Archives for March 2016

Of Finches, Forsythia and Living With Wildness

DSC00621Like many homeowners, I like to adorn my front door with a wreath of seasonal celebration: pine cones and holly for winter, something autumnal for fall.  In March, while roaming the aisle at Michael’s, I found a wreath of imitation forsythia woven through a circle of bare twigs. It spoke to me of the messy but heartening emergence of spring growth from the seeming dead of winter.

Forsythia is my favorite early, early spring flower. I used to cut sprigs to force the blooms until my cats started to make a twice-given gift of their yellowness in liquid pools on the floor, the rugs and once on the bedspread. So hanging this artificial twiggy wreath of sunny joy outside the house, where I could see it for weeks on end through the glass of my front door, seemed the better choice this year.

Another great joy of spring is bird song. The wrens, robins, titmice, and chickadees, even the raucous blue jays and crows, twittering up the early morning air create a restorative aural tonic my spirit drinks up greedily this time of year. However, the confluence of these two joyous harbingers — the forsythia door ornament and the spring vigor of the local birds — has created a dilemma. finchesA pair of tiny, extremely lively birds has begun to set up house in the bramble of the wreath on my door.

At first I thought they were merely scavenging twigs from the wreath to make a nest elsewhere. Fine with me.  Happy to provide constriction material. Plus, it was lovely to see them pop in and out so close at hand as I drank my morning coffee. They seemed not to mind my watching them and were not even bothered by my cats’ predatory stares from inside the house.

But this morning I noticed, in the now slightly denuded area at the top of the wreath, that the birds were bringing sticks to the wreath. They had hollowed out a space and were building a nest right there, under the protection of my porch, against the window of my front door.DSC00612

Taking a step back, now – from their first appearance I had been struggling to identify the birds.  I am not a birder, although I do have some favorites I can recognize instantly by sight and sound: redwing blackbirds, chickadees, robins, of course, and cardinals.  Hummingbirds and owls are rarer – the latter sometimes heard but rarely seen. But I was unsure of what these were.  My first thought was the common wren.  Both birds were brown, but the (I assumed) male had patches of red – his head, chest and at the back above the tail – visible when he spread his wings.

Definitely not a cardinal.  Too small, no crest. I thought maybe some kind of sparrow, or thrush. But I happened to have a copy of Birds of North America and so started searching. But no, sparrow was too big and no red coloring. Thrushes were also too big and robin-like. It took a while to find them, but on pages 316-17, there they were – the Red Finches.  The picture of both the male and female house finches were perfect representations of my little house guests.  DSC00609

So now that I know who my ‘squatters’ are, what to do?  Two choices, and you can probably guess what they were: move the wreath now, while there’s time for them to start a nest elsewhere, or . . . refrain from using my front door for however long the gestation and fledging timeframe is for these birds.

Okay. Yes. I know.  The first option makes the most sense. But I am seduced by the opportunity to live in such close proximity to these wild creatures. I may be foolish and courting disaster for them (and maybe heartache for me), but my comings and goings, plus the activity of the mailman and the FedEx guy seem not to have phased the pair so far. And, I have a perfectly serviceable back door which I use more often than the front door anyway.

I did have one concern.  The wreath swayed mightily in the recent late-March winds. I worried that the nest or the eggs might not survive in a storm. So while the couple was away gathering more twigs, I quickly rigged an anchoring system – plastic fishline guy-wires looped through the wreath and secured to the clasps holding the screen door in place.  My fussing seemed not to have deterred the pair.  They came right back to continue their domestic engineering project.

As I write this, the pair are zooming back and forth from yard to nest with bits of wrinkled detritus, and the female is shimmying each new twiggy addition into place with her breast and and tummy.  Quite the animated, jiggy lap dance, as the nest grows almost before my very eyes.

I’ll keep you posted on what I hope is not a naïve and arrogant human interference in this small tooth and claw circle of life.  Meanwhile, here’s some facts about house finches.

  1. They are not native to the Midwest. Some New York pet dealers imported them from California illegally as cage birds, then set them free to avoid prosecution. They quickly adapted and now can be found throughout the U.S.
  2. They mate for life – as do many birds (swans, albatross, hummingbirds, owls, to name a few).
  3. They are vegetarians.  I know!  No bugs or worms.  Just seeds.
  4. They usually nest about 10 feet from the ground in twiggy shrubs but often choose hanging planters or door wreaths!
  5. Incubation takes 12-14 days and the chicks fledge in a mere 11-19 days. So I may get my front door back by early May. However –
  6. It is not unusual for a pair to produce two or more clutches a season. So I’m planning now what to do about the wreath after the first clutch – if it’s successful.

