Monday, April 25, 2011

The Extended Animal Family

by Laura Bickle

"When the pupil is ready, the teacher will arrive."
-Buddhist Proverb

There's something about animal companionship that's a rare joy in life. Something pure and loving that's deeply comforting - a deep purr, a weight across one's feet in the middle of the night.

At the moment, I'm surrounded by fur: ChemoCat, DudeCat, ScaredyCat, and EvilCat. Ex-ferals, all, and an interesting group who still carry with them some of their former wildness. They've all arrived at odd times in my life, when I didn't expect them. It wasn't always convenient. Sometimes, it was hard. And frustrating. And with tears and worry. But a thousand times worth it.

But I learned a lot. Animals have their peculiar wisdom. A stillness. Something to teach. Certainly about winning unconditional love. Commitment. Sacrifice. But also something else. About communicating with the world on it's own terms. Giving without demanding anything in return - focusing on another creature's wants rather than one's own. Being quiet and listening.

Cats are their own enigmatic selves. But I have other animal friends. Always had them since I was a kid, from looking for salamanders underneath river rocks to hearing the eerie howl of bobcats at sunset. Carrying buckets of bluegill from the river. I remember my father showing me a great horned owl in the headlights of the car as a child. The owl had hauled a rabbit up into a tree and stared back at us, wings spread and fluffed forward. Just amazing. I remember my father telling me: "Owls are like people. You eat what you kill." Good truth to remember.

Now that I live in a city, I still find nature about. There's a duck at the pond in a park that my husband and I feed. He's the only white Peking duck among the mallards - he's a domestic duck who cannot fly. He can't migrate with the others. So we feed him, handfuls of cracked corn he's learned to gobble from our hands.  His trust in us is truly amazing, and he caused me to really contemplate the nature of trust. Once, he strained up and gave me a kiss on the lips.

In the shed behind the house, we have bats. When the door's opened too quickly in daylight, they slip down from the rafters and scramble in the dark. There's a rabbit who's lived behind our shed and had many litters of rabbits over the years, just beyond the reach of the lawn mower. When the deer are restless at night, they've been known to jump the fence and leave tracks in the snow.  Once, I found a snake at the edge of my yard. Those little guys have taught me about blending in. Observing. Co-existing with larger creatures and big machines.

In our city, there are red-tailed hawks who've adapted to everyday life. They nest near the freeway and glide through the neighborhoods in search of small prey. Rarely a day or two goes by that I don't see one perched on a telephone line, watching. Their falcon cousins live downtown, among the skyscrapers. Sparrows and chickadees eat from the bird feeder, much to the afore-mentioned cats' delight. And sometimes, the hawks.' The big birds and little birds showed me a lot about paying attention to one's environment. The loudest little bird always seems to attract the most attention from the hawks. I feel sorry for the ones that are taken, because they were all wrapped up in their beautiful music and have no idea until the shadow of the hawk passes over them that the number's up.

And I have some new friends.  I put some Frosted Mini-Wheats out in the yard at the end of winter, for the squirrels. There are a few young squirrels who were in the process of surviving their first winter, and looking bedraggled. I left the cereal out for them. They devoured the cereal as if they were vacuum cleaners. One of them is a greedy little guy. He's developed a strong preference for the frosted sides - he'll gobble those down and fling away the non-sugared parts. It would be incredibly obnoxious behavior in a human, but in a squirrel - it's cute. I find that I'll tolerate a lot of bad behavior on the part of animals that I'd never put up with in a human, simply because of the cuteness factor. That, and they don't talk.

Something else showed up after the Mini-Wheats. Ravens.  First, a female. Very shy - she is timid to be seen even through window glass. I think that someone was unkind to her in the past. But she grasps the cereal squares in her talons, dunks them in the downspout like a cookie, and then eats them. Eventually, she brought her mate. He doesn't much care about dunking the spoils. They've both gotten into the habit of eating their fill and taking pieces of cereal far away. When there's fresh cereal on the ground, one will come and call the other.

They've become used to me. They come every day, around five o'clock. If there's not cereal on the ground, they sit perch in the maple tree and watch. They've gotten to the point where they will watch me from above, without flying away, and descend upon the treats when I go back into the house.

They don't even mind when the cats observe them from the window.  Or me, anymore.

I caught the female watching me when I got the mail the other day. She was perched on the downspout, peering down at me.

I told her what a pretty bird she was, how magnificent and glossy. I'm sure that she thinks it's shameless flattery.

But I wonder what she'll teach me.


  1. As a fellow animal lover & multiple pet owner, I enjoyed this blog very much. Thanks!

  2. my owner is jealous now. she loves ravens, but we don't have ravens in the Netherlands. The only time she saw ravens in the wild was on Iceland.

  3. Hugs, Pat! Thanks for stopping by. Animals are one of the true joys in my life. :-)

    Sullivan, ravens are fun creatures. And terribly, terribly smart:

  4. Huh! I lived on Iceland for two years, Sullivan, and never saw a raven - that's not fair! :D Artic terns? Oh, yes.

    Laura - Bats! I adore bats. Put up a bat house here, but I think we're too far from standing water. Every once in a blue moon, I get a little brown bat who didn't make it back to the nest before dawn and he camps out under the eave beside the front door for the day. They are so cute. And any critter that eats its body weight in mosquitos is my friend. :)

  5. Lovely post, Laura! :)

    Our house was set back off the road when I was growing up (and pretty woodsy). The deer used to walk up and look through the windows at us quite a bit.

    (According to my dad, they just bed out in the yard now - no kids, no dogs now, so nice and quiet.)

  6. Wow - I never knew that ravens were not everywhere, Marcella. I think that I'm so used to hearing and seeing them - hard to imagine them not being in every spot in the world. But I would love to see Iceland someday, crows or not!

    Thanks, Allison! Sounds like your deer have a lovely home. I'm still amazed that we have them here in the city. I see them most often in the winter, when there are full moons and they're on the move.

  7. I had no idea that there aren't Ravens in The Netherlands, either. Why would that be? Sullivan - your owner should come visit me. We have tons of ravens and they're huge.

    And Laura - I think it's very clear what your raven has already taught you: when to put out the food!

  8. I did an internet search about ravens in the Netherlands and it seems they've been re-introduced after practically going extinct. At the moment there are ravens only in one specific bird sanctuary in the middle of the Netherlands.

  9. Interesting! I always assumed that they were pretty adaptable birds. I hope that they are able to make a comeback. :-)

    I got an interesting book that I really liked that deals with ravens. It's Ekaterina Sedia's SECRET HISTORY OF MOSCOW. The protagonist's sister is turned into a crow and flies away. Really beautiful story with mythological archetypes, done in a really unconventional way.

  10. Great post! I love animals. We have our two rescued cats - one from an agency and one from the streets of this town. The first is a spoiled princess and the second is a tough old boy, but they're my babies. And then we have Percival O'Possum who comes around to get what the outside cat doesn't eat. We also have a slew of birds and squirrels who frequent our feeder and the hawks, merlins and falcons who keep an eye out for unwary feeder visitors. =o)

  11. Your backyard sounds like mine! And there's something about cats sensing who's a soft touch. ;-) The neighborhood tomcat used to bring me his pregnant girlfriends...right about when they were ready to pop. Sigh.

  12. Holy Menageries, Batman! I love how well they have you trained. ~cough~

  13. I love how you write about the menagerie - obviously with great love. We have ravens at our house - not so mysterious and wise as yours, lol. It's more like - a gang of ravens. Loud and obnoxious, but I do love them anyway.