Less than a week after I posted about the dragonfly pond, a pair of mallards arrived and began redecorating the pond. They shoved rocks from the border, collapsed minnow caves, uprooted plants, stirred sediment into columns of mud, and added enough nutrient (in the form of duck poop) to start a massive algae bloom.
The dragonfly pond soon looked and smelled like a cattle pond.
The ducks ate everything they could catch in the water. Minnows and dragonfly larvae, damselfly larvae and snails. Anything that swam or wriggled.2
We shooed and herded the pond-wrecking mallards, who returned day after day for further wreckage. I complained to family and friends about the mallards’ destructive invasion, but I also hoped for a nest. Truth be told, I always hope for nests. Plus, I have nostalgic affection for ducks.
Hoping to lure the mallards away from the pond for at least a few hours each day, I purchased a blue plastic wading pool (definitely a theme in my lifelong efforts to keep waterfowl happy) and an extra bag of wild bird feed. Pool and feed in hand, I set up a duck station near the fence in our Virginia back yard, including steps for easy entry into the pool. Then I herded the mallards out of the pond and toward the pool.
Not surprisingly, the mallards saw peril in the duck station and refused to try the wading pool. At that point, the pair were still semi-wild, after all. They retreated into the pollinator beds and rummaged through duff when I was in the yard, then circled back to the pond when I went inside.
And the pond grew more and more fetid. (I had almost forgotten the smell of our chicken house in Tennessee, and sometimes the yard when our flocks grew too populous, but now I’ve been reminded.)
When the female mallard built her nest in the irises and began laying, we stopped all efforts to shoo or herd or otherwise interfere. Almost immediately, the mallards took to the wading pool for luxurious sessions of bathing and splashing.
Resigned to a lengthy mallard residency, we invested in a pump and filter for the pond. For the next month, I cleaned the pond filter daily, dumped and refilled the wading pool every other day, put out feed each morning and evening, and lingered in the kitchen window for hours on end, watching. The mallards hunted in the pond (and further rearranged the rocks), bathed and basked in the wading pool, ate their feed and grazed through the yard, and generally unwilded until they were as comfortable in the yard as our domestic flocks had been in the yard of my childhood home.
And while the mallards unwilded, the nest grew.
On April 1, with nine eggs in the nest, the female mallard settled to incubating. Giving up all pretense of productivity, I sat in the kitchen window, day after day. While she sat on her nest. Day after day.
And then, on April 28, the hatching commenced. All afternoon the mallard fidgeted and turned and tended, eating some of the discarded shells and membranes, tucking the rest under the nest’s foundation of dried grasses. By nightfall the nest was filled with ducklings instead of eggs.
I set my alarm for sunrise the next morning, certain that the female mallard would lead her brood away as soon as the hatchlings were mobile enough. I didn’t want to miss a moment of their brief stay in the yard.
And, of course, they didn’t stay.
I followed the mallards as their mother led them out of the yard and down our street and through a playground and up the next street over to a house on a canal without a fenced back yard. The homeowner was working in his yard when our odd parade arrived, and he nodded and shrugged when I waved from the sidewalk across the street. He told me that mallard mothers lead their brood through his yard, the only unfenced yard along the canal, all spring long. They head for the canal despite its dangerous populations of snapping turtles, snakes, and bullfrogs large enough to eat a baby duck. We agreed that yards are safer but mallards need canals.
Then I trudged home alone, wishing for a world both more and less wild.
I was shocked when the mallard led her brood back, that evening. My husband saw them coming up the sidewalk and called for me. The female mallard had guided her dozen day-old ducklings out into the canal and back again, safe and tired. We opened the gate and welcomed them home, pond wreckage forever forgiven as the sleepy family spilled back into their nest.
The next morning they left for good, of course. The yard, for all of its unwild safety, is not meant for mallards. Nor are mallards meant for the yard.
They haven’t returned, and they won’t. At least, not as the same little family that left. But every mallard I see, for all my years to come, will be one of them.
The Unwild Mallards
The unwild mallards were stubborn and messy
Unwily in their need
And the pond was water enough for nesting
An unwild nest
In unwild irises
A quick meal and a bath
Then back to the nest
Days growing longer and hotter
In the unwild yard
With unwild waters
The unwild dozen
That afternoon, they left
Then returned for one last night
Before they left for good
Heading toward the good wild waters
Where unwild mallards might learn
To be wild
1 We added the board after removing a commercial floating planter/island. We removed the island because it was ruined, then added the board because we felt sorry for the minnows that had enjoyed hanging out under the island. (Click here to go back.)
