Bunnies and Beavers in the Bushes

We’ve got bunnies in the bushes. Brush rabbits, gray, medium sized, shy. One seems to live here. I have seen it nibbling the dandelions in my back yard and sunning at the edge of the road out front. I watch it from the windows, saying nothing to my dog. To Annie, rabbits are messed-up cats that need to be chased out. But our local rabbit is pretty good at scooting back through the fence to safety, quick as a bunny, you might say.

Bunny
brush rabbit photo from Wikipedia

Sometimes the rabbits are not quick enough to escape the cougars and other predators that live in the area. I have sadly buried dismembered bunny body parts (which look alarmingly like chicken parts from the grocery store), not just because I love rabbits, but because I don’t want Annie to eat them. Since she considers the whole neighborhood her personal smorgasbord, it could happen.

Yesterday, we had just begun our walk, moving slowly because my back is out of whack again, when we came upon a dead rabbit by the neighbor’s mailbox. It was perfectly still, eyes open, no blood. Was it hit by a car?

“Oh no,” I said. “Poor bunny.” Annie approached it slowly, bending to smell its gray-brown fur. Just before her nose touched the rabbit, it jumped up and bolted into the salal and blackberries. Startled, I screamed and burst out laughing while my dog spent the next 10 minutes trying to find the rabbit. It was not dead at all, just “playing possum.” Apparently it didn’t see us coming until it was too late to flee, so it did the next best thing. It sure looked dead. Even Annie believed it.

Although we’re constantly told there’s big wildlife around here—cougars, bears, elk—on our daily walks, we see mostly the smaller things: garter snakes, newts, frogs, beetles and caterpillars. Many are smashed on the road. It’s a tough world out there. If the big cats don’t get you, a Ford 4×4 might do the job.

River otter 520But there are exceptions. There’s a pond around the corner, an offshoot of Thiel Creek. Neighbors with a sense of humor have planted five wooden ducks there. The ducks bob around, couple up, and look pretty real for birds with no feet. One in a while, live birds drop in, including a blue heron. The other day, a river otter stopped by. I’m not sure how it got in or out, but I caught a picture before it took offense at my camera and dove into the water.

Birds—robins, Stellar’s jays, doves, sparrows, juncos, woodpeckers—offer musical accompaniment to our walks. In the spring, blue butterflies fly along beside us. At twilight, mosquitoes join in.

During this time of sheltering in place, Annie and I have continued our daily walks. While I’m fascinated by the wildlife, Annie is drawn to the people. We wave at folks passing in their cars or neighbors mowing their lawns. Children playing in the street rush up to pet the “doggie.” Older people stop to stroke her ears and tell her she’s a “good boy.” Why does everyone get her gender wrong?

A few adults have stood back, afraid they might catch COVID-19 from her fur. I stand at the far end of the six-foot leash, social distancing. Even though I don’t touch anything, I wash my hands like crazy when I get home. It’s sad to be so afraid. As we begin Phase 1 of reopening beaches and businesses on the Oregon coast this week, I hope we don’t see a lot of people getting sick. The tourist spots are already getting crowded. Meanwhile, those of us who live here are as scared as that rabbit that played dead yesterday. I’ll bet it didn’t come back out to the street for a long time.

Maybe a year ago, we had a possum playing dead in the back yard while Annie had a barking fit. Of course it was late at night. Of course I had to go out in the wet grass in my fuzzy slippers. The possum played dead so thoroughly I touched its fur—soft!—and it didn’t move. I dragged the dog in by the collar, gave her a Milk-bone and locked her in. Sure enough, in the morning the possum was gone.

If you’re getting cabin fever, go for a walk. Look around. Even in human isolation, we are not alone.

 

Claiming a bigger piece of Oregon sky

Chain saws roar in my back yard. Usually occupied by birds, newts, and the occasional rabbit, today it’s filled with people. Five workers from Oregon Coast Tree Company, four men and a woman, have trimmed the wild laurel off my fences and woodshed, opening up a six-foot-wide stretch to the sun. They’re cleaning up now, cutting last chunks of wood, raking leaves and scraps, feeding branches into the wood chipper. Kip Everitt is up in my giant Sitka spruce, cutting dead branches.

They did most of the work yesterday, leaving stark cuts all along the fence. Amputations. It’s not that I didn’t like the laurels. Their leaves were beautiful, with pretty flowers in the spring. They were home to birds, bees, and squirrels. I feel bad for what we had to do. But in the rain-soaked ground beyond the fence, their roots let loose, and the trees fell against the fence and the woodshed. Soon their weight would push these structures down.

The laurels had been leaning for a long time, some of the branches bent nearly to the ground but beyond my ability to trim with my loppers and my pole saw. I’m terrified of chain saws, of anything with blades. I have a bad back and funky knees. My arthritic wrists hurt just sitting here typing. These workers are young and strong. They pick up giant hunks of wood like sticks. They’re also fearless. They stand on roofs and fences and perch in trees, their chainsaws like extensions of their arms. Plus, they have the gear to deal with what they cut. It would take me years to dispose of that much wood.

