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 …

SERVICE DOGS FOR VETS – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I’ve always been fascinated by service dogs. I can barely get my dogs to sit, stay and come on command. So the idea that dogs can be trained to do complex tasks for the disabled seems like a miracle to me.

The Guide Dog Foundation For The Blind expanded in 2003 to include America’s VetDogs. This organization gives assistance to wounded veterans to help them return to a normal life. America’s VetDogs still shares staff and resources with the Guide Dog Foundation.

VetDogs provides service dogs to veterans who have a wide variety of disabilities and issues which prevent them from getting around independently. Service dogs help those with physical limitations, those who are blind or have low vision, those who are deaf and those who have PTSD.

Veterans who are paired with dogs go to the VetDogs ten-acre campus in Smithtown, New York, for a two-week, residential training program. The student and his or her dog bond and learn to work together as a team. The classes are small and there are lots of individual attention and instruction.

VetDogs has a wonderful Prison Puppy Program that allows prison inmates to train potential service dogs from early puppyhood. The prisoners also get invaluable benefits. I used to watch a TV series about prisoners training puppies and it was a joy to watch.

The inmates developed a sense of responsibility toward the dogs and a sense of accomplishment at their dogs’ progress. Puppies also create a calmer climate in correctional facilities and bring some normalcy to the prison environment.

Puppies get sent to the prisons at eight to nine weeks old. They live in the handler’s cell where the inmate works on house breaking and other basic skills. The dogs attend classes with their handlers, participate in recreational activities and even go to meals with their handlers. An American VetDogs instructor comes once a week to provide training instructions and monitor progress.

The inmates learn about canine socialization, puppy development, behavior theories, grooming, and canine first aid.

Prison handlers do more than teach basic obedience skills. They also train the dogs for service dog tasks, like retrieving dropped items, opening doors and refrigerators and providing support and balance on stairs. The prisoners also acclimate their dogs to objects in the outside world, like umbrellas, skateboards, and battery operated toys.

But a prison environment is limited. So the puppies go to the home of an outside family on weekends, often prison staff members. Here they learn house manners and they become familiar with cars and traffic noise. Dogs are taken to stores, restaurants, and hospitals so they can confidently go wherever their future veteran partner will take them.

When the puppies reach adulthood, the dogs go back to VetDogs for assessment, final training, and client matching. Statistics show that prison-raised dogs go through these final phases in half the time as home-raised dogs.

One dog trained in the prison program has become an overnight celebrity. His name is Sully and when he was two, in June of 2018, he was matched with former President George H.W. Bush.

Sully with Bush and Clinton

Bush, Sr. was always a dog lover and he welcomed Sully enthusiastically into his home and his heart. Sully helped Bush, who was in a wheelchair, pick up dropped items, open and close doors, push an emergency button and support him when the 94-year-old former president stood.

Sully developed a following on social media. His own Instagram account had more than 98,000 followers. Since George H.W. Bush’s death, Sully has become even more popular. A photo of Sully forlornly lying in front of Bush’s casket in the Capitol Rotunda went viral. Sully seemed heartbroken, but also seemed to still be keeping watch over his partner. His devotion exploded the internet.

Sully’s service to President Bush is over, but his career as a service dog is not. America’s VetDogs will send Sully to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. There he will assist with physical and occupational therapy for wounded soldiers. The Bush family found comfort in knowing that Sully would continue to help veterans for many years to come.

The relationship between President Bush and Sully has shined a spotlight on the amazing things that service dogs can do for people with physical and emotional limitations. Maybe Sully’s fifteen minutes of fame will result in more money being donated to training more dogs for civilians as well as for veterans.

It costs over $50,000 to breed, raise, train and place one assistance dog. And dogs are provided to veterans free of charge. America’s VetDogs is a non-profit organization so funding comes exclusively from donations.

So please donate to America’s VetDogs by going to their website. It’s a wonderful cause.

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF TINKER BELLE – Marilyn Armstrong

Can you set a price on love? Can you set a number to it? Can you calculate it by the cost of health care, toys, dog food? Grooming?

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Tinker Belle was a Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen, also called PBGVs or Petites. They are a medium-sized, shaggy rabbit hound from the Vendée region of France, but have become over the past 20 years, quite popular as pets, though they are definitely not a dog for just anyone. They are smart, funny (they will do almost anything to make you laugh), noisy, and into everything.