2 The ducks were not so efficient as to depopulate the minnows and invertebrates. I’m not certain how anything survived, between the feasting and the fouling, but some survived and carried on. Currently, the pond is teeming with baby minnows and every surface is clumped with snail eggs. (Click here to go back.)
3 This is another of my oldest sister’s “Rae with pets” series of photos, which span years and will likely continue to appear on this blog. In the background, two chickens and our shepherd make guest appearances. (Click here to go back.)
4 After our father left, the job of stacking wood fell to me. Mother purchased cut wood from a neighbor, who unloaded it in a heap. I would sort the wood by size and age, stacking it all in our pole shed. The freshest cuts went at the bottom of the pile (to age/cure) and the aged/cured wood at the top. The largest logs started at the left and the smallest kindling at the right. I even sorted the wood according to Mother’s lore: she believed that the hardest woods (usually hickory and oak) burned long and hot, the softer woods (often maple and hackberry, but sometimes others that I didn’t recognize) burned fast and cool, and the evergreens (pines and the occasional cedar) burned oily and deposited more creosote in the chimney. When bad weather was forecast, I brought days or weeks worth of wood to the porch, where it stayed drier than the shed. But Mother didn’t like keeping wood stacked on the porch because warm air escaping through the door woke the woodpile’s insects, who followed the warm air indoors. (I never had cause to doubt Mother’s wood fire lore and would likely stack wood by size and hardness, away from the porch, if we burned wood for heat today.) (Click here to go back.)
5 The wading pool was the closest thing they had to a pond. A second blue plastic wading pool, visible in the background, was in the dog pen and helped our dogs stay cool. The second pool also kept the dogs from digging under the fence because they wanted to play in water. (Click here to go back.)
I regret that I do not have a list of links, for this post, to articles and essays that are more important and more interesting than the small unfoldings in our small yard. I have been tired, of late, and taking a break from the larger world. I will resume reading and exploring and learning once I have regathered my energy, both emotional and physical. In the meantime, please post links of your own, to articles and essays that have helped you better understand the world. (Please also note that I screen comments.)
Last summer I hatched a plan to invite screech owls into the yard.
I’m not certain where my current longing for screech owls started. Probably on social media, where many of my middle-age longings start. Perhaps an outbreak of screech owl photos infected my scroll. Or maybe I succumbed to nostalgia. Again.
In my childhood home, air conditioning existed but was rarely used. Mother considered our two window units massively luxurious wastes of electricity and only turned them on for company. So all through the long, hot, humid Tennessee summers, I treasured the open window beside my bed.
My childhood window, open more often than not, let me hear summer in a way I never hear it anymore. Katydids were my favorite singers, but frogs, whippoorwills, and owls made special appearances during their individual busiest weeks of summer.
In the early spring, peeper frogs spawned in the beaver swamp across the road and in the leaky crater that our father had thought would become a pond, when he dug it. (It was a pond after rain, but the ground was too porous for it to be a permanent pond. Most of the year it was a muddy basin cut into the hill above our garden. The rest of the year it was either a shallow pond or a dry pan of cracked red clay.) Later into spring, bullfrogs took over. During the hottest part of summer, whippoorwills called in the field outside my window. In the late summer and fall, barred owls echoed in the woods all around. And through it all, during the whole long length of summer nights too hot for sleep, screech owls hunted the woods and fields and massive maple trees around our house.
I’ve never seen or heard a screech owl in Virginia. I know they live here, unheard and unseen in our busy suburb. Most summers, I’m content simply knowing they’re here and don’t need sensory proof of their presence. But last summer I couldn’t shake my longing to hear, maybe to see, my screech owl companions from childhood. So I built a screech owl house.
After browsing the internet, I settled on building plans from Audubon and began shopping for wood. With no access to affordable cedar in a 10″ cut, I settled for untreated pine, which then wanted paint. A few days later, The Owl House was complete. (If you are intrigued enough to look at the plans, you’ll note that I decided not to use hinges on the roof, opting instead to attach the roof with a few screws that can be easily removed when the house needs cleaning. I also added an extra water barrier over the angled rear roof joint, because I couldn’t fit the angle well enough to prevent leaks.)
