The Unwild Mallards

Each spring, our semi-wild population of suburb mallards leave their lakes, ponds, and canals in search of private nesting habitats. This local migration often brings pairs of mallards to the yard, though none have stayed to nest. Until this year.

In this photo, taken April 29, five baby mallards huddle under their mother as she stands on a rock beside our pond. A sixth baby sits on the next rock over. These mallard ducklings were less than 18 hours out of the egg and are only half of the clutch. Six more babies were waiting in the nest behind their siblings.

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.

In this photo, taken March 3, a pair of semi-wild mallards visit the pond. The male mallard floats near the center of the pond, preening his wings, while the female searches for underwater food. The water is still relatively clear and the pond‘s rocks and plants are still somewhat in place.
This photo, taken March 7, shows the view from our kitchen window as the mallards nap in the pond. Both ducks have their heads resting along their backs, beaks tucked into the feathers between their wings. The water is turbid and dark, with scattered remnants of uprooted plants. The rocks are still mostly in place, though that didn’t last.
Photo of the pond, taken March 14, showing filthy greenish-brown water. The pond heater is still deployed, though I removed it shortly after. A board shaped like a fish floats in the far end of the pond.1

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.

This photo3 shows me at some early elementary school age, complete with crooked bangs, ill-fitting shorts and halter top, knobby knees, and a welter of mosquito bites. I’m holding our pet duck Fred, who was very spoiled.
This photo, dated 1975, shows a group of mature white ducks in our Tennessee back yard.
In this later photo, probably late 1980s, three white geese and two black-and-white ducks amble past a newly delivered cord of winter wood in our Tennessee yard.4
This photo, dating to the late 1980s or early 1990s, shows three white geese, two black-and-white ducks, and three white ducks visiting their blue plastic wading pool in our Tennessee back yard.5

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.

In this photo from March 12, a blue plastic wading pool is wedged into the back seat of my car. Many thanks to the very patient Target employee who brought the wading pool out for curbside pickup and helped load it while we both fought off fits of the giggles because who buys a wading pool in March? For ducks? While masking and social distancing because COVID is not over? (I’ll add that COVID is still not over. Especially for families, like mine, who have immunocompromised households.)

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.)

In this photo from March 14, the male mallard watches warily from behind the irises that shore up one end of the pond. Neither of the mallards tried the wading pool until after I quit trying to convince them to try the wading pool.

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.

Photo from March 21, showing the female mallard bathing in the wading pool as the male mallard stands guard.
Photo, dated April 14, showing the female mallard bathing in the wading pool as the male mallard stands guard.
Photo, dated April 18, showing both mallards in the wading pool.

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.

Photo, dated March 20, of the nest with a single egg.
Photo, dated March 28, of the nest with five eggs.
Photo, dated April 1, of the nest with nine eggs.

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.

Photo, dated April 14, of the female mallard on her nest.
Photo, dated April 18, of the eggs nestled in layers of down.
Photo, dated April 18, of the female mallard on her nest.

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.

In this photo, taken April 28, a freshly hatched mallard is nestled deep into the downy feathers lining the nest. The female mallard is half-standing in the nest, with two still-unhatched eggs visible beneath her.
Here a duckling, still damp from hatching, is just visible under the female mallard as she stands in her nest.
Here the ducklings are getting their first views of the world from inside their nest, still guarded by their mother.

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.

April 29. The now-fluffy-and-dry baby mallards peer out from around their mother as the little family begins to stir in their nest.
The baby mallards follow their mother from the nest for their first outing. In this photo, two babies hover under their mother as she stands on the rocks just in front of the nest.
All twelve eggs hatched seemingly healthy babies. Their first clamber down the rocks was eager for some and timid for others. In this photo, one of the eager ducklings takes an awkwardly long step down from the first rock.
The eager duckling from the previous photo experiences a bit of a rough landing in the water. The impromptu dive didn’t phase the duckling, which swam busily away.
The more timid ducklings took more care climbing down from the nest. In this photo, a group of three ducklings linger on the first rock as one of their siblings stretches a careful foot down toward the next step.
The ducklings tasted everything they found. Here, a baby mallard floats on the pond and nibbles at a long plant stem.
The fish-shaped board proved a popular resting spot for the ducklings as they practiced swimming and diving and eating. Here, two ducklings perch on the board while their siblings swim around them. The female mallard is just visible in frame, keeping an eye on her brood.
The ducklings also rested on the pond’s bordering rocks, which were warm from the sun. Here, four ducklings sit on the warm rocks.
A baby mallard, less than 24 hours out of the egg, perches on one of the warm rocks bordering our small dragonfly pond.
Exhausted after their first few swim lessons, the mallard family returned to their nest between adventures. Here, two of the babies have tipped over into awkward sleeping positions on the rocks while their siblings gather in the nest beneath the female mallard.