Tinker Belle was special. From the day I brought her home from the airport (she had just flown up from her breeder’s home in North Carolina), she wasn’t like any other puppy I’d ever met. She was incredibly smart. As a rule, hounds are intelligent, but she was something else. Housebreaking? We showed her the doggy door. She was henceforth housebroken. She could open any door, any gate and close them behind her. She would open jars of peanut butter without leaving a fang mark to note her passing. All you’d find was a perfectly clean empty jar that had previously been an unopened, brand new jar.

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She was deeply sensitive. Probably born to be a therapy dog, she knew who was in pain, she knew who was sick. She knew where you hurt. She was the only dog who would never step on a healing incision but would cuddle close to you, look at you with her dark, soft eyes and tell you everything would be fine. She never hurt a living thing, not human or anything else … except for small varmints she hunted in the yard. She was, after all, a hound and a hunter at that, born to track, point and if necessary, kill prey.

She was the smartest of our five dogs, the smartest dog of my life. Not just a little bit smarter than normal. A huge amount smarter. When you looked into Tinker’s eyes, it wasn’t like looking into the eyes of a dog. She was a human in a dog suit. She knew. We called her Tinker the Thinker because she planned, she remembered. She held grudges. More on that. For all that, she was Omega (the bottom) in the pack, we thought it was mostly her own choice. She had no interest in leadership. Too much responsibility maybe? But the other dogs knew her value. When they needed her, other dogs would tap into her expertise in gate opening, package disassembly, cabinet burglary, trash can raiding and other criminal activities. Throughout her life, she housebroke each new puppy. A couple of hours with Tinker and the job was done. It was remarkable. Almost spooky. She then mothered them until they betrayed her by growing up and playing with other dogs.

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When Griffin, our big male Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen came to live with us a few months after Tinker, they became The Couple. inseparable, deeply in love. They ate together, played together, slept together, sang together. When about a year later, we briefly had a little Norwich Terrier pup and Griffin (what a dog!) abandoned Tinker to go slobbering after Sally … well …

Tinker’s heart was broken. She became depressed, would not play anymore with humans or other dogs. For the next 10 years, Tinker refused to so much as look at Griffin. Worse, she apparently blamed us, her humans for having brought another girl into the house. In retribution for our crimes, Tinker began her Reign of Terror.

Tinker took to destroying everything she could get her fangs on when she was three years old. She’d done a modest amount of puppy chewing, but nothing extraordinary. She was more thief than a chewer. She would steal your stuff and hide it. Shoes, toys, towels, stuffed animals. After Griffin betrayed her with that stupid little bitch — Sally was indeed the polar opposite of Tinker being the dumbest dog I’ve ever known and ill-tempered to boot — Tinker was no longer a playful thief.

She was out to get us.

Nothing was safe. She had a particular passion for destroying expensive electronic devices. Cell phones, remote controls, portable DVD players, computers. If she could get a fang to them, she killed them. She would do more damage in under a minute than I thought possible. For Garry and I, it meant we couldn’t leave the room together unless we put everything away where Tink couldn’t get it. Tinker would strike quickly and she was lethal.

Kaitlin’s toys were safe if Kaity was currently paying a lot of attention to Tinker. If not, she was punished with the beheading of any doll Tinker could find. She didn’t bother with limbs but always went straight for the head. She gutted stuffed things with grim efficiency.

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During one memorable intermission, Garry and I went to the kitchen to grab something to drink and she dismembered our remote controls. We were gone, by the clock, about a minute. The kitchen is adjacent to the sofa where we watch TV, so she managed to do this with us not 10 feet away. It cost me a couple of hundred dollars to replace them.

She pulled off the backs, tore out the batteries (but never ate them), then ripped out the wiring and boards. She didn’t waste any time, either. If she had the leisure, she’d also tear out the keys and generally mangle the cases, but if time was limited, she went straight to the guts of the thing. She was good.

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For 10 years, we lived under siege. If you didn’t want it Tinkerized, you couldn’t leave it exposed, not for a minute.

