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Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw

Thursday, August 30, 2007

THIS POST IS NOT FOR THE SQUEAMISH. Cover it with your hand if you must, but it gets gross. Well, on the Zick grossness scale, which goes to 15, it's about a 2, but I'm well aware that my grossness scale is not calibrated normally. In fact, I offend peoples' delicate sensibilities right and left lately.

Still with me?

This morning, while chasing a blue-winged warbler, I found a lone feather on the grass of the lawn. Funny. I hadn't heard from this species for quite awhile, and had just speculated the other day that perhaps they'd moved on. It was kind of nice to find a calling card on the grass, and in another way, not so nice.** Any guesses as to whose it is?

So I'm mowing this evening, having spent the entire weekend, dawn to dark, cleaning the inside of the house. And there in the grass on the other side of the house is a whole mess of feathers from the same bird. Woo! I notice immediately that they're tousled and messed up, not perfect as they would be had they been dropped in a molt (like the first feather I found) or a preening session. They're all beat up.
Not far from the feathers is a big gutpile. Oh, yeah. Since my attention span's too short to run a quiz, and I have my doubts as to whether anyone wants to guess while gagging, I'll tell you that that's the many-chambered stomach of a cottontail rabbit. (Since I wrote this I cut the close-up of the gutpile. It appears as a reddish-brown blob in the brownish bare area to the left side of the picture. Anybody could look at that. The close-up was nice, though.)

And the feathers are from a great horned owl. From its belly, to be precise.

Rabbits, as anyone who owns one can tell you, can be tough customers. Every carnivore finds them delicious, but that doesn't make them wussies. Before this owl ate, it got kicked, hard enough to rid it of a mess of feathers and some skin. The rabbit eventually lost, but I'm sure that owl was sore this morning. Perhaps it was a juvenile; someone who knows great horned owls might be able to tell from the feathers. Perhaps it just had a bad grip on a big animal. But it's not easy being a predator, having to kill your dinner with your feet.

I ran and got Liam to show him this drama in the grass. He emerged from the house with more than a little trepidation. Poor little guy--he actually gagged.
" Ucccccch! That's so horrible!"

"Well, it was horrible for the rabbit, but that's how great horned owls have to get their dinner, honey. And as you can see, it wasn't easy for the owl, either."

"I hate nature!"

"Sweetheart, this is only a little part of nature. Nature is also flowers and butterflies and hummingbirds and trees. But carnivores have to kill what they eat, and that's natural."

"You make me feel like the whole world is made of this!"

"Of what?"


He stomped back to the house, leaving me to ponder that accusation. It's not one that gets thrown at me every day.

He'll get over it. His little boy love of all things disgusting will kick in and soon I won't be able to gross him out. And now he knows how owls eat.

Lots of Liam and Phoebe's classmates around this area raise goats or rabbits for 4H. Some raise calves or lambs. All of them have to get used to the idea that this beloved charge of theirs is going to be sold for its meat at the county fair on Labor Day Weekend. This weekend, all those goats and bunnies go, and they don't come back from where they're going. Now, other than weathering their reactions, I have no trouble showing my kids rabbit guts on the lawn, or bones in coyote scat, or a roadkill. But I'd have a whole lot of trouble letting them raise a couple of goats for slaughter. Not least because I'd fall in love with them, too. We'd have the only goats at the fair with NFS spray-painted on their sides.

We all have our thresholds, I guess.

**On why it's not so nice to have great horned owls around: The screech owls are singing like crazy on these late summer nights. The barred owls hoot and cackle, starting a little later in the fall. And great horneds eat them both, darn them. We've only had great horneds for about the last five years, and as thrilling as that basso profundo hoot can be on a January night, I do worry about the smaller owls who were here first. Ah well. Nothing to be done about that. They'll have to sort it out among themselves.

Happiness Is...

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

...being on NPR's All Things Considered again this afternoon, Wednesday, August 29 . I've got a commentary on living with mice airing right after a story on pet store rabbit sales. Both stories are in the second hour of the program, which is sometime after 5 PM Eastern. If you miss it, you can hear the file by clicking here.

And Happiness is...a new plant to love. Specifically, Hibiscus syriaca (Rose of Sharon), cultivar "Satin Blue," a Proven Winner variety new this year.

