We all have our morning routines. My day begins with opening the blinds, curious to see if there are blue skies or if the forested low mountains across the valley will be shrouded in morning mist. I like to put on my flip-flops and step onto my small patio to greet the day. For many years I would scoop a big cup of birdseed from the bin by my sliding glass door. Since no human neighbors could hear me, I was free to greet my other neighbors more like a seven-year-old than my seventy-year-old self. “Good morning, good morning!” I crooned as I tossed handfuls of millet and sunflower seeds into the duff under the manzanita shrubs.
Was it my voice or was it the sound of the door? Immediately juncos and chickadees darted through the chaparral to land near the slatted fence just as the seeds fell near them. Chipmunks scurried in from four directions. A scrub jay swooped down from the roof. I then filled the copper water bowl, which was soon surrounded by thirsty songbirds and chipmunks. A California thrasher hopped into the bowl for its morning bath, splashing vigorously, water drops sparkling in the morning rays.
Then it was my turn to bathe. As I eased into my small hot tub, installed so that even on frosty mornings I could join the awakening world, my inevitable Ahhh seemed to call in even more hungry animals. Did they live nearby in the wild sand hills above my house or nest in the small backyards down the road, somehow notified that it’s breakfast time?
Blissfully floating, I tracked passing clouds, circling ravens, and flocks of broad-banded pigeons. My small neighbors never seemed to mind when I sat up, splashing a bit like the thrasher. Not even those right nearby - sparrows, several juncos and two chipmunks - who pecked, scratched, and pawed the dirt for their breakfast.
But maybe the most delicious part was when the small brown rabbit crept out from under the white sage bush and methodically chewed one bit of grain after another. Silhouetted, her dark round eye looked toward me. When I slowly leaned over the tub edge, murmuring in what I hoped was a reassuring tone, she let me watch her from only several feet away.
Like a smitten lover, I told her how perfect she was, particularly her cream colored feet that stuck out from under her plump rounded torso. And then there was that fluff of a tail.
So this was my routine, day after day, month after month. Until one morning my rabbit friend didn’t appear. Was I up too late? Yet that had never mattered before – the animals seemed to track my movements, not the clock. I missed watching her twitching nose, her ears rotating toward inaudible sounds, and how she scrambled back under the bush when a hawk flew over.
I looked for her the next morning as I tossed seed and lingered in the tub, but she didn’t appear. My gut tightened as I went back in the house to make breakfast. What had happened? I could think of many possibilities. A grey fox often came to drink at night. A bobcat occasionally triggered my motion detector camera. Hawks and owls regularly patrolled. And there used to be coyotes nearby – perhaps they’d come back. I believe in the natural order of life, which includes the dance of predator and prey. I track the comings and goings of these hunters as tenderly as I do the small furry creatures. Yet I feared that natural causes might not be the explanation, but instead opportunistic dogs and cats, or worst of all, rodent poison.
I was surprised how affected I was. Sadness trailed me throughout the day. I checked frequently out my windows, threw more seed in the afternoon and evening, just in case she happened to be nearby. Nothing. When she didn’t appear the third morning, I pulled out the carved rabbit figure I bought in the southwest, and placed it on my dresser, which has become an altar to the wild with feathers, stones, and found bits of animal bone. I whispered, I’m sorry you are gone.
The fourth morning, no longer expecting her, I glanced from my steamy tub to see who was scratching for seed. Maybe the quail would appear. But there was my rabbit friend, chewing diligently! For a moment, I didn’t quite believe it. But no, it was her, in her regular spot, those sweet paws peeking out. She didn’t seem to mind my burst of welcoming words.
Was it crazy that the world, or at least this small patch of it, felt right again? What relief, what joy, that my dire speculations, while well-founded, were wrong. Irrationally perhaps, momentarily, the natural world felt more resilient than it often seems in these threatened times.
* * * *
Ah, that setting, my morning routine, the relationships with this little rabbit and all the animal neighbors out my door. It seems so innocent as I look back, like a local Eden. Then it vanished, not because I took a bite out of the apple, but because I removed the fruit. Due to a growing rat population at my house in the fall of 2019, I reluctantly realized my millet and sunflower seed offerings were creating an ideal rodent habitat. When rats entered not only the attic and garage but also my ventilation system and finally my bedroom closet, I had to shut down the diner, removing the birdfeeder and no longer tossing seeds near the tub.
