Friday, July 18, 2008

Yes! In my backyard!

I'm continually amazed by the variety of wildlife I'm able to see in my little corner of suburbia. It's not like we live in an area away from the town that backs onto a forest—no, there's a strip mall one block away, and we're half a mile away from a major road that has department and grocery stores, all known fast-food chains, and of course the only IKEA store within several hundred miles. So I'm not kidding when I say we live in the middle of suburbia.

I try to do my part, of course. Besides the corner gardens, I maintain a few bird feeders year round. We get loads of house sparrows and mourning doves every season, and plenty of robins and grackles in the spring. The seed feeders bring in house finches and goldfinches (although the latter have been sparse this year), and the occasional dark-eyed junco. Our huge corkscrew willow tree attracts woodpeckers every once in a while. My favorite birds are the cardinals. Not only are they pretty, they have interesting songs. They are sassy birds; they love to tease our cats by perching near the window, seemingly within reach. I'll see whole families by our feeder; red males, brown females, and the juveniles with their brown feathers and beaks that are starting to turn red.

We get some interesting guests every once in a while. At least once every spring, we get a pair of mallards in our yard. The female will quack and quack, as if nagging the male: "I told you we should have stopped and asked for directions!" Of course, the cats find our duck visitors extremely interesting.

Earlier this spring, the term "birdfeeder" took on an added dimension when we saw a raptor visit. We were attracted by the cat staring into the back yard, as usual; then Boy asked, "That's not a mourning dove, is it?" I looked up and saw something similar in color to a mourning dove fly off with a sparrow in its claws. Checking my bird book, I decided it was either a sharp-shinned hawk or a Cooper's hawk, both of which have rusty chests and gray backs. The next week I saw more evidence of a raptor visit: the remnants of a grackle, including beak, claws, and a few entrails left behind when I closed my window and scared off the visitor. I think the raptors may be nesting near our subdivision's clubhouse, a few blocks away; they have a stand of trees next to the road and there are several skeletal ash trees which give perfect views for a raptor. I took a walk earlier this week and saw three perched in the top branches, but unfortunately I didn't have my camera. I won't make that mistake again.

I have to give a lot of credit for the variety of suburban wildlife in our area to our township government. Although there has been an astounding amount of development in this area over the past 15 years, they have made an effort to retain some natural areas. There are a couple of wetland areas preserved in between subdivisions; these and several catch ponds in the area attract great egrets and great blue herons. We often see these huge, graceful birds flying around, or fishing in ponds. The township just opened a walk/bike trail they're developing around the local river network, and there are yearly events to clean up and monitor local creeks. Here is the creek that runs through our subdivision, behind the elementary school, and through the large commons area that's a great place for a morning walk. You can see the manicured lawns in the distance, but there's also a long portion that's allowed to grow naturally—the source of our duck visitors. When I went for a walk this morning, I took my camera, hoping to catch the raptors perched in their tree. What I saw instead, while passing the culvert that passes under the main road of our sub, was a very startled (and too quick to be photographed) muskrat!* I guess life will find a way, even in suburbia. Lucky for me—yet more ways to avoid Chapter 17 ... I'm doing research, yeah, that's it. If I'm going to build my own world, I need to observe the natural world around me. At least that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.

*So I was checking Wikipedia to make sure it was a muskrat and not some other kind of aquatic mammal, and came across this nugget in the entry: "Lenten dinners serving muskrat are traditional in parts of Michigan." What the?!?!? What part of Michigan is that?!? I know Wiki can be unreliable, but this sounds too weird to be true. Looking at their sources, though, they cite an article from the Michigan Catholic in which the Archdiocese of Detroit confirms that "there is a long-standing permission—dating back to our missionary origins in the 1700s—to permit the consumption of muskrat on days of abstinence, including Fridays of Lent." (The reasoning: muskrats swim, therefore they are like fish.) I guess muskrat does not taste like chicken, however, but like duck. There's my weird fact for the day.

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