It Takes a Village

Several weeks after the birth of the Bambi twins, I was seated one sunny morning in the breakfast room, paying bills and tending to the mound of paperwork that routinely accumulates on my desk. You know, activities like addressing birthday cards, reading again the most recent submissions of writer friends from my critique group, inventorying and updating a list of cleaning supplies in anticipation of my next trip down to Costco. The phone rang. It was Steve, our next-door neighbor.

“Hey, Pat. Say, I’ve just been out on the driveway—gonna wash my car—and I heard something strange coming from your backyard. Like a baby crying or something. Did you guys get a new puppy, too?”

“I wish,” I replied, “but no, no new puppy or kitten. I didn’t hear anything when I was out earlier with my coffee, but I’ll go out and have a look.”

I crossed the kitchen and stepped out through the French door onto the back terrace to listen. I heard only the gurgle of water cascading into the lower pool of our water feature and the whirr of humming-bird wings as several Anas swooped around the nectar feeder, attacking one another and vying for dominance. Somewhere in the distance, a Stellar’s Jay squawked. Nothing unusual.

Then, out of the corner of my eye, off to my right I caught sight of a doe and fawn just disappearing quickly through the Cedar Circle and down into the Shade Garden. I headed in that direction, but by the time I got there, they had bounded down the rock steps and disappeared into the redwoods. I proceeded on around the house to the front, but still I heard nothing strange. Maybe Steve was mistaken. Maybe what he heard was coming from Jay and Bonnie’s, his neighbors on the other side. They had a new labradoodle pup.

I strolled down the street in the direction of Steve’s driveway, but he met me halfway. “I just heard it again,” he said urgently. “It’s definitely a distress call. Something’s wrong.”

By now Steve’s wife, Suzanne, had come outside, too, and the three of us hurried, single file, through the wrought-iron gate into our backyard to investigate further. As we rounded the garden shed, we all heard it, a piercing, high-pitched cry, definitely coming from below the back terrace. Fanning out in different directions, we listened intently. There it was again! We all heard it!

Suzanne was standing closest to the pool. Suddenly she screamed. “Here it is! Here it is! It can’t get out!”

In the shadowy corner of our pool, a small fawn floated limply, droplets of blood dribbling from beneath its chin and spreading over the water’s surface. In a flash, Steve reached down with both hands, grasped the dripping baby, lifted it gently out of the chilly water, and placed it on the flagstones. Its eyes were shut tight and it shook uncontrollably.

Racing back into the house for a towel, I wrapped the shivering baby, pulled it onto my lap, and began rubbing it all over to restore circulation, just as I’d done with the newborn fawn right after its birth only a few weeks before. Was this the same baby? Was this Bambi Two?

Soon its dark eyes fluttered open, but there was no fear, only relief. As I continued the massage, gradually the violent shaking subsided into a gentle heaving of its mottled, spotted sides. Now we could see how Bambi Two had struggled. I blotted the abrasions under its chin where the skin had been scraped raw on the brick coping of the pool.

As Suzanne ran home for her camera, Steve and I speculated about what might have happened. The mama must have come to drink from our pool, accompanied by her two mismatched fawns. Perhaps the larger fawn had been able to successfully drink also. But the littler one, Bambi Two, with its shorter legs, must have had a harder time and ultimately tumbled in, then couldn’t get out. Who could tell how long the baby had thrashed about in the water as its anguished mama stood helplessly by, unable to do a single thing, despite its beseeching cries, to save her drowning baby?

 

Suzanne returned and snapped this picture. Then I wrapped the fawn in the towel again and continued stroking its head and ears until it dozed off, finally safe but completely exhausted.

After sharing a cup of hot tea and catching up on other neighborhood news, Suzanne and Steve returned to their chores, and I to mine. Every so often, I went back out to check on the fawn and scratch its ears. Still, it exhibited no fear. Two hours later, Bambi Two was gone

Crow-Baby, Cry-Baby

Several weeks ago, on my routine early morning bathrobe-and-coffee-cup patrol around the garden, a series of raucous cries shattered my reverie, noises not terribly unlike those of the tiny fawn who once fell into our straight-sided ornamental pool and would have drowned had it not been for its frantic shrieks for help.