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

And then
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

Video comprised of still images and iPhone video clips of the mallards’ time in the yard. Text over the images repeats the poem printed above. The audio is a separate recording made in the yard as I edited this video. Traffic noise and wind dominate the audio, but crows and a blue jay make guest appearances.


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.)

The Owl House

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.

This is a winter view of my childhood home in Tennessee, dated 1983, as seen from the top of our terraced pasture. Everything looks barren, dilapidated, and somber in this photo. All of the grasses are yellow and brown. The barn’s tin roof is mostly gone, leaving only tall rafters and a single row of rusting tin at the eave. The pole shed visibly leans and its rusting tin roof is peeling back. The yard’s maples have lost their leaves, as have all of the trees in the beaver-made swamp across the road. A thin trail of smoke shows that it was cold enough for the wood-burning stove (our only source of heat) to be lit.
This is a photo of me at some pre-adolescent age of maximum awkwardness, complete with knobby knees, ill-fitting shorts and halter top, and a bad haircut. (All of my ages were/are maximally awkward, complete with knobby knees, ill-fitting clothes, and poorly planned hair.) Here, I’m in our Tennessee yard, posing with a half-grown calico cat for one of my oldest sister’s “Rae with pets” series of photos.

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.

This is the only image I could find of my bedroom window. The photo shows one end of our gray wood-sided house, but the main visual impact is a heap of splintered branches blown down by an Easter morning tornado in the mid-1980s. The yard is green and slightly overgrown. There are two white-trimmed windows, one (mine) mostly obscured by the downed branches.

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.

This photo shows the view from our back yard. The large maples and overgrown field were nesting, grazing, and hunting grounds for untold numbers of birds and other wildlife. All of this was just outside my childhood window as I lay awake listening to summer each night. In this daytime photo, laundry is on the line, four spoiled goats are approaching the camera, and a trio of white geese are parading through the background. The disheveled pile of old lumber to the right is the remnants of our well-house roof, which was in the process of being replaced.

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.)

Photo of The Owl House, which is essentially a wooden box about 10 inches square and 16 inches deep with a slightly sloped roof, a three-inch-diameter entry hole cut near the top in the front, and some quarter-inch ventilation holes. I painted the outside surfaces white with layered leaf impressions in varying shades of blue, tan, and green. The inside surfaces are unpainted, unsanded wood.

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.

Photo of an adult gray squirrel peering out of 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.

Photo of a mature gray squirrel peering over the edge of The Owl House’s entry hole.

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.

Photo of a gray squirrel sprawled in a pot of newly sprouted milkweed. I start my late summer milkweed in pots because the squirrels dig up and scatter fragile sprouts, whenever I plant directly into the pollinator bed later than spring. Here, one of the squirrels was taking a break from a vigorous (and milkweed crushing) roll in the pot’s cool, damp dirt.

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).

Photo of our cats, Marie and Duchess, watching through the kitchen window as a gray squirrel climbs down the window’s screen. The yard outside is brightly lit by sunshine; the pollinator beds are overflowing with milkweed, fennel, and flowers; and the dragonfly pond has a single water lily bloom.

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.

Photo of a gray squirrel poised at the roots of the pear tree. This is Owl, though in real time I identify her more through behavior than her markings, which are the standard gray, brown, and white markings of your average gray squirrel.
Photo of a gray squirrel (Owl herself) in The Owl House’s entry hole. Her head and shoulders are fully out, her right front foot is grasping the edge of the entry hole, and her left front foot is braced against the facing board of The Owl House.

And on April 13, there was extra movement in The Owl House.

Photo of two squirrel kittens peering just over the edge of the entry hole to The Owl House. Both are barely in view, just a foot, nose, and eye for the kitten on the left and a foot and ear for the kitten on the right.
Photo of a squirrel kitten peering out of The Owl House. Its nose and eyes are in view, along with a few toes and the very tip of its tail.

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.