Like many human interventions in the natural world, it solved one problem but invited another. I became lonely. Not just a pang of longing for one particular rabbit, but for the entire community. Juncos and chickadees no longer vied for positions at the feeder, no scrub jays or acorn woodpeckers attempted to muscle the songbirds aside, no rabbits and chipmunks sipped side-by-side at the water bowl or nibbled by the hot tub.
Lonely is a word I seldom use. I am fortunate to have deep connections with friends and family, but I also actively seek solitude. I disagree with the dictionary, which defines solitude as a state of being alone. For me, solitude is filled with intensely meaningful relationships: with myself, with books and music, with the trees around my house, and moments with my wild neighbors. In fact, I feel something akin to loneliness when I don’t create enough quiet space for these bonds. If this deprivation goes on too long, I feel flat, disconnected.
I have precariously teetered on that listless edge these last few months as I hunkered down with a host of pressing business matters that kept me from my regular solitude and as I absorbed the loss of animal presence in my yard. Ennui descended. When graced with a chance encounter, bad days have been salvaged by the sudden glimpse of a coyote in a meadow, by wild turkeys landing on my railing, or swallow acrobatics during an insect swarm. With the first winter rains, a small frog greeted me just out my front door. A visitor, at last! It doesn’t take much to shift my mood – it could be a tiny lizard that lets me draw close, the mating whoo of a great horned owl, or a raven circling overhead, cocking its head to look me in the eye. These magical gifts can momentarily buoy me when floundering, but I am sustained by the daily, the local and the familiar.
Seeing a rabbit or chipmunk or several chickadees reminds me that I live in a wild village, that while I may not see them all, there are many residents around me, scavenging, mating, making nests. When the warblers who appeared in the fall disappear as the weather warms, I am witnessing migration, unfathomable cycles that have taken place for thousands and thousands of years. The birdfeeder and water bowl are my entree to life’s vast theater.
Humans require relationship with other species. It’s in our DNA - our evolutionary success depended on an intricate, intimate dance between hunted and hunter. Through this close attunement, animals taught us skills, influenced our language, and entered our art, dreams and sacred practices. In many oral traditions, animals figure more prominently than humans as the main characters in stories, an essential part of creation myths and moral teachings. Young city children, who may never have seen a live rabbit, deer or fox, are nevertheless mesmerized by them in picture books, as if there is an innate recognition between species. While my survival is no longer dependent on my hunting and gathering skills, an abundance of animals still engenders a sense of well-being in me, and scarcity evokes dis-ease. In short, I miss animals. It has been way too quiet at my house.
So, a few days ago longing shoved cautiousness to the side. I pulled the empty bird feeder from the shed and filled it with seeds, resolving to bring it in at night to discourage the rats. My dispersed neighbors were back for breakfast in one day! Songbirds and woodpeckers vied for bird feeder perches while chipmunks, sparrows and a spotted towhee scrambled for scattered seeds. Where had they all been hanging out in the meantime? How did word get out so quickly? A rabbit scampered around the hot tub area, perhaps thinking the bounty would soon spread. All of this made me ridiculously happy. Sometimes life is simple, even though it can be awfully complicated getting there.*
All photos taken in the two weeks after hanging the feeder.
To listen to my recording of "Wild Village," press the red button.
Unfortunately, life can get complicated again very quickly. Sadly, and ironically, the day after posting this essay, I saw an article in our local NPR radio station newsletter about Pine Siskins in California, Oregon and Washington dying from a salmonella outbreak. This can be spread through bird feeders and water bowls if infected birds use them. The article suggests taking down feeders and water bowls until early April when these birds migrate. You can read more about this at https://www.kazu.org/post/native-bird-dying-why-bird-feeders-are-blame#stream/0.
I had written about my experience with this very problem in my blog post Turning Point during another salmonella scare in 2015. At the bottom of the essay I posted guidelines for keeping bird feeders safe by sanitizing them on an ongoing basis and removing them if there is any sign of disease outbreak. While I have never had a Pine Siskin appear at my feeders, I am removing the feeder and water bowl until this danger has passed or until I can make a more informed decision. If you find a Pine Siskin showing distress, you can call your local Native Animal Rescue Center.
Other related Blog Posts: "Migrations" describes the joy of being in the midst of bird abundance, "Trapped" reveals the painful dilemma when the rats moved in, and then two posts about other neighborly visitors: "Illumination" (wild turkeys) and "Fox Pays a Visit"
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