We waited until November to hang The Owl House, hoping that the wood rats and squirrels would have settled into other winter nests. We chose a spot about eleven feet off the ground in the back yard’s large pear tree, nestled between three major branches. For the first few weeks I kept careful watch, as if I expected screech owls to materialize, after decades of invisibility, simply because I invited them. After the first weeks, I watched less frequently. So when a January storm destroyed a squirrel’s nest in the front yard, I didn’t notice until much later that the squirrel had relocated into The Owl House.
With only slight screech owl dismay, I named the squirrel Owl and adjusted my expectations. I also adjusted the bird seed mixture to include more of her favorites: shelled and whole peanuts. (I was already buying these for the crows and blue jays.) I soon grew fond of the squirrel’s watchful attention as I filled bird feeders, put out fresh suet and water, and took care of the yard’s limited winter needs.
When we first moved into our home, in 2001, the neighborhood had more rabbits than squirrels. Far more rabbits, to the extent that we rarely saw squirrels at all. But the squirrel-to-rabbit ratio has steadily changed, over the years, and now we have an abundance of squirrels and very few rabbits. While both of these small mammal neighbors are welcome in the yard, I must admit that, after years of watching rabbits, I find the squirrels’ chronic haste a touch overwhelming.
Marie and Duchess find the squirrels’ antics entertaining (if stalking and chattering under their breath can be taken as signs of entertainment, in cat language).
All winter long, I enjoyed Owl’s active presence in the yard. Then, for a few weeks in March, Owl disappeared. She stopped peering out of The Owl House when I was in the yard, stopped edging down the tree to see if I had added peanuts to the feeder, stopped chasing other squirrels out of the tree. The Owl House was, as far as I could tell without wrestling the ladder over and climbing up to check, abandoned.
Early in April, Owl returned. Thinner and hungrier, but active as ever.
And on April 13, there was extra movement in The Owl House.
The kittens seemed almost as curious about me as I was about them and popped up to look every time they heard me outside. They became increasingly active, and, while I never caught a photo or video of the action, I could see swirls of activity in The Owl House as the kittens zoomied around inside and fell past the entry hole in wrestling-worthy stunts.
The kittens looked mature enough to be leaving the box and exploring their world. But they stayed. For days after I imagined they would leave, they lingered. Sometimes just noses in view, sometimes faces and heads. Usually two kittens at a time, but sometimes three.
I don’t know how many kittens there were, in all. I believe only three, but they were so active that four or five kittens might have been taking turns at the entry hole of their increasingly too-small nest box. To borrow a human reference of expression, they often looked bored.
Owl stayed very close, most of the time. If I went into the yard looking for her, I usually found her either in the box with her kittens or sleeping on a nearby branch.
Sometimes she climbed over and around The Owl House, when she saw me photographing the kittens. Again resorting to anthropomorphism, she seemed anxious about all the attention, and maybe a touch pleased to show them off to me.
As The Owl House was designed and mounted with screech owls in mind, it wasn’t ideal for the active coming and going of squirrel kittens. With no perch within kitten-reach of the entry hole, the kittens couldn’t exit without a perilous scramble, a prodigious leap, or a blind drop. While I’m certain the kittens were capable of scrambling, leaping, and dropping, as they had been doing all of the above in the confines of the box, they fidgeted at the brink for hours at a time.
On their last evening in The Owl House, the kittens mimicked holding food in their forepaws as they watched Owl eat peanuts.
Owl moved in and out of The Owl House by stretching or leaping across the gap between branch and entry hole, but how could the kittens learn such acrobatics without a reachable perch to practice from? I decided to intervene. (This is one of my known and admitted failings, my penchant for unnecessary rescuing. I expect that any wildlife experts reading this blog will be muttering under their breath, “Why can’t she leave them alone? If she would just leave them alone, they would work it out.”)
We decided to run a long, skinny board across two branches that were each some distance from the nestbox, securing the board at one end so that it couldn’t slip. When we were finished, the board passed, at a slight angle, a few inches below and away from the entry hole. (We intentionally chose a board that was too narrow and lightweight for a cat, or even a hawk.) Owl and the kittens observed our activity with what seemed like only mild anxiety, and we watched to make certain Owl was comfortable coming and going with the board in place. She was, and the kittens immediately began testing the board with their front feet. The light was too low for photos, by then, so I went to bed excited to see what would happen the next morning.
