THE SAFETY OF HOME – Marilyn Armstrong

While I was starting dinner, I was watching out the window. Suddenly, a hawk with a white front swooped by the deck then winged off into the woods.

I followed him with my eyes. The camera was in the dining room and I didn’t hurry to get it. I knew I’d lose the hawk before I got the camera focused. Mostly, I wanted to get a good look at him before he disappeared.

I was curious why he swept so close to the house.

Hawks are hunters and don’t usually get so close to houses. It turned out, after minimal research, to be a Cooper’s Hawk. It wasn’t hard to find because among the white-breasted hawks, there are only two living here: American Eagles and Cooper’s Hawks. I’ve seen plenty of American Eagles. They are much bigger than this hawk, so Cooper’s Hawk it had to be.

And he was hunting for exactly what was on my deck: birds and squirrels. Those are a Cooper’s Hawks two favorite foods. The deck is his perfect hunting ground, his dinner buffet.

This is one of the things I feared when I set up the feeders. We have so many predators in the area and so little prey. How did we get so out of balance? Doesn’t it usually go the other way? Don’t deer usually overtake the area?

I remember when we had so many chipmunks they used to line up and chatter at us in groups. Now, we never see chipmunks. We use to see rabbits sitting on the lawn in the sun in summertime. I haven’t seen a rabbit in years and until we put up the feeders, I hadn’t seen any squirrels, either.

Mice I know about because they invade our house every autumn. We have an annual battle to keep them outside. It’s not personal. It’s just that they make an awful mess in the house.

We also used to see more deer, but I’m sure the coyotes have taken them down.

I wonder now if the reason the squirrels have taken refuge on the deck is that they think the house is some kind of protection for them from the hawks and the other predators. Is this house protection for the birds and squirrels?

By sending them back into the woods am I sending them to their deaths? That’s a terrible thought.

I feel like I should invite them all in for a warm dinner and a comfortable nap, but I’m pretty sure the dogs wouldn’t get along with them especially well. It could get pretty raucous.

CALLING THE SQUIRRELS TO ORDER – Marilyn Armstrong

FOWC with Fandango — Order

It used to be that my merely tapping on the window glass convinced the squirrels to move on.

I have nothing against feeding a hungry squirrel, but the woods are warm. It is time for them to begin their return to eating foods which nature offers. They need to do a little digging, hunting and stop making a gawdawful mess on my deck.

In the name of saving a few bucks — and also delicately suggesting to feathered and furred critters that they need to return to the wild, I’m buying cheaper food. I know they don’t love the milo seeds in this feed.

It’s part of the encouragement to find food they like better. Meanwhile, there are piles of milo all over my deck which they toss there. Every evening we sweep it off the deck to the ground below where the doves — who actually like it — will stroll around the grounds munching on it.

When nesting begins, I’ll get richer food again. After nesting is finished, though, they need to remember to be wild. It’s a hard call and I’m a bit of a softie, as referees go.

Oh yeah? What are you gonna do about it?
Let me try a different approach …

This morning — and I don’t mean early this morning — the squirrels were chowing down with enthusiasm.

It was well into the day by then, like ten-thirty or eleven. The sun was high in the sky and shining brightly. I looked out my window. There was a party of squirrels fighting over who should be hanging on which part of which feeder. At least three were on the flat feeder and another pair were on the hanging feeder.

Scarred and scornful, I stand my ground!

I tapped loudly on the window and no one so much as twitched. Finally, I opened the window and called out “Hey, Fuzzies. Move your butts. Time to let the birds have a go at the food.”

They didn’t move. At all. They ignored me.

I finished dressing and made my way to the kitchen. A few squirrels had walked away. Slowly. No hurry. Probably laughing at me as they strolled slowly into the woodland that we otherwise call our “backyard.” Two more were still hanging on the flat feeder.

I tapped.

They ignored me.

I tapped harder.

They ignored me harder.

I see you. You see me. I’m eating, do you mind?

I finally opened the door, stepped out on the deck and said: “You guys need to move on. It’s almost noon. The sun is shining brightly. Betake yourselves to the forest and make your case with the oak trees. Find acorns. Rejoin nature.”

