Friday, July 3, 2009

Groundhogs and Hawks and Mice, oh my

I was told once by an animal behaviourist acquaintance of mine that our house has a soft animal aura that reassures critters that they are safe. We live in a growing city, but seem to attract all manner of creature to our backyard. We tend to name the critters that share our space. There are limits, though.

We feed the birds year round, so we have a constant parade of feathered creatures. We have 3-4 pairs of cardinals, several mourning doves, and a wild canary that dashes in and out. Hummingbirds like our fuschia and honeysuckle plants, and we've had robins hatch babies in the tree in the middle of the back yard. The sparrows and wrens are bold little souls and will hop onto the deck when we're on it and peck at the crusts or stale almonds that are regularly "recycled" to the birds.

The robins know that they are safe with us, and they will chirp and chirrup to us. One of the regulars we have dubbed "bar fight Robin" because he looks like he got the worst of it in a brawl. The tuft on his head is ragged and his feathers always look like he just had a narrow escape from something bigger and more predatory than him. He's a cocky little fellow, and will sit on the fence, turn his head to one side if we address him, pause a polite moment and then chirp a response. He has sat a foot away from my daughter on the lawn as she dug in the garden, chirping thanks as she dug out "wormies" for him. He's a friendly, fearless fellow.

Where there is bird seed, there are bound to be squirrels, and we have several regulars. There is "Scrawny squirrel" of the skinny tail and desperate hoovering of anything available, there is "Patches" a black squirrel who was missing great tufts for fur for the longest time, and had obviously had a narrow escape from something,"Red" a black squirrel with a distinctive red tinge to his fur and then the other, bolder grey squirrels who sit on the top of the fence and only make a token scamper when we open the door. They are quality entertainment, especially in the winter when the feeders are full and they are hungry. I've wiled away many "should be writing" minutes watching the squirrels outwit the "squirrel proof" feeders. We arranged a compromise last year, and the squirrels got their own dishes of stale nuts or peanuts, leaving the sunflowers for the feathered critters.

There are hawks around our neighbourhood, too. We had a red tailed hawk land on our deck a few months ago, and it sat on the railing a foot outside our kitchen. Our black cat, who has never set foot on the deck but guards it rigourously, wasn't sure what the big thing on the deck was but fell as silent as the birds outside when the majestic bird arrived on the railing. The cat kept looking from the hawk to me, clearly wanting me to deal with it. The hawk also favours our smoke tree in the back corner of the garden. Sudden silence is a sign that the hawk is circling, because normally the air is full of bird songs and chirping.

We had a possum that would come and visit a couple of summers ago. My husband called me down one night to see this "thing" on the deck. I think he was afraid it was big-ass rat. I stepped outside and came face to face with a very brave little possum, whom I promptly named "Simon" in honour of one of the characters in the Rita Mae Brown books that I love to read. He was munching on leaves on top of the screen of the rain barrel, and wasn't at all concerned that I was standing a foot away from him. He was an infrequent but welcome visitor.

And then there was Chuck. About 5 years ago, my black cat set off an intruder alarm and I looked out the door in time to see a large brown butt motoring down the yard. Rather than head for the space under the fence, the critter headed for a hole under the door to our garden shed. Chuck, the groundhog, had taken up residence under our shed. After ascertaining that he wouldn't attack us, we spent a wonderful summer with Chuck in our backyard. He soon realized that he was safe from us, and would sit with his head sticking out of the den and watch the day go by. At first, if we stepped on the deck he would dive for his den, but after awhile, he would stand at attention to see if it was us, and then go back to his lunch. We had an understanding: he could eat the grass and the weeds but we hollered at him if he headed for the lettuce. He brought home the occasional friend, and a little groundhog would emerge from the den in the morning, inevitably to be chased off by Chuck, who was clearly a confirmed bachelor. He disappeared in early October and we waited for spring to see if he would come back but he never did. It was a fascinating summer of learning.

I have my limits, though, and a little brown mouse has reached it. I looked up a couple of days ago to see a brown field mouse standing on the deck eating the crust from the kid's lunch. It was the middle of the day, and there was mousey, bold as anything. It scampered off, only to emerge a couple of minutes later to grab another morsel. The second time it emerged, the kid was in the kitchen and saw mousey. If Max the Black Cat sees him, we'll be replacing the screen on the patio. Yesterday, I looked up and saw mousey 3/4 up the screen that leads into the kitchen. The glass door was closed, but that was a bit too close even for my comfort.

Mice don't bother me particularly. My aunt's farm had mice, and the sudden snap of the trap was part of life at the farm. I've worked in buildings with mice, and the house I lived in in Toronto had mice, although they were smart enough to stay out of my appartment because I had a cat who had a zero rodent tolerance. I don't want a mouse in my house, though. Mousey will have to go.

We have a couple of issues. The child has seen mousey and thinks it's "cute" and wants to pet it. Max knows the mouse is out there and would no doubt make swift work of it if it does make it in the house. I don't particularly want to wake up and find a mouse corpse on my bed or in the kitchen. I have enough trouble with those stupid bugs that get in flour and cereal; I do not want to add a mouse to the house, cute or not.

I'm mercenary enough to hope that the food chain will solve the problem for us before we have to deal with mousey. There are a number of outdoors cats and raccoons in the area, and there is always the hawk. I don't want the mouse to get in the house, but I don't really want to have it killed either. My husband is old school, and would set a lethal, solve the problem trap in a minute. Catching it and releasing it elsewhere just means mousey will have a car ride and a journey.

Even I, animal loving, talk-to-any-animal-anywhere have a limit and a little brown mouse has pushed it. I hope nature takes it's course before I have to authorize deadly force. Run, little mousey, run...

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