Today was a day like many others, with only a minor difference: I’m fighting off the tail end of a cold season bug, which turned out to be a rather muscular dragon's tail knocking me back down every time I got up.
A gentle rain fell as I woke up. It served as a musical backdrop to the crying of gulls, the singing of the resident male robin, and the trilling of song sparrows. Despite a light frost, the hummingbirds buzzed from feeder to feeder.
I contemplated watching the morning news as I ate a simple breakfast of black coffee, bread and olive oil, rosemary, and a pear but decided that nothing new had happened during the night. Which was true, except for Mt. Redoubt blowing again in Alaska. But that’s far away unlike the Mt. St. Helens eruption which rattled the glass door.
After breakfast, I reluctantly sat down at the computer. Working was not easy. Hummingbirds zipped past the window like shuttlecocks, bushtits attacked the suet, crowding closely together as they feed, unlike the pine siskins and sparrows which have stopped feeding together, but chase each other through the shrubbery as the breeding season is about to start. A junco chirped as he preened on a branch with quick flicks of his beak, a varied thrush grubbed beneath my window, and a house finch sang as he gathered nest materials. It was hard to work, with all of these little birds siphoning off my attention.
So I quit, moved away from the window, and read. Alfred Russel Wallace’s The Malay Archipelago. (I had just finished his 1889, A Narrative of Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro, about his sojourn in the Brazilian jungle forty years earlier. I still found it hard to concentrate as a warm south wind soughed through the apple and fig tree branches and rustled the dormant grape vines. By mid-morning it had veiled the cold blue sky and the wan sun with clouds, raising the temperate by ten degrees within an hour. This often happens up here when a warm wind blows. A “pineapple express” from the southern Pacific has been known to raise our temperature by twenty degrees --- in the middle of night. It was time to move my tender orange trees, pelargoniums, and orchids outside. When I finished, a raccoon walked into the backyard, looking for scraps and trying to dig up earthworms but deciding to eat one of my orchids instead. Serves me right. I keep forgetting not to use not to use a fish-based fertilizer on the potted plants.
Back to the book. Wallace made me think about evolution, hybridization, and the creation of new species, since the Anna’s hummingbirds hanging out in the garden the year round have expanded north from southern California only in the last thirty years.
The rufous hummingbirds arrived last week. They were here first, but visit for only six months, arriving in March and leaving again by August. As soon as a successful brood has fledged, the males head for mountain meadows and, eventually, Central America. The females and the young follow a month or so later.
The Anna’s have never been seasonally migratory, which means they stay put after they expand into new territories, incrementally increasing their home range.
Last night, migratory female rufous hummingbirds were hanging out with the resident male Anna’s but I don’t expect them to hybridize. According to the people in the know they are too far apart genetically to produce viable offspring. But you never know. Anything is possible in nature.
The male rufous are very elusive this year; flitting through the garden without stopping. Perhaps they are afraid of the aggressive male Anna’s --- or they may not yet be ready to procreate.
By now it was noon and I took out time to fix a bean burrito for lunch. The wine I had with the meal made me tired. I checked the label. No wonder it knocked me out; it had an alcohol content of 15.1 percent. So I crashed on the couch and took a I took a nap.
I was awakened by the jays and crows because I had neglected to give them their daily ration of peanuts. After I fed them, I took a stroll through the garden where daffodils and primroses have been in bloom since last week. They were joined by forsythia, purple plum and marsh marigold blossoms. The skunk cabbages were budding out and a few hostas poked buds above the ground. The mosses were at their best.
In the front yard I chased off a fat cat lying in wait for birds. Which reminded me of the warnings the neighbors gave me when I moved into this house fifteen years ago. (There was no garden at the time.) They told me I would never get any birds, when I put out feeders, because the neighborhood had too many “cuddly killers” on the loose. That proved to be wrong. The birds turned out to be smarter than the cats (with a little help from the gardener who planted trees and shrubs and did not like having his flower beds turned into feline latrines).
I shrugged my shoulders when the cats (or a periodic hawk) did get an occasional bird, knowing it would be a weak and stupid one whose disappearance would strengthen the surviving avian population.
I snickered when I remembered what a self-proclaimed seer once told me when I got upset about a neighbor’s fat cat murdering a robin.
“It’s bad karma for cat owners,” he said, “they’re doomed to be reborn as little cats to be torn to shreds by cats as often as their cats killed little birds.”
I did not consider that “seer” and authority on spiritual matters, but the notion made me chuckle.
I also chased away a squirrel because the UPS delivery man is “deathly afraid of them.” Anything to keep those packages coming.
A squirrel got caught in one of my rat live traps the other day. When I found it, a neighbor’s cat was lying in front of the trap, staring at the rodent and periodically touching the wire mesh with a paw. That drove the squirrel into a jabbering frenzy. When I released the rodent, the cat scooted up one tree while the squirrel ran up another.
The mailman, who had watched the episode, shook his head and said, “You shouldn’t have let him go.”
“They’re good to eat. Though it takes a lot of them to make a satisfying dish.”
It turned out that he grew up in a very poor Appalachian family for whom squirrels constituted the main meat course.
“I’ll save you the next one I catch,” I said.
“No, thank you.” He shuddered and changed his tone. “I’ve eaten more than my share of the gamy things.”
The squirrels must have heard him, because I haven’t caught another one since that day. But I’ve caught a couple of rats which, I hear are very good to eat.
Mrs. Thomas Francis Hughes wrote of a father who saved up a “nice plump rat” for his ill son (in Among the Sons of Han, 1881) because it would “do him a world of good. More recently, in 2008, a news story claimed that 99% of the Vietnamese people regularly ate rat, perhaps because, as Jonathan Brown wrote in The Independent (GB) earlier this week: “Rats, it seems, also taste pretty good. .... Cane rats are a common sight in Africa, being sold barbecued on sticks by roadside vendors. Even in Spain, before the advent of mass-produced chicken, ricefield rats were a sought-after ingredient of the paella recipe of the Valencia region.”
That’s fine. But unless the Depression deepens, I’m not going to taste them.
Instead, I had mahi mahi with a mango salsa for dinner, accompanied by a glass of Portuguese vinho verde -- a lovely light wine, low alcohol, and eminently enjoyable.
Now I’m paying the price for listening to the birds and smelling the flowers. I’m back at the computer getting ready to burn the proverbial midnight oil (in its pleasant incarnation as pickled olives, that is).
Causes John Doerper Supports
Defenders of Wildlife
Doctors Without Borders
National Audubon Society
National Wildlife Federation