Photo of two squirrel kittens looking out of The Owl House. The kittens are jostling for space, and one has a foot hooked over the other’s nose, attempting to shove it aside.
Photo of two squirrel kittens competing for space in the entry hole of The Owl House. One kitten is head-and shoulders out of the entry hole, front feet clutching the edge for leverage as the other kitten pushes from the side. All that is visible of the second kitten is its nose, mouth, and chin.
Photo of a squirrel kitten with its chin resting on the lip of The Owl House’s entry hole, while a second kitten climbs past overhead. All that is visible of the second kitten is the underside of its chest and a portion of one paw.
Photo of two squirrel kittens competing for space as they watch from The Owl House. Both are somewhat sideways in the entry hole, one looking out from the right side and the second trying to gain more room by locking a paw over the lip of the entry hole.

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.

Photo of two squirrel kittens peering out from The Owl House. A third kitten’s nose is in view.

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.

Photo of two squirrel kittens resting against each other as they gaze out of The Owl House. If I saw two children with these expressions and body language, I would guess that they were bored.
Photo of a squirrel kitten gnawing at the lip of the entry hole to The Owl House. Again, if I saw a child staring off into space with a similar expression as they nibbled on something, I would guess they were bored. And probably tired.
Side view photo, through a gap in the pear tree’s leaves, of two squirrel kittens looking out of The Owl House. I wish that I had words to describe their expressions without resorting to anthropomorphism. As it is, I’m left with saying they look a bit bored, a bit tired, and a bit wistful. They were ready to leave the nest.

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.

In this photo, Owl is stretched out on a limb, belly down, with her chin resting on her front paws.
In this photo, taken through a thin curtain of leaves, Owl is stretched out on a branch, belly down. She was asleep (or at least had her eyes closed) as I tried to convince the camera to focus through the leaves, but she roused at the sound of my shutter.
In this photo, Owl had been sleeping with her forelegs draped to either side of a smaller branch well above The Owl House. As usual, she roused when she heard my camera shutter.

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.

In this photo, Owl is looking at the camera from over the top of The Owl House, and one of the kittens is peeking out through the entry hole.
Here Owl has climbed down one of the large limbs beside The Owl House while one of her kittens looks out from the entry hole.
In this view from the side of The Owl House, Owl is perched behind the nestbox while one of her kittens looks out from the entry hole.

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.

Here, one of the kittens leans out of the entry hole to look down and around while a second kitten clambers over its littermate’s back.
In this photo, one of the kittens leans forward, shoulders and forelimbs out of The Owl House, and feels around for some purchase on the front of the nestbox.
Here, one of the kittens leans far out of The Owl House, front foot extended, as it watches Owl climb through the branches in front of and below The Owl House.

On their last evening in The Owl House, the kittens mimicked holding food in their forepaws as they watched Owl eat peanuts.

In this photo, a squirrel kitten leans out of The Owl House and goes through the motions of holding food in its forepaws and chewing as it watches Owl eat peanuts.
In this photo, a squirrel kitten leans out of The Owl House, one foot curled in front of its mouth as if holding on to a tidbit of food while eating. The kittens were watching Owl eat peanuts and seeming to copy her motions.

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.

Photo of Owl perched atop The Owl House as two kittens look out from the entry hole. This photo was taken well before we added the “rescue” board described above.

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.

I feel the need to provide an “after” image, as the opening images show my childhood home in disrepair. This is the house a decade later, in 1995. The long single-story house is wood-sided, painted very pale yellow with blue trim around the windows, and has a clean new roof. In this photo there are lots of healthy trees, a freshly mown yard, and plenty of sunshine. The barn and pole shed have been torn down.

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.

Brown Widow Spiders (Arachnophobia Alert!)

Several summers ago, I discovered black widow spiders in the yard. I became somewhat obsessed, torn between fascinated horror, sympathetic biophilia, and the urge to be a responsible homeowner and neighbor.

Though I’ve kept a careful watch, I haven’t seen many black widows in the last few years. In fact, I’ve congratulated myself for eliminating the kind of places they prefer. Which should have raised alarms. I rarely congratulate myself without stumbling, almost immediately, into awkwardness.

Here’s a zebra swallowtail butterfly, to make up for the photos I’ll be posting later.

Zebra swallowtails are large black-and-white striped butterflies with long “tails” on their hindwings. This one was photographed in flight as it approached a cluster of purple flowers.

Last fall, as we checked off our list of winter preparations for the yard, I found a cluster of delicately spiky spider eggs. They looked like burrs, and I made a distracted mental note to see if the internet could tell me what kind of spiders make burr-shaped egg sacs.