I’m still hungry …

They looked at me. I looked back.

Slowly they turned and even more slowly they climbed down the upright pole and made the short hop to the ground. It’s obvious that soon I will have to go outside and physically push them off the feeders.

Even that might not do the job. Soon, they may well decide they need to come into the house and sit at the dining table for a full dinner.

Is this a case for … (drumbeat) … the squirrel whisperers?

GUEST AUTHOR: KARIN LAINE McMILLEN – THE BIRDFEEDER OPERA

I really related to this story! And I thought you might enjoy it too. Oh, the cleverness in the animal kingdom. We think we are so smart but sometimes, I really wonder.

Marilyn Armstrong


The Birdfeeder Opera – by Karin Laine McMillen

I lived at home during my first year of graduate school saving money by commutable proximity to the University of Iowa. It was an interesting experience. The redefinition of my relationship with my parents was a little bumpy.

I poured ice cold water on my mother in the shower one day, no doubt trying to recapture some of the fun dorm life with my college mates. Mom was not amused. My dad found out where my sometimes boyfriend lived and felt it was ok to stand outside his window yelling “Karin I know you are in there.”

But once we had our “come to Jesus” on that topic things went a little better. I also think it was that moment when I grew up and decided I should get a job and my own apartment in Iowa City.

I digress. This is really the story of animal life and the amusement that often comes from human interaction, underestimation of the cleverness of wild creatures, and their symbiosis with our larger world.

Our beautiful home in Cedar Rapids, Iowa had been a run-down, dark, very boxy colonial when my parents purchased it. By the time my mother and father were done with it, a two-year process, it was a light, modern, flow-through home with all the amenities required for luxurious family living with three daughters.

It was situated in the woods atop a large bucolic gully. This was fantastic as it meant that my dad had no lawn to mow. My mom, being an opportunistic feminist, has never pumped her own gas, let alone operated any type of lawn machinery. She uses her feminist views to simultaneously sit atop a “little girl on a pedestal” throne whilst insisting that just because she is a woman, she shouldn’t have to do all the traditionally female tasks.

In short, she made my dad a slave to her every whim, including attempting to orchestrate the nature outside for her viewing pleasure.

My parents are both very good designers.

In our home, where solid walls used to be, a row of floor to ceiling glass doors and windows lined the entire rear of the home, offering panoramic views. A patio was constructed by my dad and my mother purchased and ordered the placing of multiple bird feeders for her viewing pleasure of year-round bird frolicking. Her favorite bird feeder was an oblong, cyclonic, ceramic, cyan, Scandinavian, seed-filled feeder with a lid at the top and holes and perching sticks at the bottom. In order to fill it, the douli-shaped lid slid on the two hanging ropes and was supported by the friction of the small ceramic holes against the rough wool twine.

In winter especially, my mother made it her mission to keep this particular feeder full. She enjoyed watching the birds flutter around it as much as she enjoyed ordering my father to fill it. During this year at home, when the Iowa winter was in full bloom, the barking began.

“Larry, did you buy bird seed for the Scandinavian feeder?” (Because everything is more important and better when it is labeled “Scandinavian”.)

Before the vowel of the known answer came back “no,” my mom was already on him.

“You go to Menards every day, why can’t you remember to buy my bird seed! And get the kind that has such and such, blah, blah, blah and this and that. NOT the kind that you got last time! I like the kind that is multicolored so that when it falls on the ground it is pretty. “Laaaarrry, are you listening to me????!!!!”

“Yes, Diane!” would come back just as the door to the garage slammed. I listened to this with detached amusement for several weeks. So I barely noticed when the tune stayed the same — but the lyrics changed. The new chorus was “Larry, did you fill the feeder? It’s empty again! I swear you didn’t do it!”

This was followed by the drumbeat of slamming pots and pans and the response “Diane, I filled it! I’m halfway through that bag”.

“I don’t believe you! Why is it always empty? I haven’t seen any birds all winter! You’re lying to me!!!!”