DSC00611I know I am being selfish in wanting these creatures to be part of my life.  They are wild things – however beautiful and entertaining they may be. So I must reflect on the work of writer and poet Mary Oliver, whose skill in framing this fascination with wildness but keeping it in persepctive, is a writing touchstone for me.  Here, from my bedraggled copy of her  New and Selected Poems, Volume One, an excerpt:

Lonely, White Fields (first published in New Poems, 1991-92)

       Mary Oliver

Every night

the owl

with his wild monkey-face

calls through the black branches,

and the mice freeze

and the rabbits shiver

in the snowy fields-

and then there is the long, deep trough of silence

when he stops singing, and steps

into the air.


Read the full poem Lonely, White Fields Mary Oliver







Skunked! Chapter 1

skunkI saw her first one fall evening a year ago. She waddled through the garden, hugging the fence line, slunk through the gate, across the drive and into my neighbor’s bushes.  Nothing like Disney’s suave Pepe Le Pew, or even the classic, glossy-furred black and double-white striped image familiar to us all.  No, she had a single horizontal stripe across her shoulders and a tiny wisp of white at the tip of her tail. She was bedraggled and dirty and the mass of her black fur seemed a burden to carry. An unlovely, pitiful sight.  I felt kind of sorry for her.  A few days later she made her presence known in the skunk’s inimitable way – in the middle of the night.

I’m a pretty handy and self-sufficient person.  I like to take care of things myself as much as possible. So, on to the internet and “How to Get Rid of a Skunk.”  I knew she was living under my deck, but didn’t know where she got in.  Taking the web’s advice, well after dark I sifted a thin layer of flour across the deck to capture her tracks as she came ‘home.’ It was unlikely to see her again, coming or going. DSC00577It worked!

I saw paw prints and the sweep of her tail captured in the sifted flour. But it was late in the year and the snows were upon us. I didn’t want to trap her in under the deck, and decided to wait until spring to block the opening. Researching the gestation period for baby skunks, I decided that by July she and any offspring would be nocturnally mobile – out at night.  So I waited and  spent a July night blocking that opening and every other one I could find. Pat-on-the-back! No noxious odors the rest of the summer.

Since moving to this lovely, inner-ring suburb of Cleveland and into my charming, 1920’s bungalow on a tree-rich street, I have enjoyed the wildlife that I encounter each day.  A small herd of deer sometimes sleeps among the trees at the back of my yard.  Two injured does have made it through last winter and this. DSCF4726 I see them limping on three legs, but still able to jump fences with the grace of ballerinas.  I have seen and heard owls. Birds of varied song flit from bush to tree, animating the air with chips of color.  The squirrels taunt each other and play manic games of tag, chipmunks scamper and veer like radio-controlled toys and the rabbits munch the dew-washed grass unconcernedly. I’ve seen an opossum and a raccoon and a few mice as well.  Hawks soar above the huge trees each day. The food chain is well supplied.

I am content for all these creatures to share my yard, knowing that I am really the interloper. I accept that the deer will eat my plants and the chipmunks will burrow beneath the stones of my walk and am willing to do what I can to discourage, but not harm them. As I said, I am content to share with all—save one.

There is a saying, “Man plans; God laughs.”  Its early spring now, and she’s back. Last week I got another distinctive wake-up call. Surprisingly, twice that week I saw her returning, about 6:45 AM, when I’m on my second cup of coffee and staring out my kitchen window.

So, with a blessed run of dry, sunny days, I tried the flour trick and it worked again. DSC00576-001She’d found a new way in.  Hoping to discourage her from setting up house again, I piled bricks in front of the new opening she’d dug at the base of the deck. But perhaps you can guess the measure of success.

The “call” came again last night, at midnight.  This morning I saw her trundling up onto the deck and watched her disappear under the steps—where I was certain there was NO WAY she could get in.  When I investigated, I saw she had pulled back the rolled-up chicken wire I had stuck in an open space under the steps.

Social media can be a good thing.  As I checked my email, there was a message from a neighbor on my Next Door  news feed talking about skunks.  The neighbor had called a live trap removal service which caught 16 skunks and a groundhog over two weeks!

Self-sufficiency aside, I’ve decided there are some things better left to the experts.  Stay tuned for chapter two. Meanwhile, here’s a lovely poem on the subject  by the late, Nobel Prize winning Irish Poet Seamus Heaney.  (Apologies for the double-spaced formatting.  I haven’t figured out how to change that for poems in WordPress yet.)