A pale tan egg sac in a spider’s web. The spherical egg sac has pointed tufts of silk scattered across its surface and is suspended by a few strands of silk.

Of course, my distracted mental note slipped into foggy forgetfulness. Then, while doing something completely non-spider related about two weeks ago, I found two more burr-shaped egg sacs in a messy web woven between the spokes of a bicycle I never ride. (The bicycle is stored in our Garage of Entropy, which we try to keep tidy despite the garage’s preference for chaos.)

This time I made a firmer mental note, and later that day an internet search told me exactly what kind of spider had made the fascinating eggs in my garage. A brown widow. (Arachnophobes, look away!)

A spherical, pale tan egg sac with pointed tufts of silk across its surface. Below and in the background, the orange hourglass-shaped mark on the underside of a brown widow’s abdomen is visible.

I think this is a good place for another butterfly…

Close up photo of an orange and brown painted lady butterfly. The butterfly is perched on a cluster of purple flowers.

According to (one of my favorite research resources), brown widows are an introduced species in the US: “It was introduced in Florida and has since been observed moving north through Georgia, and into South Carolina; it has also been officially recorded in California, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas.” Obviously, this information is a bit dated. Our brown widows are two states north of South Carolina.

I use the plural “our brown widows” with a shiver.

Now that I know what to look for, the garage and yard are positively infested.

A brown widow spider hides in its disorganized web. says that brown widow spiders are one of the “most human-adapted” introduced species. What’s more, “It reproduces frequently and disperses rapidly, making it nearly impossible to control.” Each female spider, the information page notes, can produce up to 5000 young per season, and females can live as long as three years.

A gray-and-brown striped brown widow spider, with an orange hourglass-shaped spot on the underside of her abdomen, hangs in her web with four pale tan, burr-shaped egg sacs.

Despite a years-long effort to subdue my arachnophobia, these brown widow photos make me sweaty and anxious. How about a tufted titmouse, to break the tension?

A small tufted titmouse perches on a twig in the pear tree. The bird’s head, back, and wings are gray, its chest and abdomen are very pale (almost white), and there are tinges of pale orange in the feathers under its wings. All of its feathers are ruffled, including the crest of gray feathers on its head.

The question of whether or not brown widow spiders pose a public health risk is complicated. The Center for Invasive Species Research at the University of California Riverside provides the following information:

“The bite of a brown widow spider is minor in comparison to that of a black widow.  Although one frequently cited study demonstrates that, drop per drop, brown widow spider venom is as toxic as other widow species, venom toxicity is only one aspect when considering a spider’s bite potential. An African study with 15 verified bites demonstrated that the brown widow spider bite victims showed none of the classic symptoms of latrodectism, a response induced by neurotoxins in the venom of spiders in the genus Latrodectus (e.g., brown widows, black widows [L. mactans], Australian redbacks [L. hasselti], European black widow [L. tredecimguttatus], and New Zealand’s katipo spider [L. katipo]).  The reason for the weaker effect of brown widow bites on humans is possibly because the brown widow does not have or cannot inject as much venom as its larger relatives.  The two major symptoms of a brown widow bite were that the bite hurt when it was inflicted and it left a red mark. These two symptoms are not much different from the bite of normal household spiders.  However, there is one recent report of a verified brown widow bite manifesting in more severe symptoms that required hospitalization of the bite victim.”

Richard S. Vetter,

The Texas Invasive Species Institute, from the Texas State University System, offers a similar appraisal:

“Currently, the brown widow spider does not pose the same medical concerns as the black widow spider. Bites from the brown widow do not cause the same symptoms as the black widow. Brown widow spider venom is twice as potent as black widow venom, it is believed the brown widow does not inject the same amount of neurotoxin. This, results in the decreased severity of symptoms in the form of cramping or nausea. This species is timid avoids human interaction. In fact, males and immature brown widow spiders do not bite at all. This species will fall to the ground in a ball as if it were dead as a defense mechanism, but should not be handled. Brown widow spiders bite out of defense, and it will only occur by mature females.”

For one final illustration, here’s a couple of paragraphs from the University of Florida’s densely referenced brown widow information page:

Symptoms: Black widow bites to humans may result in a variety of systemic symptoms (Sampayo 1943 and 1944). Typically, brown widow bites are not as serious as those of the black widow, and pain is usually restricted to the area immediately adjacent to the bite wound (Almeida et al. 2009, Foelix 2011, Suchard 2009). Also, approximately 15% of bites may be “dry” with no venom injected (Reyes-Lugo et al. 2009). However, some bites do cause the more severe, systemic symptoms characteristic of black widows (Arnold and Ryan 2009, Goddard et al. 2008, Müller 1993a).

