Expat Living: What Are The Costs Of Your Wild Life Style?
Ok, so this isn’t the post I planned to bring you today, but today had other ideas and this Life Lesson presented itself much too vividly to not share with you all.
We’ve had a lot of activity here in the DC area recently with summer visitors, weird weather with multiple thunderstorms- a real wild time, literally.
Most of you know I’m a military kid, raised on military bases for the most part. So I have always found it fascinating that my mother grew up with chickens and cows, and my father grew up on horses from the time he could walk. As I got older, my friends around the world shared similar stories, like Denise and Joel in Indonesia who would always write the most interesting posts about the monkeys there. I was torn between wanting those experiences and being thankful I didn’t get them first-hand!
So, considering that I had had no real wild life encounters to speak of, this month’s continuous nightly appearance of the big guy above was pretty exciting for me.
Oh sure, I had gone to a bird aviary when I was about 8 or 9, walking through a lovely forest of birds, mostly parakeets or budgies as I recall. But none of that was really “wild”.
And yes, once on a family camping trip, we did have a “report” of someone sighting a puma, or mountain lion, in the hills above our campground at Camp O’Neill- but that was long before much of Orange County, California was settled and, as such, we always expected the mountains to be alive with animals.
Besides, what would “Coyote Canyon” be without at least one nightly howl somewhere in the distance? Big brothers would have no scary stories to torment the little ones! As they do…
By and large, the only “wild life” experience I’m accustomed to is that of the cats and dogs we grew up with as pets, or my daughter’s pet rabbit when she was young. That’s pretty much as wild as my existence gets. Even if you count the songbirds and crickets.
However limited my “wild living” had been, even I know the nights should be alive with some sounds, and the early morning wildlife should be greeting you at some point.
So when I arrived in Baku, I realized something was off. I remember my first weeks there, sitting out on my friends Sekhrab and Tarana’s balcony across from the small Akhundov park (garden) early in the mornings and thinking, “There is no sound.” No birds singing, no crickets chirping, nothing. Even the alley cats didn’t meow. It was totally silent at that early hour. And, even for me, that was totally foreign.
It was as if the wildlife in Baku knew it wasn’t safe in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. With all the unregulated chemicals spewing from Sumgait’s factory plant, all the lesser life knew enough to get out while they could. It was only the supposed intelligent life that stayed on. And we paid the cost.
Toward the end of my years in Baku, I was heartened to realize that I was indeed hearing bird songs and crickets, fish were being caught, dogs and cats now roamed the balconies or the streets on leashes, looking quite well-fed. Life was calming down, making a place for the “other” night-time wild life to flourish.
When I returned to the states, I ended up in another city with poison in the air- Washington DC.
We’re about 5 or so miles from the Capitol itself. When I go to work, I can usually see the Washington Monument or the Capitol dome from the office windows. That’s my definition of “wild life”.
Joe’s home for the last 30 years has been on the Virginia side of the Potomac River, looking just across at Washington as if the politicians are inmates in some kind of zoo, which may not be far off, actually.
From here I have space to indulge my love of flowers and birds, who in turn provide no end of joy with profuse color and song.
We have gorgeous red-hot Cardinals, stunningly painted Blue Jays, 4 kinds of woodpeckers from small to large- each with a different feather design and color variation, purple wrens, goldfinches, song sparrows, healthy breasted Robins, and many more.
It’s such a pleasure to sit out on the deck in the mornings with my breakfast, watching the birds swoop in for their morning meals, especially in the springtime when you can hear the nearby nestlings waking, calling for their own meals.
My Life Lesson this month has been repeated in several different ways, another of which was supposed to be my story for today as I said. Interestingly, this is the recurring theme that every coin, or puzzle, has two sides. Nothing tremendously profound, just a reminder that each of our supposedly easy decisions has a price.
I may like having the birds, and work at providing food that suits them, but how do I balance that with the squirrels, who are numerous, taking the food that I say “belongs” to the birds?
Or that, having food available, I make it possible for the squirrels to multiply to numbers even the hawks cannot ignore. You always know when the hawk is nearby when everyone takes cover in the garden and it becomes as still as Baku on that first early morning. The other side of the coin, as it were. Attract one, suffer the other.
I can deal with the squirrels and chipmunks because there are enough cats in the neighborhood to keep them in check, even allowing for the occasional hawk dinner. And they don’t usually move into my attic.
And so it was. I realized I had to draw the line after watching the raccoon move in on territory already “claimed” by a fox pair. It became surreal for me, like watching t-rex and velociraptor. I knew the fox would move on as soon as the kits were able, but the raccoon was staking a more permanent den. I was providing nothing of interest to the fox family, but everything Rocky took delight in.