“Diane, why would I lie to you? Do you want to see the bag?”

“Don’t you bring that dirty bag in here!”

“Do you want to watch me fill it?” He would grumble unintelligibly while traipsing out in the subzero temperatures with said bag.

Not a raccoon, but close enough!

This went on intermittently in the early winter weeks and was thankfully interrupted with the new barking orders in preparation for the Scandinavian Advent and Scandinavian Christmas celebrations. But in early January, I heard the familiar call and response continue. As daddy’s little girl, I wanted to defend my dad. But in truth, I knew that he often lied to my mom and I had other things to think about.

Until one morning on my way to class …

As I walked towards our mudroom to retrieve my shoes, coat, and purse, my peripheral vision caught a large, darkish blob moving on the patio. It was sufficiently disruptive to my brain that I froze. Instinctively I knew it was an animal and any sudden movement could render the thing gone before I could ascertain what it was. I slowly turned and was able to fully observe a delightful little comedy.

Raccoon (Procyon lotor) raiding bird feeder at 8 PM in the brush country of south Texas, October. (Wild individual in wild setting.)

Precariously hanging with the use of two back paws from a tiny single branch was the fattest raccoon I have ever seen. He (don’t ask me how I know it was a he; I’ve had far too much contact with raccoons at summer camp and knowledge I wish I didn’t have) had one front paw in his mouth and one front paw inside THE bird feeder. He was scooping out and eating the multi-colored feast as fast as he could swallow.

I thought to myself, “Oh, that is funny. Dad didn’t put the top back on the bird feeder.”

I watched Mr. Fat Racoon steal the feed as the little birds on surrounding branches stared unblinkingly for the few and far between scraps which fell to the ground through the little bottom holes. I glanced at my watch and debated if I should continue to observe the scene and risk being late to class.

I even, briefly, thought of opening the door and chasing the raccoon away so the birds could have their food. But my previous encounters with raccoons made me think twice about that foolish notion. I’m not sure why I didn’t just bang on the window which would probably have scared him away, but I think it was the curious and mischievous nature that I share with the raccoon which made me continue to observe, amused and statuesque.

When the little paw could be seen attempting to find more feed from the open holes at the bottom of the feeder, the raccoon put both front paws to his mouth, licked each digit hungrily and then did something I didn’t expect.

With his two hands — sans opposable thumbs — he held onto the opposite sides of the lid and slid it down to its rightful place atop the feeder, adjusting it until it was even. He looked at his work, nodded to himself and climbed up the tiny branch which had bent 180 degrees from his weight. He then proceeded to climb down the tree trunk and sauntered through the brush displaying his hindquarters to me like a woman comfortable with her hips.

When I next heard the “Larry, did you fill the bird feeder?” opera, I smiled to myself, shook my head and envisioned that animal disappearing into our woods. It was several decades, and long after that house was sold before I told the tale one night at dinner …

MYSTERY OF THE DUKE – Marilyn Armstrong

The Duke is one of the smartest dogs I’ve ever had. Not as smart as Tinker the Thinker. She was human in a dog suit. But maybe he is smarter in a different way.

Duke does what he pleases. He goes where he decides to go. He can jump all of our fences, break down doors and his desire to be our only dog has not diminished.

So the other day, Garry was outside, trying to get the hardened ice off the driveway and build a place to put the trash and recycling bins. He looked up into the window and there was the face of the Duke smiling down at him. From the window in my office.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

My office isn’t my office anymore. It has become the room where we put things that we use sometimes, but not all the time. The Christmas tree is in there all wrapped in plastic as are the two big wooden nutcrackers.

Red Finch atop Toad

The printer, router, and cable box, which the guy from Charter didn’t take with him. I think we need it anyway because it’s where we hook up the router. Which is how we send signals to the devices which use wi-fi. Computers, Kindles, iPads, and all that. Of course the two televisions. And an extra fold-up bed for a guest who might wander in from the cold.

The Duke was in that room. At the window. Smiling down at Garry.