All my life, I've heard my mother grouse about how much she hates Rose of Sharon, that big, somewhat gangly flowering shrub that keeps old houses company in their dotage. I don't know why she hates them, but she does. The unkempt growth habit, sparse foliage, messiness of all the dropped flowers, maybe. Mom likes things neat and tidy. And so I've never even had them on the radar screen as something I'd grow. In a similar case of unfair bias, I had a landlady in Connecticut who over and over professed her hatred of gladioli. They reminded her of funerals, she claimed. The effect on me in that case was just the opposite; I planted two long rows of them in the garden I was ostensibly keeping for her. Hee hee. I felt the glads were getting a bad rap. Not their fault that they're used in funeral bouquets. Let's just plant a couple dozen more. And, while I was a caretaker on her capacious property, that didn't mean I couldn't assert my admittedly contrary horticultural rights and preferences, and secretly gloat about it.

So I went through life not thinking about ever growing Rose of Sharon at all, until I made my yearly pilgrimage to a neat, funky little nursery right outside Chautauqua Institution's gates. And I saw this little bitty Rose of Sharon bush in a gallon pot, with a single enormous flower of the most bewitching silken blue I'd ever seen. A deep maroon throat, a creamy white pistil and stamens. I was instantly in love. Little did it matter that we would have to juggle it around in the van for the next three days and hundreds of miles. I had to have it.

If I'm lucky, it'll grow to 8' tall and 4' wide. I'll plant it on the corner right by Liam's bedroom window, where my much-mourned blue columnar juniper expired last spring. It'll bloom in late summer, when lots of other things are tired out. And I will love it. My God! the promise in that shining bud.That first night in the van, three big fat buds got knocked off it, and I cried real tears, but I put the biggest one in water and was able to wear the full-blown blue flower behind my ear for breakfast with my whole family Sunday morning. I showed it to my mother, and she exclaimed about what a pretty color it was. Maybe she's forgotten that she's always hated Rose of Sharon. I sure have.

An Audience with the Pup

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

If the wedding was fun, the reception was even better. I don't have many pictures because we were too busy dancing. There aren't many occasions when I get to dance with my brother and sister, nieces and nephews, kids and husband, and fetch wine for my mom. I don't often get to see my nephew Eric chatting Liam up. They get along like a house afire, and can always be found off in a corner somewhere, yakking about guy matters. The morning after, we had breakfast at the historic Hotel Utica. At this point, we're 12 hours from home, and hoping to hit the road early enough to pull into the driveway by about 11 p.m. Liam got to show off his brand new mad two-wheeler skilz for the whole clan. He'd just pulled the trigger on that the afternoon before, with a lot of help from BOTB. He's a cautious little thing, and doesn't like to try anything new until he's sure he's got it perfect. Waited until he was 21 months old to walk, then just stood up and walked. Pretty much the same story for biking. Cousin Evan looks like he's about ready to leap out and catch wobbly Liam. Phoebe's praying he won't crash in front of everyone. It was a cool morning, and we parked in the shade of the building. Chet Baker waited in the car for his Big Moment, the one we'd promised him the entire trip. He'd get to meet my whole family. It wasn't quite like showing everybody your new baby, but it was a lot of fun, anyway. My lucky niece Karen got that gig. Here's Will, mangeing on one of Gramma Barb's famous cinnamon scones (he had to fight my kids for it).Doesn't look a thing like his momma, does he? A total cutie.
Will was delighted with Baker, almost as delighted as Phoebe was to present her precious pup. He wanted to see if Chet could spin around if given a push (something all Will's adult admirers are happy to do for him).Chet is sending me a telepathic message at this point. Mether! Come in, Mether. What am I supposed to be doing here?Baker's theme when close to a baby's face: Wash it. Wash it good.