“Müller (1993a) reported the incidence of the following systemic symptoms from 15 cases of brown widow bites in South Africa: generalized muscle pain and cramps (2), abdominal pain and cramps (4), weakness in legs and difficulty in walking (2), pain in regional lymph nodes (2), and raised temperature (2).”

Donald W. Hall,
A brown widow spider, identified by the orange hourglass mark on the underside of her abdomen and by the burr-shaped egg sac in her web, attempts to hide near the rusting axle of my old blue bicycle.

While some pest control sites list brown widow spiders as living in central and eastern Virginia, the Virginia Cooperative Extension information page about widow spiders lists brown widows as mostly occurring in Florida and Texas, noting that black widows are the primary widow species found in Virginia. So I’m considering this post as a sort of public service message for readers living in Virginia. Brown widows are here (and likely have been here for a while).

And now, after all of these photos of brown widow spiders and their spiky eggs, I think it’s best to close with a few images that don’t make me feel shivery and icky inside…

A small hawk with barred feathers on its chest and reddish-orange eyes perched in our pear tree just long enough to allow a single in-focus image.
Another photo of the zebra swallowtail butterfly. This time the black-and-white striped butterfly is sipping nectar from a cluster of purple flowers. The butterfly has long “tails” on its hind wings and a single row of orange markings on the exposed underside of the right hind wing.

Here are some links to articles that are more interesting and more important than what has been happening in my yard:

Note: I am implementing two practices in this blog post, practices I plan to continue. The first is evident in my photo captions, which are image descriptions for the visually impaired. The second practice will provide content warnings for my lists of links. I’m ashamed that I didn’t implement both of these practices earlier.

I would appreciate feedback regarding my image descriptions and content warnings. I’m happy to add more information and/or edit as requested, so please comment with suggestions.

A Deer in the Suburbs and a Science Major in the Humanities

We live in the suburbs. In the most suburban of suburbs. Our house sits in the end of a cul-de-sac within easy walking distance of two schools, three strip malls, an embarrassment of restaurants, a clamor of gas stations, a smallish city park, and a pair of naval bases.

Suburbia hasn’t overrun all of the fields in our area, nor every wooded lot, but there’s nothing that resembles a wilderness corridor. So the young stag that landed in our yard, in October of 2019, had scrambled across miles of sidewalks and pavement before getting trapped in our cul-de-sac and scraping over our fence.

Only to find more fence, on the other side.I don’t know why the deer decided to stay. Maybe he was exhausted. Maybe he didn’t like how it felt, going over a fence without knowing what was on the other side. Maybe he was relieved to find a yard with no dogs, a pair of small water gardens, some weedy pollinator beds, and a few spots of semi-cover.I was delighted to have a deer guest. Even more delighted to run into an animal control officer who was cruising through the cul-de-sac. She had been alerted to the deer’s mid-morning residential antics and seemed delighted, herself, to find him. She advised me to let him rest for the day, if he would, then open the gate at dusk so he could find his way out. I did, and he did.

In this metaphor, I am neither the deer nor the suburbs. I’m the long-unemployed, middle-aged woman who lives on a cul-de-sac, is trying to give her yard back to the earth, and needs a new skill set.

I have a bachelor’s degree in biology (BS), a doctor of veterinary medicine degree (DVM), and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). I’m a BS DVM OCD.

I didn’t know about the OCD until I was in my late twenties, though it started affecting my study and work habits while I was in school. I floundered through an internship, where the pace and stress exacerbated my symptoms and resultant anxieties, then lucked into a great job.

I loved my job and my clients and my patients, and I developed coping mechanisms for the OCD and anxiety. But love and coping mechanisms only got me so far. Eventually I fell apart, changed my work schedule, and fell even more apart. I retired from veterinary practice when I was a young veterinarian, and I’ve been unemployed since.Unemployed, but not idle. I’ve taken care of myself, my family, and my tiny acre of world. And I’ve written many words.

Poetry, fiction, creative non-fiction, nature rambles, random histories of veterinary medicine, random histories of randomness. For more than a decade, I collected thoughts into words and words into files and researched whatever caught my interest. I submitted and published some of my writing, and I was once paid $5 for a poem.