Later that evening, in bed, Garry told me he’d seen the Duke peering out of the office window. I asked him if he’d closed the door to the office since Duke must have pushed the door open in to get to the window.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

Garry said he hadn’t closed it because when he came in, the office door was closed. I said I hadn’t closed it either. In fact, had not been in that room at all that day.

So … who closed the door? The door has a standard round doorknob and opens inward, as do all the doors in the house. He could push it closed from in the room, but to close it? He would have to have pulled it closed from the hallway using the doorknob.

Doorknob

Doorknob? He doesn’t have hands. He has no thumbs.

So how did he close the door? Any explanation will do. I’ve known a few dogs who could close a gate, but never one who could close a door using a round doorknob.

Have you?

THE DOG DONE IT – Marilyn Armstrong

A few weeks ago, my very expensive kitchen scissors vanished. I was sure they would reappear, that they had maybe fallen under a cabinet or something. I decided it could not be the dogs because why would a dog be interested in scissors? They don’t have thumbs, so what could they do with them.

But today, the truth came to light.

Garry went to The Crate.

This where all three dogs “save” stuff. Toys, bits of wood, whatever things they’ve stolen (socks, slippers, hairbrushes, small blankets, odd items of clothing (underpants [mine are very popular]), plastic medicine bottles. Weirdly, they leave each others’ treasure alone and attack their own. Bonnie prefers soft things. Gibbs like anything which squeaks — except balls which he totally doesn’t get — and mess with their own stuff. Except for food.

If it’s edible, first jaws get the bite.

So it was obvious that the crate was overflowing and Garry decided to clean it out. He found lots of stuff including the usual empty plastic medicine bottles (gnawed), with or without lids. Old mail. Not so old mail. And half of the missing scissors with a chewed-up handle.

These were expensive scissors that were designed to come apart for cleaning, so I’m pretty sure the other half is somewhere. As are a few of my missing socks, underwear, and at least one nightgown.

1/2 of a pair of scissors

I’m not even sure how the Duke — it had to be the Duke because I doubt either Bonnie or Gibbs would want the scissors — I didn’t think it was any of the dogs. I was blaming gremlins, pixies, brownies, and other house elves.

Maybe The Duke IS a gremlin. Or at the very least, a house elf. That would explain a lot.

THE BOBCAT’S BACK – Marilyn Armstrong

The bobcat’s back and I hope we don’t have any trouble. We never had dogs running loose before, but we can’t keep the Duke in the fenced yard, so I just hope they don’t intersect anytime soon.

Squirrel survivor

I looked out on the back yard this morning. It was covered in a couple of inches of snow on top of a crunchy batch of solid sleet. I could see Duke’s prints too. There was an interesting crosshatch of bobcat and dog prints and I got to thinking that I really hope the Duke doesn’t try to take on the bobcat. I’m pretty sure the bobcat would win that one.

A local bobcat. Smaller than ones in other parts of the continent, but able to leap 30 feet in a single bound. I’ve seen them do it. It’s amazing.

It’s a small bobcat, about the size of a large house cat, but those little guys are strong. And hungry. We only have one bobcat at a time except when we get a mother with kittens. As soon as one of the kittens lays claim to the area, all the other cats disappear. There’s only one bobcat in an area at a time and unless they are mating, they don’t pal around with each other.

Our perching Mourning Dove … He actually sat there long enough for me to finally get a few clear shots. Then he flew away but he was really patient with me and the camera.

It also explains why the birds have been so nervous. The squirrel that showed up this morning looked healthy, but something — my best guess is an eagle or a hawk — took a piece out of his neck. Somehow, he wrenched free.

Red-Tailed Hawk – They live in Canada and the U.S.., coast to coast.

It’s a battleground out there. We have always had more predators than we have prey. That’s why we don’t have a cat. They get eaten, as often as not by coyotes, but a big red-wing hawk can take a cat or a small dog … or a baby goat or lamb. They always warn us not to leave puppies outside unless they are in a cage with a roof. And even with that, keep it close to home.

We have a lot of these guys, too. You can see them in the driveway around twilight.