The Skunk  Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)

Up, black, striped and damasked like the chasuble

At a funeral mass, the skunk’s tail

Paraded the skunk. Night after night

I expected her like a visitor.


The refrigerator whinnied into silence.

My desk light softened beyond the verandah.

Small oranges loomed in the orange tree.

I began to be tense as a voyeur.


After eleven years I was composing

Love-letters again, broaching the word “wife”

Like a stored cask, as if its slender vowel

Had mutated into the night earth and air


Of California. The beautiful, useless

Tang of eucalyptus spelt your absence.

The aftermath of a mouthful of wine

Was like inhaling you off a cold pillow.


And there she was, the intent and glamorous,

Ordinary, mysterious skunk,

Mythologized, demythologized,

Snuffing the boards five feet beyond me.


It all came back to me last night, stirred

By the sootfall of your things at bedtime,

Your head-down, tail-up hunt in a bottom drawer

For the black plunge-line nightdress.


3:37 AM …

… and the deeply cratered southern lunar highlands have slipped below the upper edge of the skylight in my room. The rectangle of bright light from the full February moon has been sliding up the covers of my bed and now moves onto my pillow and into my eyes, waking me.

I estimate that the slice of skylight I can see from the angle of my bed equals not quite two of the moon’s diameters. I decide to watch the bright beacon descend on its westward trajectory as long as I can keep my eyes open.  I manage the task, watching the moon crawl slowly down through the spidered tips of the trees in the back yard. I can actually see it move.  Which is thrilling.  By 4:45, nothing is left but a soft glow at the bottom of the frame emanating from the now-hidden moon. I am tempted to go downstairs to watch it continue its journey, but I know from that lower angle it will be lost in the tangle of trees and the houses on the street behind my house.  So I go back to sleep. DSC00585

I’ve always been confounded by the movement of the moon. It’s never in the same place night after night. I recently took a wonderful class at the Natural History Museum, All Things Moon, and learned a lot. The moon moves approximately its own diameter each hour against the background of the stars – or a little more than .5 degrees along its orbit around the earth. It takes about 27 1/3 days for the moon to complete an orbit while the earth keeps spinning/rotating. 360 degrees divided by 27.3 days = 13.2.  So the moon rises and sets 13.2 degrees to the west each day and moves .5 degrees against the stars each hour of the day/night.  There’s a reasonably clear explanation of it all here, but it still makes my head spin.

Does the moon stun you, as it does me?  As long as I can remember I have been fascinated with it. Some years ago I wrote a poem that tried to capture that stunned feeling and it was chosen in a contest that was part of a local effort to put poetry on city buses.  Here’s the bus card that was produced.  DSC00526

The artwork was done by then Kent State Design Studio student Alexandra Charitan. I was a little upset that the image of the moon was reversed from what we see, but also learned from my class at the Museum, that photographs taken through certain kinds of telescopes reversed the image. The good thing, though, was that the big red lips ended up exactly over the Mare Nubium (Sea of Clouds) mentioned in the poem; the dark basalt plain in the southern hemisphere that I always imagined was the singer’s mouth.  Here’s the poem:

Night Song
The moon, sudden as a door slam,
rang the night awake.
The Aztecs saw a rabbit there.
For me, a singer croons.
A lunar anthem sounding
from the cloud-less mouth
of Mare Nubium; its tone
the perfect ‘A’ of Mozart’s clarinet.

Interestingly, since I wrote that poem I don’t see the ‘man in the moon’ singing anymore, as I once did.  It’s rabbits every night. What do you see?

I don’t know why I am so fascinated with the moon.  It just seems an impossible, magical thing, hanging up there in the sky.  You’d think that, with all we now know about it the romance of the moon would diminish.  But for me, it’s only grown.

Through the All Things Moon course, delightfully taught by the Museum’s deeply knowlegeable Shafran Observatory Manager, Clyde Simpson, I learned just how unique and symbiotic our Earth-Moon system is. In the massive collision of another planet (appropriately named Theia, in Greek mythology, a Titan goddess and mother of the moon goddess Selene), into our own 4.5 billion years ago, we acquired our mighty heart of iron.  In return we blasted and spun off fragmented elements of our crust which coalesced over time into the shining rock, locked in its orbit around us each day.  We are, in fact, geologic twins, or at least siblings.

Our world and life as we know it would not be possible without the companionable influence of our moon. The fact that it is moving away from us a tiny, tiny bit every year worries me.

“The Moon continues to spin away from the Earth, at the rate of 3.78cm (1.48in) per year, at about the same speed at which our fingernails grow.”  Dr. Maggie Alderin-Pocock

Read about it here.


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