Suburban Jungle

Ok guys, gotta warn you before you read on: there is grossness ahead! (Gross as in dead rats… nothing pervy.)

We had a rough week for the wildlife in and around the house.  Don’t panic; Wensley is fine! But we’ve had some other issues.

It started with the rats, actually. I love backyard birding, but feeders attract rodents.  That’s been an issue ever since I first moved in to the house and invested in my feeders. I don’t mind the squirrels, which I realize is basically a form of rodent racism. But they are cute and rats are not. So the squirrels can stay. The rats have to fuck off.

I have tried all the different types of traps that they have at Home Depot and the only kind I have had any luck with are the old timey Tom and Jerry wood and guillotine wire ones.  I bought a big one because these rats are huge.  Actually, I bought several because I looked out the window one morning and saw that I had a whole family crowding around under the feeder, picking through the seeds that the birds dropped on the ground.

I quickly discovered that rats don’t eat the part skim mozzarella that I buy for snacks to try to keep the calories down. They insist on the good cheese because apparently, I have snobby rats, like Patton Ozwalt’s character in Ratatouille.  Only if they do decide they want the cheese (because it is quality locally sourced sharp cheddar), they will find a way to grab it off the trap without triggering it. These are seriously smart rats!

Maybe I should have invited them in and asked them if they could cook and then hire them and live happily ever after. Only, there’s no way because I couldn’t even get past that idea when it was just a cartoon. I sat through the entire movie feeling like I needed to wash my hands. By the end I needed to take a bath in hot Purell. Then, shortly after, I heard that Peter O’Toole died, and I am still convinced it is because those chefy rats gave him the bubonic plague.

After the good cheese, I decided that I needed something messier. I took a small cut of an apple and I smeared it in peanut butter.  That was tricky to set up and the trap snapped closed on me. I didn’t lose any fingers but I did invent a new type of cluster bomb that spreads peanut butter from hell to breakfast. If your enemies have peanut allergies, it would be quite lethal. I’m still finding spattered globs on the backyard furniture.

I did finally manage to get the trap set up. Unfortunately, the ants ate all the peanut butter off bait before the rats got to it.

That was about mid-week and Matt had the idea that we should go out that night. He got tickets to a Bees game, our local Minor League Baseball team.  Ethan is seven now and loves going out to games. He especially loves the Bees because they have a nice playground and he can’t sit through a whole game.  Of course, it turns out that none of us could. Sit through the whole game, that is. It was hot as hell and the innings were taking forever. We finally left just after the seventh inning stretch because it was after 10 pm and we needed to get the kiddo to bed.

Back at home, Matt made a terrible discovery while Ethan was changing into his pajamas.  “Oh no!” he yelled, making all of us stop in our tracks. “I think Kaa is dead!”

Back when the boys moved in with me two years ago, I had only one reservation, and that was the pet snake, Kaa (named for the python in Rudyard Kilpling’s, The Jungle Book). He was a twelve-year-old corn snake and he was humongous. Here is a photo I took when we first got his terrarium set up in Ethan’s new room.

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And here is a photo of Matt holding the last skin Kaa shed.

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I never measured Kaa, but Matt is over six feet tall.  You can see what I’m talking about.  Big. Ass. Snake.

Once he moved in, I completely forgot about him.  We actually had to write his feedings on the calendar to keep track of them, or we would have forgotten. Matt fed him a frozen rat (thawed, of course) once every two months or so.  Then shortly after that there would be a slimy reptilian turd to clean up.  Matt once told me that if I was bored I could take care of those for him.  I laughed. Like it is possible to get that bored. I told him, “I will clean up every accident Wensley ever has but I’m not touching that stuff.”

Other than that, Kaa was the easiest pet on earth.  I never bonded with him.  I couldn’t even make myself touch him.  I knew he wasn’t dangerous, but I couldn’t make my hand go near him.  It’s like there was an instinctual imperative – something hard coded in my DNA – that just wouldn’t allow it.  But God Damn I didn’t want him to die!