And Lord, they are fast. In about four hours, they have transformed my yard. They have to be fast. They are booked two months in advance, interspersing painting, power-washing and other jobs between tree gigs. Things will not slow down when the winter storms start knocking down more trees.

I hear a “Woohoo!” as Kip drops a big branch off the spruce. It bounces on the lawn.

I love having this drama to watch out my office window. Soon the crew will be gone, and quiet will return. Annie and I will walk around the yard, absorbing its new look. For years, the area under the laurels has been covered with leaves. I gave up raking, declaring it a newt habitat. But now I’m thinking about planting something in the newly open space, a hedge perhaps, maybe rhododendrons. The newts have plenty of habitat outside the fence.

I don’t want to compete with nature, but sometimes I have to defend my space. Trees still surround my home like tall, wise guardians. With luck, they will remain standing when the big winds come again, and the robins will build new nests in the spring.

Happy Thanksgiving to one and all!

You Stupid Squirrel, Get Out of the Road!

20322984_mThe most dangerous predators in these parts have four tires and an engine. Cars and trucks mow down more critters than the bears and cougars that live out among the trees. We humans operating them rarely even know what we have done.

On our long walks through the coastal forest, my dog Annie and I see the victims lying on the pavement: snakes, squirrels, birds, frogs, newts. If they’re dead but not smashed, I wrap my hand in an unused poop bag and move them into the grass at the side of the road so that their bodies can deteriorate naturally—or be eaten by hungry animals as part of the food chain—rather than being smashed by cars.

We all see dead animals out on the highway, where cars swoosh by too quickly for anyone to rescue their corpses. Only the crows dare to nibble at them, flying out of the way at the last second. The dead animals get roller-pinned by our tires until there’s nothing left but a few tufts of fur, then a discolored spot on the road that eventually gets worn away. I always feel bad. And helpless. At least I can do something to help these small creatures on our country roads.

Annie sniffs and backs away, but I often stop to study these victims up close, to admire their colors and shapes, to feel how light or heavy they are. I moved an Anna’s hummingbird last week that seemed to weigh nothing. A dead squirrel on the same walk was surprisingly solid.

I used to be squeamish about touching them, but all these years in the woods have made me more courageous.

If they’re injured but still alive, I struggle to decide whether or not to move them. Yesterday, we came upon a garter snake. Alive or dead? I stroked its red-striped skin. Dry and warm. I could see blood dripping from two places in its middle. But its tail flicked threateningly. I backed off, then berated myself for my cowardice all the way to the end of our walk and back. Garter snakes are harmless. I hoped that somehow the snake would be gone. It wasn’t. Only one car had come by, a silver Prius, but now the snake was truly dead, its head smashed, already merging into the blacktop, too late to rescue.

All it wanted was a little sun. Just like me.

When I see animals on the road that have not been hit yet, I urge them to get out of the street. I will nudge the garter snake to make it swirl out of danger, clap my hands at the squirrel to scare it up a tree, cheer on the newt crossing the street. “Hurry! Come on!” Traffic is intermittent out here, but I’m all too aware that while I’m trying to save tiny critters, I could get run down by a 4 x 4 and become roadkill, too.

I hit a raccoon once, right in the middle of Newport. It banged hard against the bumper of my Honda. It was Christmas Eve, and I was on my way to Mass. I parked the car and went looking for my victim, hoping it might have survived. Perhaps it did. It wasn’t there. I’ll never know if it went off to die or I just missed finding the body in the dark, where any second a car could run into me. I felt bad as I went on to sing with the choir.

I have hit birds, too, and of course I kill countless bugs that smash and drip down my windshield. They’re living their lives and our cars come roaring through, heedless of the rights of all the living beings crossing their paths.

Bigger animals pose a danger to us and our cars. If we hit elk, deer, and bears running across the road, it’s like running into a mountainside. But the animals usually die while we call the insurance company to fix our cars.

As children, we humans are taught to “look both ways.” If we dash into the street, our terrified parents yell and spank us, telling us to “never ever do that again.” Animals don’t get these lessons.

Even Annie doesn’t understand. She’ll drag me into the middle of the street to sniff a tantalizing smell, which could be grease, urine, food, or the last traces of a dead animal. Hearing a car or truck coming, I drag her to the side of the road. She looks at me like, “What?”

Yes, it’s dangerous out there. Especially if you’re a garter snake. And I know I sound like a hippie kid from suburbia. Too bad.

Yield.

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Annie is doing well with her recovery from knee surgery. She still limps sometimes, and we walk shorter distances much more slowly than usual. It gives us time to smell the wild roses, watch the bumblebees, and notice that the blackberries are coming.

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Photo Copyright: leekris / 123RF Stock Photo