Sister Nancy remarks on how much Baker's calmed down since he was a puppy. They look good together. Yes, I am calm, but you will notice that I am just as cute as I was then. I still retain my little white glove and my slightly spotty tuxedo shirt.Chet Baker went into cute doggie overdrive when my nephew Eric finally got hold of him. Unbeknownst to me, Eric's been suffering from Boston terrier acquisitive disorder for a couple of years. I think Chet might have something to do with that.Eric's fiance, Tera, wasn't so sure about Eric's obsession at first, until her personal Audience with the Pup. She had always had this notion, not having met one, that Boston terriers were kind of big, drooly, and muscle-bound, and was pleasantly surprised to find that Chet was none of those. Why, he's a little American gentleman! Look at that cute little face! And he's so playful!I will take this leash from you and chew it to shreds, because although I am cute, I am also very bad sometimes. Rrrrrrrrrrr! Umph! Umph! I know exactly what I am supposed to be doing in this situation. I am going to pour on the cuteness now, and help this poor young couple with their affliction. Everyone needs a Boston terrier, because there can't be too much love or too many kisses in this sad old world.

Anyone afflicted with a severe case of Boston terrier acquistive disorder after reading this post should give me a holla. By a series of flukes, Chet Baker's breeder has two gorgeous male pups ready and looking for homes--one ten weeks, one ten months, both sweet and adorable.

Snapshots from a Wedding

Monday, August 27, 2007

I like weddings. I especially like weddings of people I love, like that of my niece Courtney. I wouldn't want to be a wedding photographer, but I love taking grab shots at weddings, just little side details that tell a story, just as much as do those lineups of each side's family. Maybe more.
Everything is on Courtney's face here as she walks down the aisle on Dad's arm. Grace, trepidation, excitement, anticipation, an almost unbearable tension, emotion at seeing all these people she loves...oh, how beautiful.

The obligatory hopelessly adorable tiny tot with flowers...a collective sigh from the she made of porcelain? A perfect reminder of one of the reasons we get married.
Courtney and Tyler listen to the male choir singing an adaptation of the 23rd Psalm by Bobby McFerrin.Aftermath: the bride and bridesmaids taking off across the lawn for pictures. Note that they're carrying their shoeswhich were so fabulously stylish as to be painful, and thus were left in an unceremonious heap right on the church steps immediately after the ceremony...everyone was talking about those shoes. Bill said, "Now, there's a name for pumps like that. You know, with the stiletto heel. Somebody help me?" Such a wag.
A glimpse of faeries, male and female, out on the lawn...stepdancing?
a bit closer...we could be in Ireland. Prince Liam and Princess Phoebe, Stars of the County Down. Allemande!
There were lots of irreverant little touches about this wedding that I enjoyed. No big fancy cake. A tiered "cake" composed of Red Velvet Cupcakes, Courtney's favorite from way back. Yeah.
Christy, sister of the bride, and dad Larry.
Now. Who didn't get the memo about dressing in solid color pastels? Why, it's Wilma Flintstone! or is it Jane of the Jungle? Eee! Eee! Eee! Is this going to be a dress I regret in 20 years?me and my sisters and mom--Barbara, Micky, mother Ida, Zick, Nancy (mother of the bride)Take a bow, Nan! Micky is a great writer and very funny. Nancy is a fabulous librarian and probably the nicest person I know.Must be a bird on top of the church steeple. Photo by BOTB.

My cool brother Bob with my cool sister Barbara. She's a gourmet cook and there's nothing she can't do. Bob rides his bicycle 13 miles to work and back every day, rain or shine. He teaches engineering and knows all about alternative energy. Modern male bonding: Bill of the Birds watches a Will Ferrell video on nephew Eric's new iPhone. Bill has been a model of restraint, waiting for the second generation iPhone, which will be out in oh, about forty seconds from now. When we're around Eric we hit YouTube and pretty much laugh the whole time.
Ida to Barbara: Smell my roses. Don't they smell good? So now you know where I get it.
There was an imp on the church steps. Jane of the Jungle's offspring, perhaps? Oh, I love weddings. Thanks for having one, Courtney and Tyler. It was lovely.

Releasing Magic

Sunday, August 26, 2007

I was going to try to hang on to Magic until Sherri got back from a trip on Monday, August 20. But Saturday the 18th dawned bright and clear as a bell, in the 60's, dewy, and Magic was a changed bird. Instead of loafing around and going to the feeder and loafing around some more, he was supercharged. I brought the feeder out around 7 AM and he was so hungry he hung before it, gaping, before he remembered to insert his bill and lap up some nectar. When his crop was full he commenced circling the ceiling of the tent, something he hadn't done before. He circled like a trapped thing, like a hummingbird that had blundered in and couldn't find its way out.I couldn't stand it.