Instantly alert, I listened for a few moments and then began to prowl my paths in an effort to locate the source of the present cries. Determining that the sound was coming from somewhere in the tall meadow grass below the main rock retaining wall, I headed in that direction, only to have the air go silent. I stopped and stood silent, listening. Nothing. Nothing for more than a minute. I retreated to a shady area and sat on the stone bench at the base of the ancient cedar to listen again.

The cries resumed, at first mournful and plaintive, but gradually escalating to an ear-splitting screech. Once more I ventured down into the meadow. Again the air went silent.

I don’t have time for this, I thought, and returned to the house to put my coffee cup in the dishwasher and throw on my gardening clothes. My list of chores was long. It included fetching the dolly from the garage to move a dozen heavy sacks of soil amendment, well-rotted manure, and potting soil from the back of my SUV to the spots where they were needed. I grunted and tugged the dolly up and down runs of rock steps connecting the different levels of the garden, steps built many years ago with my own hands, but with no regard for how difficult they’d be to navigate with a loaded dolly. I was only vaguely aware of the squalls coming from the meadow area. I couldn’t ignore the cries completely, though. If you’re a mother, you know that feeling.

Again I ventured down into the meadow, and again the cries stopped. But now my quest had become a mission. I retreated once more to the shade of the old cedar and plopped down on a moss-covered boulder to take up my vigil.

Presently a huge black crow appeared overhead, silhouetted against the bluest of skies as it swooped in narrowing circles and landed near the top of a ninety-foot Ponderosa pine just beyond the meadow’s lower boundary. Moments later it flew away. At first I paid no attention to the crow. I kept my eyes riveted on the meadow grasses in my effort to determine the source of the distress cries. Then I heard it again. I looked up. Finally I understood. The crying baby wasn’t a fawn at all, but a crow-baby fledging from its nest high up in the pine. I relaxed. Nothing was wrong. I’m not needed here. I went back to my chores.

For two weeks I listened to the crow-baby and watched this rite of passage. At first crow-mama fed the chick in place, returning every five minutes or so, gradually lengthening the intervals to ten, then fifteen. In between snacks, crow-baby yelled, its lungs obviously developing at a faster rate than its wings.

But now crow-mama began landing on another branch a few feet away, challenging crow-baby to work a bit for its meal. Oh, how it screeched, its voice indignant and demanding. If you’re a mother, you know that behavior too. I was disappointed that she held out for less than fifteen seconds before she flew back to the nest and shoved the morsel down the chick’s throat.

Late that afternoon crow-mama finally convinced the reluctant chick to try a four-foot mini-flight to a nearby branch. So far, so good. Then she hopped to another branch ten feet away. But crow-baby was having none of that. On its own, it flew back to the safety of the nest and again took up its raucous lament. What a cry-baby! I decided the chick had to be a male. I could imagine crow-mama’s exasperation as she flew off in a wide arc over the neighbor’s property and didn’t return for nearly an hour.

Several days of rain and wind kept me out of the garden. When next I caught sight of crow-baby, he was flapping his wings hard and chasing crow-mama from the nest to the six-inch candle atop another Ponderosa pine twenty or thirty feet away. The two birds were nearly the same size now. Good for you, crow-baby. You’re finally getting the hang of it. But when mama encouraged her youngster to try another hop, crow-baby’s courage vanished. He returned to the nest and refused to budge. Soon he was yelling again, but crow-mama flew away and stayed away the rest of the afternoon. Serves the kid right, I thought.

The next day, I saw crow-baby practice a couple of times alone, flying from the top of one pine to the next, but never more than twenty feet from the nest. At his insistence, crow-mama continued bringing him his meals. Late that afternoon the two of them finally flew off together.

Over the weekend, I worked in the garden in welcome peace and quiet, glad to have witnessed the conclusion of this miracle of nature. I didn’t see a single crow. Nor did I hear any. Probably they’ve all flown down to Pioneer Park to mooch scraps from the picnickers gathered there to take in the weekend outdoor concert.

Monday passed uneventfully. I had errands to run.

Yesterday was Tuesday. I went out early to plant two azaleas I’d gotten on sale Monday afternoon at my favorite nursery. What? What’s that? Screech, screech, screech! That crow-baby was back, perched on the edge of the nest and yelling his head off.

Should’ve changed the locks.

Who Needs Video Games?

