In the Garden:
New England
July, 2008
Regional Report

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Feeding the birds can mean feeding the bears. (Photo by Jake Levison)

Wildlife Musings

A grey catbird has claimed the tippy top of a birch tree in my backyard as his new roost. He serenades us morning and night with his impressively wide-ranging vocalizations and isn't even deterred when we eat on the back deck within 50 feet of him. A friend jokes that the bird must really be mechanical and I must be flipping a switch to start him up when guests come over. The catbird may not possess the plumage of the indigo buntings, which rivals the color of my bluest delphiniums, but his singing is so earnest.

I heard an oven bird the other day for the first time since we moved here 13 years ago, signaling that our once wide open spot is settling into the landscape. I grew attached to hearing the bird's "Teacher, teacher, teacher" call at our former house in the woods, and now I feel like my old friend is back.

For me, summer is as much about the fun of seeing and hearing the creatures that visit my yard as it is about the plants that I fuss over. Yesterday when I was weeding, the earth moved under my hand and a big toad stuck out its head. Toads consume many insects, including slugs, and I've read that they are the most intelligent of the amphibians. That they can be taught to come when called and to show up on time if you set up a regular feeding schedule. I'd like to serve him up his daily quota of slugs, which seem to be everywhere I look. If he could put a dent in their population, I'd be grateful. But I welcome him regardless because he's a sight I've waiting all winter to see.

After our long winters, we have to pack a lot of effort -- and a lot of plants -- into too short of a growing season. It's sometimes easy to forget to stop and enjoy the season. I spent a day busily weeding and moving plants around, hardly stopping, until I encountered that toad. He was a little wake-up call. Wildlife visitors stop us in our tracks and give us a chance to slow down and look -- and listen -- more closely. Even critters we may not be overjoyed to see.

On my road we can't put up bird feeders because they are bear lures, and there have been one too many bear sightings nearby. A friend recently watched a bear grabbing the pole of his hummingbird feeder and tipping the feeder right into its mouth! But giving up bird feeders and focusing on plants that provide food and cover for birds has been a fun learning experience for everyone, and it may even be increasing the variety of birds that nest nearby.

At my office there's a family of groundhogs living near the back steps. The little ones climb the steps and sit on the back porch as we watch them through the window. But our office is also home to community gardens and a new children's garden, and the groundhogs present a dilemma. We've been peacefully coexisting with Papa groundhog for a few years and he hasn't caused too much damage. However, now that he's found himself a wife and kids, a relocation plan might need to be implemented.

That line between what's tolerable and what's not is a constantly shifting one. When I used to visit Vermont as a child, we'd drive the back roads hoping to spot deer. My great aunt had a salt lick out back to draw the deer into view. Now the sight of a huge deer out in my backyard makes me want to open the door and shout at it to keep away from my garden.

Our often ambivalent attitude about the wildlife that shares our habitat was underscored the other night when friends were visiting from out of town. We sat down at the table on the back deck and my husband started cranking open the umbrella above the table. Little black droppings began falling onto the table from under the umbrella. He quickly closed it and after the initial disgust and cleaning up, we had our dinner. The next day, we decided to clean out the mouse droppings from inside the umbrella, and upon opening it I looked up and saw the culprit: a snoozing bat.

Granted, I was thinking about putting up a bat house because bats help keep insect populations down, which means more pleasant times in the garden. But sharing our dining umbrella was not what I had in mind!


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