rainy spring—three days of steady rain and fog, when the mercury barely inched above 50 degrees. Arrrrghh. And baby bluebirds and Carolina chickadees in many of my boxes, slowly starving.

 I went out the afternoon of May 17 to check my boxes. It had been raining and cold for two days straight, temperatures barely inching into the 50's. Opening boxes in weather like that is the opposite of Christmas morning. 
Sure enough, the first box I opened held five perfect, perfectly cold and dead baby bluebirds. My stomach turned into a rock. I was too late to save them.

When it's cold and rainy, the parent birds can't find enough food for their young, or even for themselves. Sometimes the parents get soaked to the skin and can hardly fly. Then their own survival is in question. So they wisely give up and just save themselves. They'll quit incubating near-term eggs; they'll quit feeding starving young. I've lost two clutches of near-term bluebird eggs from abandonment this spring. The birds couldn't find enough to eat to sustain themselves while sitting, and they knew they'd never be able to feed their babies when they hatched. And this is the latest spring on record for bluebird nesting. They waited and waited to lay this year. They knew it was going to be a real bummer of a spring, long before we did.

Ironically, the older the baby birds are when it hits, the more likely they are to succumb to cold and rain. Once baby birds are feathered, the female won't brood them any more, and they get chilled a lot faster than naked young birds who are still being sat upon. Like these in our driveway box, who were very hungry, but still toasty warm:

After that first nasty shock, I found all the other bluebirds and Carolina chickadees in my boxes still warm and clinging to life. They were weak and hungry, but they were alive.

And I had the answer, kept warm in an insulated container, with me. I call it Bug Omelet.

It's scrambled egg with...additions.

Which include dried fly (Musca domestica) larvae (available from Oregon Feeder Insects)

and ground, baked eggshells.

 You fold this all together and fry 'er up in a little butter. Mmmm, nauseating.

But Bug Omelet is superfood for starving baby birds. I have wildlife rehabilitator Astrid MacLeod to thank for this wonderful recipe. I love it because I can keep the dried fly larvae in a big ol’ jar in the cupboard and I always have eggs and eggshell on hand, so I’m ready to feed starving baby birds at the drop of a hat.

 I keep it right next to the eye of newt and toe of frog.


Next: Come with me on my bird-saving rounds.

Remembering the Oak

Sunday, May 22, 2011


I counted the cut end--103 rings. Humbling, awe-inspiring. The red oak was here in 1908, four years before my Dad was born.

And now, because there are cameras on the bus, and dogs are not allowed to board, Chet uses her lower trunk as a place to watch and make sure the Caped One gets off to school all right.

Yes, there he is, waving to his mom and doggeh.

See you tonight, little brother.

And in the churned-up soil beneath her rotten roots, I found a Liberty head dime, dated 1903, minted in Pittsburgh, with all its scarring worth only about $1.80, but like the red oak, priceless to me.

I'm left alone with the old coin, a tree's carcass and the memories.

This is how I will remember her, guardian of our driveway, stately landmark of our ridge road. I'll remember her shading a bluebird box, sheltering families of birds, lizards, insects, mammals, and four humans, often as not wearing a hawk in her hair.

I'll remember how she made an ordinary spot into a destination, a meeting place

How she made it all feel like home. One tree, deeply appreciated for the 19 years we had with her. Our time together was far too short, but with ones so dearly loved, it's always that way.

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