From a clematis-covered pergola a dozen feet outside the window over my kitchen sink hangs a hummingbird feeder. I planned it this way. Nature’s garden gifts often come in the form of fleeting moments; if I’m not Johnny-on-the-spot to experience them, pffft, the opportunity is gone. The intimate world of the hummingbird feeder is like that. I cannot arbitrarily decide that “I want to see something wonderful, so I’ll take ten seconds out of my cluttered day and watch the garden.” It doesn’t work that way. But I have structured my surroundings so that, even as I tend to routine chores, within my field of vision are the spots where the magic might occur: the birdbath, the birdhouse, the hummingbird feeder.

Last night, an early spring storm pounded our community. Two inches of rain fell in less than an hour, imperiling unprepared drivers and knocking the buttercup-yellow faces of the daffodils along the freeway right down into the mud. Storms as heavy as this one, like late-season freezes, may do some damage, but the morning after—as though Mother Nature were offering an apology— often dawns brilliantly, enhancing every facet of the landscape. The air is nippy, not icy cold but invigorating, pulsating with new life and new possibilities. Colors boast psychedelic intensity, reflected in each raindrop that clings to a leaf or swelling bud. Deer, squirrels, rabbits, lizards, frogs, and a dozen bird species emerge from their shelters in search of breakfast and, more urgently, a mate.

This is one of those mornings, fairly glittering and pulsating with possibilities. As I stand at the kitchen counter grinding coffee beans, my attention is focused outside. Suddenly the sun picks up movement at the hummingbird feeder: a flash of copper, glowing like a hot coal, gone in an instant.

The regulars at my feeder are Anna hummingbirds, the females generally a dull, uninspiring greenish-brown but the males adorned in bright green with an otherworldly headscarf of iridescent hot pink. I see them all the time. They’re my friends, so predictable that the males will chirp loudly and swoop down and hover in front of me in the garden when the feeder is empty. Well, I call it a chirp; I understand they actually make the sound with their tail feathers as they fly a hundred feet into the air and then plummet at dizzying speeds back toward the earth.

But this isn’t an Anna. I watch intently. There it is again, that brief fiery glow of copper! Then a third time, hovering in the sunshine near the feeder. It’s smaller than an Anna, the color of a newly minted penny.

More than thirty years ago, my close friend and garden mentor, Harriett Hendrickson, taught me about Rufous hummingbirds. The most belligerent of all the hummers, they hold the title for unparalleled maneuverability. The Rufous are also migratory, traveling thousands of miles each season from their winter habitat in Texas, Louisiana, and northern Mexico to their preferred breeding grounds in western Canada and Alaska. In the spring, some of them follow a route that passes through the Sierra Nevada foothills in early April, and in late summer they head south again by a more easterly route, over the Rocky Mountains.

So the timing is right. It’s April 10th. My garden visitor is a Rufous.

As I watch, an Anna male darts toward the feeder. But the Rufous will have none of it. Though much smaller than the Anna, the feisty orange newcomer ruthlessly drives the Anna off, swooping and diving in a fury of whirring russet-colored wings, then returns to keep watch from a branch of the pink clematis vine covering the pergola, just beginning to leaf out. Over and over, the Anna returns and they skirmish, but each time, the Rufous wins the dogfight and triumphantly returns to his post on the vine to guard the feeder. He’s a selfish little beast. I never see him take a drink, but he’s not about to share his prize.

After fifteen minutes or so, I tear myself away from the ongoing war and serve breakfast, put in a load of wash, and then sit down at my computer to try to write. Suddenly, the Anna male is hovering just outside the window above my desk. Without warning, he darts forward and actually pecks on the window! Just a brief peck, but unmistakably meant for me. “Can’t you do something?” he seems to implore me. “It’s our feeder! That trashy orange pipsqueak doesn’t belong here! Can’t you make him go away?”

The action of the Anna confirms what I’ve long suspected; he actually is communicating with me! Except for crows—and maybe eagles and hawks—I’ve never heard much about the intelligence of wild birds, but I’m certain now they can and do try to interact with humans. As with most of the delightful gifts from my garden, all it takes is a bit of observing and listening—and keeping the feeder clean and well-stocked.

Two days later, the Rufous is gone. The Annas are peaceably dipping their needle-like beaks into the nectar of the feeder, two and three at a time. Do you suppose I got the credit?