Drama of love and war in my own backyard

Hawk on fence

Ask anyone who knows me where my favorite place is, and the answer would be my backyard. There’s a whole world of wonder there, an ongoing drama of war, love (of sorts), and joy. War, you may ask? In a back yard? Yep.

Petunias in bloom north florida
Photo: Indie Art South

I can honestly say the drama and more provided by creatures and plants in my back yard have been balm for the  Coronavirus blues during this era when even those of us who are healthy are quarantining.

Just this morning I watched a tiny mockingbird take on a hawk many times that mockingbird’s size. The hawk flew swiftly towards the oak tree in our neighbor’s yard, and the mockingbird was behind, then atop that hawk, doing what I refer to as ‘dive-bombing’. The hawk didn’t fight back. They never do, and there’s a perfect example of this behavior in a video posted by Daily Picks and Flicks. When I witness such moments, I think of films of fighter planes doing the kamikaze during World War II, only these dive bombers live to chirp the tale.

Lizards in North Florida
Photo: Indie Art South

I once had to explain to a woman at one of my book events that yes, a mockingbird is a fierce little creature. I’d read a poem I’d written, “Domestic Terrorism.” The poem was inspired by the frequent harassment a mockingbird family dealt our daughter’s cat. The woman in the audience, when questions opened, said the poem wasn’t believable.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because everyone knows mockingbirds won’t hurt anything.”

I was happy to help her out, and I then regaled the audience with mockingbird tales. The woman wasn’t from the South, so she’d hadn’t witnessed this behavior in whatever wildlife she had access to in New York City.

fall flowers
Photo by Indie Art South

This year’s warm winter and what can only be described as one of the most beautiful spring seasons I’ve seen since moving to North Florida years ago have favored our lizard population. These are some very interesting creatures—the lightning speed enabling them to capture their prey is but one feature. Another is their acclimation to humans. I find myself talking to some of the lizards out back in an effort to reclaim my favorite deck chair. Oddly, that chair, regardless of where we park it, is their favorite. One lizard I’ve dubbed “Larry” (short for ‘Lothario’ as he is definitely a lady’s man) will sit on the arm of this chair even when we are sitting on it. We have named his favorite mate Lorelai.

If you’ve witnessed lizards mating, you have definitely seen something intriguing. From the design of the male’s reproductive appendage to the neck nibbling, the process is something to behold. Rebecca and I were sitting on the deck one afternoon as the ritual took place, and she was looking up information in response to our questions. We both laughed aloud at how the search algorithm would deal with questions about lizards nibbling a mate’s neck, among other terms.

I do have some concerns for those lizards who make me think of mini-dinosaurs every time I watch them. Mr. Slithers, our resident black racer, is a very skilled hunter. Mr. Slithers has grown to roughly 3-4 feet in length, and he looks far more frightening than he really is. He does enjoy watching me when I clip and snip my herbs, and I am amazed that he seems to have no fear of me as long as I don’t try to touch him.

Included in our backyard ‘critter-land’ is a very large possum. Our small dog Bear cornered her one night—she’d fled into a network of outside pipes leading to pump room in the pool house. By the time he caught up to her after a romp around the yard, Ms. Possum had her teeth bared and had gone into full hiss mode. Bear was fearless. I walked over to him, scooped him up, and told him to live and let live. The possum just kept hissing until we backed off and went inside. There are few animals more beneficial to humans than the common possum, by the way.

We have also seen rabbits, one large turtle, a fox, a racoon, numerous squirrels, several feral chickens, and many different species of birds including a very friendly egret. When we bought the house, we let the Viburnum grow to tree size. That gives the birds habitat. We planted milkweed, salvia, and other plants butterflies and hummingbirds enjoy. We left it rough around the edges by the fence, leaving some scruff (my word for it) between the manicured lawn I routinely curse and the fence. Why do I curse that lawn?

The type of lawns we plant make no sense to me. They require so much upkeep, between watering, fertilizing, and weed control. When we go through a dry spell, we have to spot water. It makes more sense to me to sow wildflowers for the bees and butterflies, or at least to plant something you can eat, although our homeowners’ association might not approve of that approach.

We live in an area that is undergoing relentless development, with large old homestead tracts—some up to 50 acres—being scalped for cookie cutter houses smushed together and most of the trees felled in order to get more cookie cutter houses on the property. People have the right to do what they want with private property, but it seems to me those of us who really care about the environment (and who aren’t getting paid to care) should be trying to win some hearts over when it comes to development.

Last evening my husband ran to our small neighborhood store and as he was about to walk inside, he noticed a racoon very much enjoying some of the food apparently placed there for the feral cats we see in this area. He laughed at the racoon’s completely casual attitude at all the people walking by.

I figure most thought they were looking at a cat, a big one admittedly.

As older tracts are broken up, as trees and snags are felled, we will see more urban wildlife even in outlying suburbs like ours. It would be a good idea to try to figure out how to live in harmony with these creatures, and to take a hard look at how we landscape and develop, and what we plant. If you plant the right things, you won’t need to buy birdseed.

During the Coronavirus slowdown, our back yard has brought all in my immediate family much joy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been inspired to write because of what I witness when I’m out there.

So often, the rawest pleasures are the best ones.

Urban raccoon north florida in Mandarin
Photo: Indie Art South

(Kay B. Day/May 12, 2020)

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