The next morning, they were all gone. Gone from The Owl House, gone from the tree, gone from the yard. I don’t know if this is normal behavior, when squirrel kittens achieve the squirrel equivalent of fledging. Maybe squirrel kittens always leave their nest trees and nest yards on this exact schedule. Maybe the kittens had been coming and going from The Owl House all along, when we weren’t watching, and it was simply time to explore other trees and other yards. Maybe our activity, as we added the board, was simply too much and too close for Owl and her kittens.
A day or two later, Owl was back at the feeder, dashing up the tree to her usual perch when I went out to add more peanuts. She comes twice a day now, morning and evening, scrambling always to her perch when I go to meet her with a handful of peanuts. She’s shown no interest in reclaiming The Owl House. After eating her fill, she leaves the yard by way of the neighbor’s back fence, following the entire length of the fence and disappearing into the next yard over. My hope is that she and the kittens are exploring and mapping the neighborhood as she teaches them how to forage on their own. Maybe the kittens will come with her, some day soon, when she comes for her peanuts.
The story of Owl and her kittens will undoubtedly resurface as nostalgia, in future years. If the past is any guide, time will renovate and revise the story until it is as unforgettable as an open window full of katydids, frogs, and screech owls.
As a final note, I admit to naming the kittens, though I couldn’t even count them. They are Sarah and Percy and Bill. If you don’t know why, allow me to explain with a YouTube video:
If you see them, out and about, with or without their Owl mother, now you know their names.
When we lost Scamper last spring, we were already in the process of losing Vanna, too. Vanna had been diagnosed with intestinal lymphoma two years earlier, and, after thriving for longer than expected under the excellent care of her veterinarian, she was beginning to lose ground.
Vanna had been my mother’s cat, which undoubtedly contributed to the depth of my attachment. She was a living link to an unrecoverable past.
What’s more, she flourished in Virginia. In Tennessee, among Mother’s four cats, Vanna had been the neurotic one. The reclusive, skittish one, rarely glimpsed by visitors.
When the cancer finally overwhelmed her, almost exactly a month after we said goodbye to Scamper, I stumbled into another depression.
Our lively household of three cats had been reduced, in a month’s time, to a quiet household of one. I couldn’t write about Vanna’s death. Could barely talk about it.
Within a year we were losing Sabrina, too.
Sabrina was the sweetest, gentlest cat I’ve ever owned. Perhaps the sweetest and gentlest cat I’ve ever met.
She and Scamper had been rescued, at only a few weeks of age, from a construction site.
She suffered a serious injury at about twelve weeks old, losing one of her eyes and undergoing multiple surgeries to salvage the vision in her other eye. She lived the rest of her life with a slowly advancing cataract, but didn’t seem bothered by her limited vision.
She played and romped through adolescence, survived an episode of liver failure in early middle-age, and settled into her senior years with the same calm serenity she had shown from kittenhood.
I had hoped, of course, that we might have a few more years with her, after losing Scamper and Vanna in such close succession. But in November Sabrina began showing signs of discomfort while defecating, our first hint of the rectal tumor that, while repeatedly testing benign on biopsy, was likely malignant at its core.
By March she was too uncomfortable to continue. So I made yet another last trip to our wonderful vet and said yet another goodbye.
How many goodbyes, now? Four, since starting this blog. Indigo. Scamper. Vanna and Sabrina. Before them, Spice.
Spice’s years as a feral cat ended in 1994, the moment I saw her huddled in the back of a cage with a vast, scabbed wound covering her neck and shoulders. She nosed forward to sniff my hand, speaking in unmistakable cat-language. My name is Spice, and I’ve been waiting for you.
Spice was my constant companion for fifteen years. We shared a dorm, an apartment, a duplex (with my future husband), and, in her final years, a house in the suburbs.
She taught Sabrina and Scamper how to be cats, and they kept her young longer than time should have allowed.
Losing her closed a door on my twenties and thirties. I would never be twenty or thirty again, and I would never have another cat like Spice.
All those that came before
Before Spice? The list is long, stretching through memory into the hazy nostalgia of childhood. Mischief and Jackson. Diana. Gizmo and Annie. Morgan and Shere Khan. Sadie and Daisy. Sheena and Poppy. (This list is far from complete, and includes none of the dogs. I’ll save dogs for a later post.)
Many of our cats were named for characters in books and movies. Some came to us already named, relinquished by owners who could no longer keep them, owners who were happy to let an eager young vet assistant adopt the cats they were losing to eviction, a family illness, or one of life’s other jarring turns.