Raccoons can easily kill even a pretty big dog. They have super thick skin, long teeth, and claws. Adults can (and do) top fifty pounds. They are a lot stronger then they look and can under the right circumstances.

They come in all sizes and no matter how cute they are, be careful. If they aren’t tame, they can be pretty rough.

And then we have our own polecat, the Fisher, which will pretty much eat anything but prefers fish. We tend to get very romantic about animals in the wild, but they are the hunters and the hunted. The small ones hunt bugs and the eggs of smaller birds. Bigger ones hunt them … and then, there are even bigger hunters.

The Fisher who is not actually a cat. He’s a weasel with a beautiful coat. Nearly extinct from hunting and is now making a serious comeback. He likes our backyard. It’s sunny and he will sit in the middle of the sunny area and he won’t leave until he’s good and ready. They come in very dark brown, black, and deep red. They are not friendly and they are bigger than they look in pictures.

In the end, there is us. We hunt everything because we have guns … and we can. Meanwhile, I hope my little wild dog doesn’t decide to take on a bobcat. That isn’t a match I want to see.

And then, there’s the Duke

QUOTH THE RAVENMASTER – BY ELLIN CURLEY

There are some strange professions. Many of them are with the British Royal Household, like Keeper of the Queen’s Stamps, Grand Carver, and Royal Clock Winder. However, the one that caught my eye was written about on October 21, 2018, in the Washington Post: Ravenmaster.

The Ravenmaster takes care of the seven ravens who reside at the Tower of London, the 11th-century fortress that is one of Britain’s most popular tourist sites. It was a prison and an execution site for many, like Anne Boleyn. It has numerous lurid stories from it’s long and brutal history.

Christopher Skaife in his regular Ravenmaster uniform

Ravens seem to have started living at the Tower in the Victorian era when the Gothic Revival was in full swing. Charles Dickens kept a raven as a pet.

The Tower birds are now celebrities in their own right and they receive loving and meticulous care from the current Ravenmaster, Christopher Skaife. He gives them treats of dog biscuits soaked in blood and he has had to climb parts of the Tower to retrieve rogue ravens.

Treats for the ravens

Mr. Skaife was a machine gunner in the British Army for 24 years and then became a Yeoman Warder, one of 37 élite guards who are keepers of tradition and tour guides. He now lives at the Tower with his family. It must be fun for his kids to bring friends ‘home’ for playdates!

The Tower ravens come from bird breeders. They are wild, though acclimated to humans. They roam free during the day. At night, Skaife has to round them up and put them in airy enclosures to protect them from foxes, who ate two ravens in 2013.

Night enclosures

In the morning, Skaife releases the birds in careful order, from least dominant to the most dominant. The birds apparently have a very strict hierarchy which the Ravenmaster must respect. They have also divided the tower into individual territories according to that hierarchy.

Ceremonial Ravenmaster uniform

The birds are scavengers and like to rummage through the trash cans. They are particularly fond of potato chips but they don’t like the flavored kind, like cheddar or onion. So they wash the flavored chips in puddles to get rid of the extra flavoring, which I think is very clever! They are also known to steal sandwiches from children.

Ravens at Tower

Ravens can fly but not too far or too often. They can fly to the roof or the ramparts, but that’s about it. Previous caregivers would trim their feathers so they couldn’t fly at all. But one bird, on Skaife’s watch, climbed up some scaffolding and leaped off it. He died in Skaife’s arms so Skaife will no longer limit the ravens’ flight.

Once one raven did manage to escape the Tower and flew down the Thames River. She was captured by a local birdwatcher who recognized the bracelet on her leg as belonging to the Tower flock. The Good Samaritan put the raven in her gym bag and returned her to her home.

Raven at the Tower

I love all animals so this job caught my imagination. While not the cutest or friendliest of birds, it must be gratifying to preserve a long-held tradition at an historically famous site. Caring for a ‘conspiracy’ or an ‘unkindness’ of ravens, the words for a group of ravens is clearly not a job for everyone.

After eleven years, Christopher Skaife is still going strong at his job. He’s even written an autobiography. Who knew that being a Ravenmaster could be the route to becoming a published author!