Yet we loved Tinker and for the last year of her life, after we brought Bonnie home, Tinker became a real dog again. Under the influence of Bonnie, the friendliest, happiest, most charming Scottie on earth, Tinker came out of her sullens and played with Bonnie. She ran around the yard and played tag, joined the chorus when the other dogs pointed their muzzles at the sky and sang.

Hounds have such beautiful voices and Tinker’s was the most beautiful of all. When she sang, nature sang with her. I suppose this is a matter of taste, but for those of us who love hounds, you know what I mean. Singing is a social function for canines. When a pack sings, it isn’t an alert. It’s a chorus. They are really truly singing together. Each dog has a part, joining in, then pausing and rejoining at the right moment. Tinker was a baritone, the deepest and loudest of the canine voices and Bonnie is a coloratura soprano, very musical, but light.

Tinker died of cancer at age 12. She had shown no symptoms except a slight slowing down and a very minimally reduced appetite. One day, she collapsed. She was riddled with cancer. How in the world she had so effectively hidden her illness is mind-boggling, but she did. A couple of weeks later, Griffin had a massive stroke and died. They were almost exactly the same age and I don’t believe for a minute that the timing of their passing was mere coincidence.

The house was so quiet with the two hounds gone. We didn’t have to hide everything anymore, though it took us months to realize it was safe, that I could leave my laptop out at night and no dog would bother it. After the two hounds passed, the pack did not sing for half a year. One day, mourning ended and they started to sing again. Now, they sing twice a day, early in the morning (get up Mom) and in the evening (pause that show, time for the chorus).

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What was Tinker’s true cost? We paid $700 for her when she was a puppy. Who knows how much her medical care cost over the years? That’s such a basic part of the contract between dogs and their keepers. They love us, we care for them. Other damages? Thousands of dollars in electronic gear, furniture, shoes, books, DVDs, videotapes, dolls, stuffies and who knows what else.

But she paid us back, you see. When I was terribly ill, Tinker never left my side. When I was back from surgery, missing another piece of me and in pain, Tinker was there, never placing a paw where it would hurt me. How does it add up?

How much was the love worth?

PHOTO CHALLENGE: ANIMALS IN NATURE – Marilyn Armstrong

Photo Challenge: Animals in Nature

I realized this omitted my dogs, the local milk cows, and the chickens. That left birds. I have seen many wild creatures, but I haven’t gotten their pictures. I can tell you about the tortoises and coyote, chipmunk, bobcat, and fisher cat. Squirrels, deer, rabbits, gophers and I know we have begun to have bears, too.

But when we get right down to it, what I have photographically, are birds.


Reflective 
Turtles
Geese swimming in one line down the Blackstone River 
Our own little Red Finch
Dirty water swan 

Cardinal in snow
Up and away! Photo: Garry Armstrong – Not wild, but maybe he should be? 
Junco, probably.
Great Blue Heron 
Black-crowned night heron 

WHICH WAY? NO, REALLY … WHICH WAY? – Marilyn Armstrong

Cee’s Which Way Photo Challenge – August 24, 2018

Garry and I got lost in the hospital. We went the wrong way out of the elevator and suddenly, I realized I’d never seen those bank machines before … and the cafeteria … we hadn’t passed that on the way in.

No one gets lost like we do. We have a special talent. Even when we find our to the place we are intending to go, we will probably get lost in the parking lot or inside the building. Or while trying to find the restroom.

The only place this works in our favor is when we are looking for new places to take pictures and just drive randomly around, hoping we’ll find a new dam or a lake or a heron.

So for me, “Which Way” is a valid expression of the meaning of what I humorously call “life.”

Out the window of Miss Mendon

They don’t need a road. Goats can just go. They are walking on top of a stone fence.
Horses don’t need a GPS … YOU are the GPS.
Chickens don’t get lost
Walk down the aisle?

FARMING ALONG THE RIVER – Marilyn Armstrong

It has been very hot for the past week. It rained here last night. Maybe an hour of pouring rain and it must have been very local since no one else even noticed we had any rain. But my flowers are much happier and I’m sure the air feels light.