And, while I’ve stopped submitting and publishing in recent years, I’m still writing. Since January of 2020, I’ve been studying professional writing through Old Dominion University’s online Graduate Certificate program.

A science major in the humanities silo. What next?

Hopefully, next will be a yard given back to the earth, a deer surrounded by less fence and more wilderness, and a world without educational silos. (More on these in later posts.)

Mine is a story of immense and unearned privilege, but it is also a story of gratitude and listening. My hope is that, in the end, it will be a story of kindness.

I regret that I do not have a list of links for this post. Much of my reading, over the past two years, has been books instead of internet content. Here are a few of them. If you’ve read these books, I would love to hear your thoughts. Recommendations for further reading are always welcome.

Cultures and Organizations: Software of the Mind by Geert Hofstede, Gert Jan Hofstede, and Michael Minkov

How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human by Eduardo Kohn

From Black Codes to Recodification: Removing the Veil from Regulatory Writing by Miriam F. Williams

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Historical Capitalism by Immanuel Wallerstein

Trans-Kin: A Guide for Family & Friends of Transgender People edited by Eleanor A. Hubbard and Cameron T. Whitley

The Rhetoric of Risk: Technical Documentation in Hazardous Environments by Beverly Sauer

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn

Productive Creativity and Creative Productivity

It’s been two years since my last post. Two entire years of an ongoing search for balance. Any and all versions of balance.

In this search, as with everything else, I fail more often than succeed. But failure is, of itself, productive.

Except, the word “productive” is problematic, isn’t it? What, exactly, constitutes productivity? If the results of my labors are largely invisible, even intangible, have I truly been productive?

“What Heisenberg discovered was that the limit to our ability to observe the universe determines the boundaries of reality. Physical reality and observability are tied together. If you and I cannot observe it, it does not exist… or is it perhaps, if it exists, it is because you and I observe it?” Evan Harris Walker in The Physics of Consciousness: The Quantum Mind and the Meaning of Life (1)

Maybe some adage applies, based on the laws of thermodynamics. Maybe I create and destroy in equal measures, so the sum of my productivity is zero. A cancellation of balances. Any and all versions of balance.

Or maybe words matter less than I imagine, and imagination matters more, when shaped into words.

“…nature is a chaos of forms and colors and shapes and forces, and the various ways in which that chaos has been untangled and made legible should never be taken as nature’s truth but rather as nature’s possibility within a human imaginary.” Rachel Poliquin in The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing (2)

Independent of my blog activity, independent of words and definitions, the yard’s wheel bugs flourish and die and flourish and die with seasonal regularity.

(Catalogued in the family of assassin bugs, wheel bugs are considered beneficial predators. They possess a long “beak” for stabbing their prey, as seen in some of these photos. The same beak can be used defensively, and people who have been stabbed by wheel bugs report the bite to be “immediately and intensely painful”.)

The first generation I followed, in the summer of 2017, never knew life without my looming camera-presence. I found their egg clusters in the winter of 2016 and photographed them through their own egg-laying.

But I largely abandoned my camera the next year, so the next generation escaped my looming camera-presence. Can I prove that they flourished, without photos? That they were overtly and conspicuously productive? Populating the live oak and pear tree, the wax myrtles and pollinator beds. Always hunting and molting, destroying and creating.

Always, in my imagination, a chitin metaphor to be used in a future poem or blog post.

When I began planning this post, my long-awaited wheel bug post, I discovered what I should have expected all along. The yard’s current wheel bugs, unaccustomed to a looming camera-presence, are difficult to photograph.

These last photos, all taken yesterday, are the result of two weeks’ searching and stalking and standing quietly under the live oak. Two weeks for a set of blog photos.

Two weeks of productive creativity. Because I did other things, during those two weeks, but I approached each task with a bit more creativity than usual.

And now, a blog post! At last!

A brief moment of imperfect balance, two years in the making. Word-shaped and shared.

Quotation sources:

(1) Walker, Evan Harris. The Physics of Consciousness: The Quantum Mind and the Meaning of Life. Basic Books. 2000. p 54.

(2) Poliquin, Rachel. The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing. Pennsylvania University Press. 2012. p 9.

Recommended reading:

Here are three of my favorite recently-read books. Have you read them? What did you think?

Poetry: Painting Czeslawa Kwoka, Honoring Children of the Holocaust by Theresa Senato Edwards and Lori Schreiner

Fiction: This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel

Non-fiction: Stein on Writing by Sol Stein