Some of the cats materialized out of thin air, simply showing up in the yard. Others were dumped on the driveway, plucked from parking lots, and chased down in ditches by a trio of sisters who found it biologically impossible to just keep driving. Mother simply sighed and made room for them all, a tide of cats drifting in and out of our lives, in and out of the house each morning and night.
They were never all in the house at the same time, thankfully. Most preferred the yard, sheds, and pasture, most of the time.
Cats have been one of the few constants in my life. They’ve shared all of my memories, every place I’ve ever called home, and almost every job I’ve ever had. I don’t know how to be without cats. In the end, loving cats is part of how I love myself. So…
Duchess and Marie (two of a group named for the Aristocats) were trapped in a warehouse in early June, along with two male kittens about the same age. I saw their photo on social media, contacted Cat Team 7, and the rest is happy history.
They were quite shy, in their first weeks here.
Duchess (or Dutch, because sometimes she’s more Killjoy than Aristocat)
Marie (just Marie, because it fits)
It didn’t take them long to settle in. They have plenty of windows, soft beds, toys, and treats.
They are closely bonded, more dependent on each other than Sabrina and Scamper were. They’re rarely apart.
(Except when Marie plays fetch. Dutch, who has no interest in fetching, stalks the action until she can tempt Marie into a thunderous, romping game of chase.)
And me? I’m sharing my life with cats again. That’s enough for now.
Recommended reading about topics that are more urgent and more important than my cat memories:
The Nostalgia Shelves started with three bins of old books and a stack of tired posters. Many were as old as I am, and the wear showed. They were, literally, loved to pieces. Torn, faded, and stained, none of the items could be saved intact. So I dug out my scissors and bought some Mod Podge.
All of my old favorites found new purpose in the Nostalgia Shelves. Their stories are alive again.
Every so often, time slips sideways. One week it’s May, and the next week July scrolls into August. I have photos and bills to prove that June actually happened, but it happened in a blur of travel, home repairs, and unhoarding.
My unhoarding saga began after Mother died, when the extent of her hoarding (and mine) could no longer be overlooked.
Mother’s hoard was generational. Parts of it accreted as she raised five children, other parts were passed down from two much-loved grandmothers, a formidable mother, a pair of admired aunts, and a somewhat difficult mother-in-law. With each obituary and burial came new photos, letters, books, furniture, glassware, doilies, and quilts.
The women who raised Mother had filled their homes with small treasures, and, because each of them had very real memories of hard, empty years, they treasured everything. Everything held a story, and all of the stories were passed to Mother (who had no siblings) for safe-keeping.
Fighting her own memories of hard, empty years, Mother made room for everything, stuffing her house to the eaves with family history. She made room in her heart, too, and genuinely loved this patchwork collection of heirlooms.
She loved it, that is, until it overwhelmed her.
The hoard took over Mother’s house, just as my hoard was taking over mine. In her house, as in mine, cabinets were jammed full, drawers wouldn’t close, shelves bowed under their burdens, one entire room was given over to storage.
In the wake of Mother’s car accident and death, as I helped my siblings sort and pack five generations of Mother’s belongings, I resolved to make a change. I didn’t want to carry on this tradition, the death ritual of dividing the hoard. Treasures or not, I no longer needed or wanted most of the stuff I had been hoarding.
Resolve is one thing, doing is another. And unhoarding is ridiculously hard work. It got even harder after I scraped off the easiest layers — books I was never going to read, clothes I was never going to wear, dishes I was never going to use. Then came the emotional stuff. Tattered childhood books. Scarred toys and threadbare stuffed animals. Memory-laden trinkets and gifts that warmed my hoarder’s heart.
I spent hours and days and weeks putting off decisions, moving containers from one room to another, painting around them as I dithered. Some days I was tempted to ship them all off to thrift stores, unopened and unsorted. Other days I fought an urge to unpack everything, to binge on dusty memories.
But I don’t want to live in a box of memory. To be owned by the past. So this summer I’ve been cleaning and repairing toys and stuffed animals. Some few will stay with me, others will go to thrift stores. What can’t be salvaged will be recycled or sent to the landfill. (After being photographed, of course.) I’ve also been cutting up old books, calendars, and posters for use in current and future art projects.
Some memories I’m voluntarily discarding, others have been lost in the commotion. But the house gets lighter and brighter with each newly emptied container, with each completed project.
And it feels like an even exchange — memories for light. Time for time.
I think Mother would approve. I think all of them would approve.