I went into Ethan’s room to give him a hug and that’s when the smell hit me.  Matt has a terrible olfactory sense.  We’ll be driving along and I’ll say that I smell a skunk and we will have to go another five miles before he will smell it.  I started clawing at the window to get it open. As I mentioned before, it was damn hot and we had turned the A/C down before we left to be green. Not realizing, obviously, that Kaa would decided to buy they farm and start the decomposing process.

I pinched my nose closed and walked over to the terrarium. I guess I wasn’t expecting to be able to tell that he was dead by looking at him, just by the smell. After all, snakes have no faces. It didn’t occur to me that they could have tortured facial expressions. I was wrong. I’ll never get that image out of my mind. His mouth was wide open and his little onyx-black eyes – once his only “cute” feature – were sunken and dried.

“What are we going to do with him?” Matt asked.  I knew exactly what he meant. It was nearly eleven at night and still ninety-five degrees outside.  The smell was overwhelming. We just couldn’t put Kaa outside or in the garage for the night and then bury him in the morning.  The smell would attract racoons, or worse.  I decided that we had to do what my biologist sister would do.  I went to the kitchen to clean out some space in the freezer. A lot of space.

I grabbed Ethan’s sleeping bag so that he could sleep down in the basement with us, away from the stench. At first, Matt protested, asking if that was really necessary.  Then, as he picked up the lifeless snake with a garbage bag like you might do with a giant dog shit, the smell finally hit him. “Oh my God!!!”

The next day we had a little funeral.  Ethan took a nice river stone he had collected on one of our hikes and made it into a headstone. It had a grass stain on it because I had thrown it at a rat a few days before, but we decided that Kaa would appreciate that.  Then we buried him in a nice spot under the bird feeder.  We talked about what a good snake he was, and mused out loud that he might enjoy being near the birds and the rats.

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It gave me an idea, in fact. That night, I went back out with a trap loaded with a peanut butter smeared cracker.  This time, instead of just setting it below the feeder in plain sight, I buried it so that the wooden slat was hidden and only the bait was visible.  The next morning, I went outside with Wensley on his early morning constitutional and saw that I had caught something.

I pulled the trash bin into the back yard and grabbed my shovel from the shed.  It wasn’t until I got close to the trap that I realized there were two dead rats in it.  It was the two juveniles of the family. They must have got to the bait and the same time and were both caught when the bar came down.  I started to feel heartless for having done this, and so I reminded myself that I didn’t kill them to be a dick. They aren’t safe! We have a dog and a second grader! Neither of whom need rabies or the plague! I had to do it!

“Ug,” I said out loud as I lifted the rats and trap with my shovel, refusing to get any closer than that. “Sorry guys.” And then I dropped them into the trash bin and closed the lid.  Then I went in search of some Purell.

That should have been the end of the story, but there’s more.  Just a few days later, my younger sister and her family came to town for a visit. We were all hanging out at my older sister’s house. One of my nephews came running in from the yard yelling, “There’s a dead thing! It’s a chipmunk or a rat or something! And it’s gross! I can’t play back there!”

I gave the universe this look:

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Then I said to the other adults, “It’s okay, I got it. I’ve been training for this.”

I grabbed a plastic shopping bag out of the closet and followed my nephew out to the yard.  It was not a chipmunk. It was a juvenile robin.  It didn’t have a head but I was able to identify it by the scattered belly feathers.  “It’s just a bird,” I told my nephew.  “Looks like a cat got it.”

He took a few steps back as I wrapped my hand in the bag and then took a hold of it. There was a stick that had fallen on top of the bird so it was awkward to grab. I ended up having to flip it over.  As soon as I did I yelped in horror. A golf ball sized mass of writhing maggots pulsed in the open chest cavity, like a new myriad chambered heart.  My nephew moved to look but I warned him off.  I flipped the bag inside out, capturing the entire “disgusterous” (to quote the BFG) mess and disposed of it the same way I had the rats.

