Lessons in sharing, from some uninvited 'guests'
The noise started at dawn and went on relentlessly until dusk. It sounded like a wounded cat, right outside my study window, but I tracked it to a small bird standing sentinel atop a streetlight.
When it flew into the front yard to chase away a robin placidly digging for worms, I recognized it as a mockingbird - no doubt guarding a nest nearby. During the next few days, I watched it fearlessly dive at, chase off the three crows that tap-danced on the roof over my bedroom every morning.
Through a living-room window, I discovered the nest in a large rhododendron at the far end of the flower bed. Eventually I got used to the strident call, much as one gets used to trains' whistles and rumbles from a nearby railroad track.
That was last spring. This spring, the mockingbirds nested in the Swiss stone pine, near the front walk, and complained loudly whenever I passed too close to the tree on my way to the mailbox. When I first saw both the male and the female, poised to divebomb and attack my head, I felt rather annoyed. It was my yard and my tree.
Then I realized it was their yard and their tree, perhaps even more than mine, especially at this time of year.
I remembered my daughter's experience when a pair of finches built a nest in the porch light just outside her front door. The birds became very agitated when anybody used that door, so my daughter, who was also awaiting the birth of her baby, decided to use the garage entrance "for the duration." As she pointed out, stress is not good at a time like that.
The mockingbirds weren't the first squatters in and around our home. Shortly after we moved in, 15 years ago, I noticed some unusual-looking crickets in the laundry room. They had light-brown bodies, striped legs, and appeared mainly at night.
When I turned on the light and went in to transfer laundry from washer to dryer, they would hop around frantically. I tried to reassure them by standing still for a few seconds and telling them I was just going to the dryer and back. Gradually they became used to my visits.
I happened to read an article that identified them as camelback crickets. They prefer to live indoors and never see the light of day. That is when I started to leave a saucer of water for them. Once in a while they have babies, who jump and scurry whenever I turn on the light, but they learn the drill as they mature.
One night last week, however, an adult decided to explore beyond the boundaries. I saw the cricket on the landing, halfway up the basement stairs. "That's dangerous territory," I warned. "If you get into my kitchen, you'll have to go outdoors for good."
The insect didn't budge - and was still there the next day. "If you get upstairs, you're likely to get stepped on by somebody else." I was blunt; the cricket returned to the laundry room.
All along, there have been spiders. As we were setting up housekeeping, so were they, particularly in sunny corners near doors and windows. They spun new webs within hours of my removing old ones. Even moving the spiders outdoors did no good. They had found an ideal environment, whether I acknowledged that or not.
Finally, I made a deal with them: They could have the corners of the two family-room windows, near a door to the outside, and I would not disturb them - but I'd do anything necessary to discourage them from all other sites. In return, they'd catch other bugs that strayed through the door.
I don't even count as squatters the box turtles who taught me that any tomato they could reach was fair game - for just one bite. Likewise the doe that occasionally brings her twin yearlings to our small woods for day care, while bulldozers are at work near their home. As they leave, she shows them how to snack on our euonymus bushes.
The ultimate move-in has been the most challenging. Having delighted in watching bluebirds raise families in the specially designed house in our backyard, I was not thrilled to see wrens and English sparrows claim it in recent years. I could never bring myself to follow the bluebird society's advice to clean out "intruder" nests ruthlessly, however. First come, first served, I decided.
Late last summer, though, when the sparrows were long gone, a swarm of paper wasps staked their claim on the bluebird house, ideal for filling with multistoried parchment combs, which they did for six energetic weeks. Every time I tried to weed the flower bed beneath their new home, they persuaded me to keep my distance.
They are still there ... I think. When nesting season arrived, no birds even approached the house. It has been strangely quiet ever since. Much as I hate to see a lovely birdhouse go to waste, I am reluctant to open it up to see what is going on.
When I think of all this resident wildlife, I am reminded of some poetry-writing exercises I do with my students. They stem from native-American poems that emphasize the circle of life and what all life forms can teach or learn from one another. Mockingbird, cricket, spider, turtle, deer: Each has given me a new perspective on ownership and has taught me new ways to share.
Paper wasp? I am still thinking about it.
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