I didn’t mind that the raccoon climbed the narrow 6 foot high metal pipe and thwarted the squirrel-proof mechanics of the feeder house at the top. (Between you and me, I was always a bit amazed that he could hang on while maneuvering the bars and levers!)
And, ok, I was a little frustrated at the tulip bulbs that were unearthed and half eaten, like a box of chocolates opened by a child who wants to find just the right filling, leaving you a box of half-eaten truffles, no good to anyone after all that.
But what I considered the final straw was the morning I came out onto the deck for a lovely breakfast and found a pile of #*#@! outside the door. Not cool, Rocky! Not cool.
After a little internet research I found that scat was a lovely but unwanted “housewarming” gift- meaning that, of all the decks in the neighborhood, ours had been chosen as the perfect Raccoon Latrine (oh, joy!), and the family would be making deposits regularly from now on as they arrived.
Whoa! TMI! That’s a little more “up close and personal” than I want to be with my wild life.
And thus began our wildly thrilling detective tango of days and nights baiting, tracking, catching, escaping, strategizing, researching, and finally today, prevailing.
The first time I caught Rocky was during a wicked thunderstorm. I saw the cage door flapped shut so I knew he was there. But then, I found myself worrying all night that he was out in the rain. I kept getting up all night to check on him. I texted the relocation service to come early so he wouldn’t be uncomfortable for long. (Stop laughing, I was worried!)
I should have slept- Rocky had long since slipped his bars, surely well before daylight, taking food-bait and bird seed away for his troubles.
We continued to monitor the cage daily, leaving it closed until dusk when all the squirrels had gone to bed, opening cans of tuna, leaving trails of nuts and seeds (and marshmallows?). He left us nicely written thank you notes, commenting on our more than gracious hospitality, noting that he had in return, left us a “gift” in gratitude. And it was waiting for us up on the deck… by the door.
Gee thanks, Rocky!
Apparently I don’t have the raccoon whispering thing down just right yet.
I was mostly worried that with so much rain, Rocky would begin looking for an upper-story attic type den, both warm and dry, which would also just happen to be right above our own dining room or bedrooms… ewww, no! We can’t go there!
More determined than ever, I braved last night’s thunderstorm, hoping that the arched wrought-iron trellis near the cage, the one where I hang one of our 4 bird feeders, wouldn’t be a lightning rod this night.
I laid large hosta leaves along the bottom of the cage to keep the water and mud from getting inside. My plan was to lay on a feast to impress as well- a kind of a last supper of sorts.
I opened what I hoped would be my final can of tuna, carefully cut suet/seed chunks (the kind that Rocky liked to steal from the woodpeckers), spread thick peanut butter on white bread just like the wildlife websites said he loved most, and poured a little of the hummingbird nectar he had been guzzling, until I discovered his wily ways, into a jar lid- a raccoon version of paté and red wine! (I was determined to overcome any sense of apprehension and appeal to his appetite for a dinner of easy prey.)
If I had to kneel down in the mud and pelting rain to place the delectables in that cage, the least he could do was come and join me. I even cut some extra hosta leaves for the cage roof, to keep the rain from soaking him after dinner… I just hoped he’d be amenable to sleeping it off in the cage this time.
Last night’s thunderstorm was too loud and too wet for me to go out to check or to be able to hear. So I waited. I awoke drenched from dreaming about having a raccoon under the bed, biting and clawing at me… gee I wonder what triggered that??
Come daylight, the rain had dissipated and in the early dawn I could see Rocky’s familiar face staring back at me. Rocky, you are such a male… You just couldn’t resist one more free meal, could you? You knew better than to come back, you knew better than to trust me. Now look what you’ve gone and done.
As cute as he was, I knew it was time to go. He tried everything to chew his way free. But I learned my lesson… secure the bars tightly and hope for the best.
The other side of the coin in this lesson?
I’m divided about what’s right.
Is it right to relocate Rocky to the river forest? He’s no doubt moving in because of the current and ongoing freeway project clearing acres of forest land- his normal habitat- between us and the major north south freeway artery into DC proper. Just like in Baku, where man moves in, wildlife moves out.
I don’t want to contribute to that. How do I make sure I don’t tip the natural balance out of food and shelter whack?
Should I have perhaps made other arrangements to work out a truce to let him stay, possibly bringing a family?
In Baku it took shuttering the factory in Sumgait to make habitat possible for wildlife. Will they learn their lesson? Or will chemicals come back and dislocate wildlife again? What will it take for us to be comfortable co-habitating?
Will Rocky come back to my yard? Great Falls, Virginia is some 10-15 miles away, but chances are high we’ll see Rocky’s brother, cousin, sister or mother sometime soon… Good restaurant reviews travel fast these days.
Who’s to say who wins? Who’s to say who’s right?
While not my ideal houseguest this summer, I have to admit, I do kind of miss you already, Rocky.