We went back inside and I (you guessed it) washed my hands for fifteen minutes.  I even made my nephew wash his hands and he hadn’t touched it. My mom asked what was going on and I ended up telling her the whole story of my crazy week of death and decay.

That is when Mom told me that when she first got married she used to re-use mouse traps to save money. “I’d just open up the wire and toss the dead mouse out, and then I’d use it again.”

That blew my mind.  For just one second, cleaning up that gross dead bird for my nephew, I felt like an adult. That is a rare feeling for me.  Sometimes I still feel like I’m twenty, but only until I spend a little time with someone who actually is in their twenties, and then I’m like, “Nope. I’m forty.” But even after all these years of having a real job and making mortgage payments, I never feel like a bona fide adult.  Then my nephew asked for someone to protect him from a dead thing and even though I hadn’t particularly wanted to, I stepped up and I did it. Like a grown up. Then I tried to picture myself pulling back the wire on one of those traps and taking the limp mouse out because my family needed to save that dollar… and I realized that I will never be that adult. And you know what? I don’t give a rat’s ass.

Proof of Life

I had better luck today! I didn’t get as close as I would have liked because I didn’t want to scare him into the basement again. I feel confident that it is my same old owl because he has the same asymmetrical left “ear” tuft.

It’s weird, but it really hurt my feelings when he hid from me the other day. It was a flashback to those early tween years when you realize that life isn’t like the movies; your crush doesn’t always (or ever) crush back. That’s the “crushing” part.

I guess that’s why I love dogs so much.

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Dark Wings, Dark Words

Things that have been getting me down, in order of least importance to most importance:

1.) It has been raining a lot.  Like, A LOT.

2.) Game of Thrones is over.

3.) I haven’t seen Owlbertson in weeks and I’m starting to accept that something has happened to him.

Yes, I know. We need the rain. Shows come to an end. And it is never a good idea to name a wild animal. One must accept these physical laws or face certain heartbreak. But… still.

I have one of those constitutions that is susceptible to influence of dark weather. The winter ended some time ago and tomorrow is the first day of June, which I consider “real summer,” not just the technical summer that starts after the equinox. And yet, you wouldn’t know it.  Here is a photo I took of a parking lot a few days ago:

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I’m not kidding.  Those ducks are floating in parking spaces. It’s been intense. And I live in a desert, so… not what I signed up for. But I heard a report on NPR yesterday that our reservoirs are full for the first time in years and that’s good for both urban and wild ecosystems, and so I’m dealing.

As for the Game of Thrones thing,  I won’t give spoilers or bore you with my assessment. There is nothing original left to say. And it wouldn’t matter anyway.  Let’s say that I loved the last season and the finale, and it gave me everything I was hoping for. It’s still a bummer.  Remember the last time you turned a page on the last Harry Potter novel and you knew that was it? There was no more? It’s like that. There are no new twists or reveals coming from that world; it’s done. And I’m mourning it like the loss of a long followed but never known personally celebrity. You didn’t care about me, but I cared about you, and I’m sad that you are gone.

The owl is a completely different matter.  The owl is someone that I knew personally, if not intimately. In fact, I’m pretty sure he or she didn’t like me very much. But once I spotted that owl the first time about a year ago, I became obsessed.  It was the highlight of my walks and I looked for it every time I went passed that tree. It was so exotic and amazing to be able to see an owl in the light of day! And it was something that I looked forward to during the sometimes very lonely hours of working from home.

It is fortunate, therefore, that – after many years – I was sent in to my company’s headquarters in New Jersey for a few days this month. I had a chance to interact with my real co-workers face to face and I underestimated just how much I miss that, working from home. I was delighted to see that, coincidentally, my coworkers have their own wild companions attached to their wing of the corporate office.  They call it the raven’s nest.

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This is the story that I heard while I was visiting.