Today’s a holiday, but tomorrow, I’m hoping the weather will cool down. It’s supposed to rain tomorrow. Not an hour, like yesterday, but a full day of downpour. After which, the heat should break along with the humidity and life will be a little better for those of us for whom breathing hot, sodden air is unhealthy. Not to mention unpleasant.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

Around the corner, there’s a big farm. Really, it’s our neighbor but to get to it without driving, you’d have to walk all the way through our woods and come out the other end. We have no walking paths in our woods. Just many trees, rocks, ruts and the boroughs and homes of many small creatures. A few not so small creatures. Lots of hawks and a few eagles. Skunk, raccoon, coyote, foxes, fishers, bobcats and some spiders the size of dinner plates. Frogs. Mice.

We have rabbits. We used to see them lounging around the backyard. Not these days, though. Every since the Bobcats came to live here, they get eaten. Not only the Bobcats, either. Everything eats them.

Rabbits seem to be the favorite lunch special at the diner in the woods. The squirrels have not disappeared, but they rarely come down from the trees. They are safe up there — mostly — as long as they stay up top. Even so, the hawks and eagles manage to grab them right out of their nests. Up top in the trees is still a better deal than being the Bobcat’s dinner.

Since the Bobcats came to live here, the chipmunks have virtually disappeared. They used to hang around our driveway and chatter at us. I’d tell them to “beat it” and they would argue with me. Chipmunks are back-talkers. They are worse than the dogs, though probably not worse than the Duke who is a bigtime back-talker.

Duke can also jump the fence out of the yard and does so regularly. Normally, this would put me into a panic, but I’ve noticed he doesn’t go anywhere.

Just into the backyard to nose around. He’s a thrice-rescued dog and he knows where home is. He has no plans on leaving. Bonnie is more likely to go wandering than Duke.

Gibbs is also a rescue dog and he’s not a wanderer, either. I think rescues have a strong attachment to home. They’ve had a hard life and they aren’t taking any chances!

Photo: Garry Armstrong

I thought I should mention that our local cows have pastures — several pastures — by the Blackstone River. If they graze on the south side of Chestnut street, they get the deep shade of the oak trees and breezes off the river, but if it’s REALLY hot, he lets them graze on the north side where there’s a little stream.

Calf wading in the stream

They love standing up to their hocks in the water. Turns out, cows like wading. I’ve never seen one actually try to SWIM and to be fair, the water’s not all that deep, but they will stand in the water all day look and look happy. What a nice farmer! He also feeds the wild turkey’s, so there are tons of them hanging around the chicken areas.

Author Gordon Winter, Garry, and pet chickens

The chickens used to roam free, but I think between getting run down by cars and trucks and eaten by coyotes and foxes, he finally decided that some fences were in order.

Photo: Garry Armstrong

So now, they have huge fenced yards to keep the birds near home (and out of the road) — and keep the lurking predators away. We have coyotes, foxes, and fisher cats, as well as some pretty sizeable raccoons, eagles, and red-tailed hawks. Chickens look like lunch to all of them.

If it sounds like there is river everywhere, there is. I don’t think you can be anywhere in the valley and be further than a quarter of a mile from the river or one of its tributaries or streams or ponds. Nice for the wildlife, as long as we keep getting some rain. It also means we have a LOT of wetland and swamp. You have to be careful where you park or you’ll sink right into the bogs.

The rain last night was wonderful. One and a half hours of pouring rain to wet down the kindle-dry woods. Today the garden will be happy having gotten soaked last night! Summer in the valley. The snapping turtles are growing fat. I’m sure we have lots of young herons, swans, and geese since it has been a good breeding year with plenty of water in the ponds. After two years of trees stripped by gypsy moth caterpillars, this is a peaceful summer.

I thought I’d mention this because someone mentioned it to me today. He got a snapping turtle on a hook in the river. He didn’t want to let the turtle go with the hook in its mouth, but he also didn’t want that hefty snapper to take his thumb off. Somehow, he got it done. I have to ask him how he did that. Those big snappers scare the wits out of me.

Welcome deep summer!

BLACK & WHITE BEASTS – Marilyn Armstrong

BLACK & WHITE BEASTIES AND CREATURES 
Duke in black & white 
The swan in the pond 
Totally Duke 
Hi there, I’m Gibbs 
And Bonnie 
Bird in the air 
Bonnie 
Garry (creature with two legs) and dogs
Three horses 
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