Why was I keeping this wild bird, who knew all he needed to know to survive?
What was best for him? Keeping him until it was convenient for us, or opening the tent to the wide blue heavens?
I didn't have to call Sherri to know the answer. She'd want me to release him when the time was right. And that time was 10:30 AM, August 18, 2007.
And so I did, zipped the tent open and hung the feeder in the doorway.
It took Magic a little while to get the concept, or perhaps build up the courage to explore. I have to say, it was a pretty nice suite. Kind of Romanesque. But after noting the clear air just beyond his feeder, he simply zipped out, hung in the air for a moment, poked his bill into a coneflower, and fetched up momentarily in a birch tree. He hooked around the corner of the tent and was gone, just like that. No goodbyes.
I hung his feeder up in the birch where I'd last seen him, and dismantled the tent. I watched for him all day long. Finally, at 3:30 and again at 7:10 PM, I saw him at the sugar water feeder by the front door. He was nervous but competent, shouldering his way into the crowd to feed.
I haven't seen him since.
Usually, I get an opportunity to follow my wild babies in the days and weeks after release. But Magic had had enough of me and my tent and sink bath and hose spraying and protein formula. He was ready for the world, and like an arrow shot from a bow, he left.
I know there are enough hummingbird flowers here for him to live on. More than enough.

Can you find him? He's in tall corn.Godspeed, little ship.

A Feast of Flowers, a Macaw's Birthday

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Of all the things Magic enjoyed while he was a guest in my fledging tent, it was the daily influx of fresh-cut flowers. I had to come into the tent with camera locked and loaded, because the minute I put that vase in place, he was all over those blossoms. It was a neat opportunity to learn what he liked and how he approached each species. But then everything is an experiment for a Science Chimp, right?Agastache, or Mexican hyssop, is a plant that's come into some favor lately. I like it because even though it looks exotic and its leaves smell divine, it's a perennial, and it gets bigger and nicer every year. Hummingbirds love it. Magic found its somewhat floppy flowers a challenge, and he'd probe deep into them, bringing them from horizontal to full upright in his quest to plumb their nectar.
Lots of insects and birds enjoy the nectar of oregano. I imagine it might have a kick to it. Magic seemed interested in it, and visited repeatedly. You might not think a small, white, clustered flower like this would hold attraction for a hummingbird, but they feed on a surprising variety of different flowers. Buddleia, for instance, is something I'd always assumed was for butterflies, until I saw the extent to which my hummingbirds feed on it.
In between feeding bouts, he'd rest. It's important when housing hummingbirds to provide them with the smallest possible twigs for perching. I taped these fine birch twigs all over the tent.
Cardinalflower (Lobelia cardinalis) is a huge rubythroat favorite. Its blooming is timed to coincide with peak hummingbird abundance, and its incomparable hue is the best, truest red going in my garden. When you see a wild hummingbird with a white, powdered forehead, it's been anointed with pollen by the protruding stamens of this plant. My cardinalflower gets pollinated, boy does it, and the seed children are proof, coming up everywhere. I never thought I'd be giving cardinalflower away, but I'm almost at that point.
Time to stretch a wing and tail.And if you've ever wondered whether hummingbirds yawn, well, they do. And they sneeze, too, but that's harder to photograph. Maybe someday.I took these pictures on Magic's penultimate morning with me, August 17. It also happened to be Charlie the macaw's 20th birthday! I could do a "What is wrong with this picture?" post with this photograph. Let's start with the fact that he's standing on the keyboard of my laptop. He spends quite a bit of time there, but I kick him off when he starts preening, because I don't want greasy little bird sheath bits in my keyboard. Next, we can notice the tipped wine glass, right over the keyboard. Durr. And we can end with the Surgeon General's warning about alcohol as pertains to parrots. A no-no. But if a bird can't have a swig or two of King Shag Sauvignon Blanc on his 20th birthday, when can he? Ye gods, that bird adores wine, and he's got a bit of a taste for beer, too. Totally up to us to limit his consumption, which we do, we do.
Here's to 20 years of companionship from my sweet, irascible, tender, nippy friend. If my orchard oriole and Savannah sparrow made it to 17, Lord only knows how long Charles will party on. Wine and all. Love ya, Chuckles.
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