Our company’s CEO, who doesn’t have a name (weird, right?), but let’s call him Maximilian Von Richypants for the story, also has an office in this building. One day, he came to work after months of jet-setting and big-deal-making, and discovered that two besotted ravens had begun to build their honeymoon home outside the window of his office.  The nest is one thing… the poop which accompany’s it is quite another. There is also a considerable amount of noise. Maximilian snapped his fingers and a butler in a tuxedo appeared (I don’t actually know what happens at my company). The butler was instructed to “deal vis zees birts!” (My CEO is actually not a German commandant.) The butler clapped his hands twice, causing a flurry of activity, and then used the pristine white cloth draped over his arm to blot the sweat of Maximilian’s brow, telling him that everything would be alright, “sir.”

Some version of this happened. Then, the following Monday, my lowly co-workers came to work to discover that the birds, reacting to the destruction of their nest, had decided to rebuild on the other side of the building.  They rebuilt quickly and soon there were eggs.  I had heard about the ravens and the “baby watch” on a few of our conference calls. There was quite a celebratory mood on the line when the two hatch-lings made their first appearance. Any yet, seeing it for myself was special.

By the time I arrived the “babies” were four weeks old and indistinguishable from the parents, each of which was larger than my Yorkshire terrier. Ravens are quite intelligent and one of my coworkers demonstrated this by tapping on the glass, spurring the “baby” (seen above) to tap back in imitation.

In fairness to my CEO, the poop streaks are no small distraction. And there is more than just poop. You can make out parts of rats and mice, for instance. There is nothing sterile about it. And in pharmaceuticals, sterile is the name of the game. Imagine having the owner of a startup company over to your office to discuss a buyout and having that mess behind you while you try to convince her that her brain child and labor of decades of love will be in good hands here.  There’s comedy value there, but it’s not very practical in this world.

Except imagine the delightful Forbes article about the CEO who actually loves science and biology, to the extent of keeping a rookery outside his office! I would read the shit out of that.

I went for a walk in the park yesterday and enjoyed a few minutes with the new Canada goslings. They are ridiculously cute.

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I hope that Owlbertson migrated or found a better tree without a mega-fan watching his every move. But it is good to be reminded that life goes on. The rain gives life and there is also death, and it is all they way that it is supposed to be.  I’ll find new wonders in my environment and remember the importance of keeping those human connections alive, also.

Now, let us all join hands and sing “The Circle of Life” together.

Flickers are F^ckers

Matt and Ethan were out of town last week. As I’ve mentioned, I work from home, so when I’m alone I’m truly on my own. I made do by carrying my camera with me on my walks and spending a little extra attention on my wild neighbors. I got a cute shot of one of the Northern (Red-shafted) Flickers in my area. I hear them a lot but it hasn’t been easy to spot them. Last week, I figured out why. They have built a nest inside one of the sycamore trees. I was walking past and I could hear pounding coming from inside the tree trunk. Here is the male peeking out of the sunroof to call to his mate.

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And here is his girlfriend looking down into the hole to tell him he’s doing it wrong (I assume). I kept hoping she would look back so I could get her face in the photo but no such luck for me.

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The next day, I was in my house, sitting on my couch, which is next to the fireplace. I was working on an essay for my writing class and deep in concentration. Suddenly, I was startled by a booming “BAM! BAM! BAM!” sound that came from the fireplace. I jumped to my feet with a theory and grabbed my camera before ducking out the front door to get a view of the roof without making any sudden movements.

There he was, the little dick. Sitting on the metal capped roof of my chimney.

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I felt like he was saying, “how do you like it when people stalk you at your home, huh? BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM! How you like me NOW?”

Ug. Flickers. I was loving on them for a minute there, but now I’m just grateful I live in a brick house instead of a wood paneled one. It doesn’t hurt the chimney when he drills on it, after all.  And I have other rooms I can write in while he tries to punish me while giving himself a migraine.