Archive | July 2013

Old Friends and Peacefull Endings

I experienced an extraordinary act of love today.
This morning, I was on my way to an important event. Halfway to town I got a call on my cell phone. The caller sounded absolutely frantic and I could barely make out that she was already in my driveway and I was apparently her last hope. I said I’d be right there and turned around for home. I got there and indeed there was a care in the drive with a woman, a frail looking elderly gentleman and a very old golden retriever with a nose full of porcupine quills.
The dog grinned up at me, trying to see through eyes clouded with cataracts. He was holding one paw up and it too, was bristling with sharp quills. The woman explained that the gentleman was her father and this was his dog. It seemed that the dog had gone out early in the morning and found a porcupine behind the garage. Being the friendly sort, the dog tried to sniff where dogs like to sniff and porcupines don’t like to be sniffed. Feeling rejected the dog evidently offered his paw, which the “Picky Pig” did not appreciate.
They called their regular vet who said it would be at least $350 to remove the quills and since it was a weekend, there would be an emergency call fee. All totaled, it would be about $500 and there was no way the old man or daughter could afford this. She had brought me birds or animals before and remembered where I lived and hoped I could help.
I checked the old dog and he seemed calm and friendly, there were only about 40 or 50 quills and none were too deep or inside the mouth. Obviously this was an experienced porcupine sniffer. I carried the dog, while she helped her father up the front steps. I could feel the bones under the immaculately groomed fur. This was an extremely elderly dog that I doubted had many more months to live.
I gathered towels, antiseptic, “Numzit Teething Jell” and pliers. I doubted that a muzzle would be necessary. The dog seemed too good natured and well behaved for that. (I have been wrong on this one before) As I liberally applied the numbing agent to the old dog’s gray muzzle and nose, the old man began to talk.
He told me that he and the dog (I will withhold names to preserve their privacy) had been together for 18 years. He got him as a puppy when his grandchildren were young. They had been best friends through all the years and had run many fields together. The dog sat beside him when his wife died and kept his feet warm in the winter. They shared meals and secrets and had never spent a night apart. “That’s why”, the old man said “he would do right by this dog”.
My attention wandered at this and I pulled a quill to fast. The old dog bit my arm in surprise and I discovered that he only had about two teeth. I was grateful.
I asked what he meant by “doing right” and the daughter turned away pretending to be intrigued by the raccoon on the counter. The old man took a deep rattling breath and explained that he had terminal cancer and not long to live. He didn’t want to burden his children with his care, so he had decided to move into the Hospice House when the time came. The day before he would leave though, he would have his old dog “put down”.
It rather shocked me that he would do this to an animal he obviously loved so much.
He went on to say that the dog would never understand why he left him and fret, so he thought it better that the dog go with him at his side. This way the dog would never know a moment without the master he loved and the old man would know that the dog was at peace without him.
“We’ve had good long lives” he said with conviction.” We’ve run and hunted and chased a lot of sticks. We’re both tired and old. We hurt a lot of places and are ready to go with no regrets. He’s a good dog and I owe him a fair and peaceful end. I’m gonna give him that”.
I was astonished by the absolute love and compassion that this man felt for his friend. To be willing to suffer the pain of his passing to spare the same for his dog, was an act of absolute, unselfish love.
The quills were removed and I ran my hands across the dogs’ silky coat to make sure I had not missed any. I could tell that the dog probably had no more time than his master. . I hoped that these last days together would be filled with sunshine and warmth.
I was familiar with their regular vet and knew that he did not make house calls to euthanize animals. I gave the old man the number of a kind and compassionate vet who would. Making an excuse to get some dog treats, I pulled his daughter into the other room. I wanted to make sure that he would be able to afford the cost. Or I would find a way to help. She said he had money put by and the last resort, if I could not have helped would have been to have the dog put down today. I silently gave thanks that I answered the phone instead of letting it ring.
After several soft dog treats, I helped them back to their car. The old man offered me a wrinkled wad of well worn bills, but I refused and told him that the lesson he taught me about love was worth far more than money. They pulled out and headed off down the street. Suddenly they backed up and pulled back in the drive. That was when I learned that this man had compassion without bounds.
He rolled down his window and looked up at me with troubled eyes. “Do you suppose that that old porkie is ok? I’d hate to think of him hurt”.
I reassured him that porcupines are indeed a sturdy and resilient lot as well as ornery. The porkie would be fine and live to trouble another dog who managed to stick his nose where it didn’t belong. I was astonished and deeply touched that this man whose best friend in the world had been hurt was genuinely concerned about the animal that did it. I was humbled indeed.
My reward was a grin nearly as toothless as the dogs and a wave from a gnarly, arthritic hand. Bless them, I thought. Bless them both with a fair and peaceful end.
I’d be late for my event. There would probably be some flack for it, but I didn’t care. I was just so grateful that I had been witness to the love of an old man and an old dog. There isn’t a thing in the world that can compare.

Of Mice and Highly Educated Men


I was looking at my little deermouse tonight. I’m not really sure how many years I have had him. Four,  I think. The night I caught him the cats had him cornered in the upstairs bathroom and when there was nothing left for him to do, he turned his back and started washing his whiskers. If he were going to die, he would do it with a clean face. I was so touched by his courage and acceptance, that I scooped him up with my bare hands and he has been on my desk ever since.

He’s had everything a mouse could want , including a squeaky exercise wheel and various soup cans for sleeping quarters. He’s gotten everything from Cheetos to mouse chow, peanuts to pumpkin pie. (by the way you lick all the cheese off the Cheeto first.) He’s had a good life for a mouse.

Tonight, I was giving him a cheese nip and noticed that he was much thinner than he used to be. His muzzle is grey and his whiskers sparse. He is getting old. How many mice ever get the chance to get old, I wonder? Still he runs in his wheel and tucks his food away in his soup can for later. Each time I sit down at the desk, he runs out to see if I have brought him anything. I suppose some morning he just won’t come out of his can any more and that will be the end. I hope so. He deserves to die peacefully in his sleep with his tummy full of Cheetos, not as a snack for some hungry cat.

But when he goes….I bet his face will be clean.

It reminds me of another mouse story.

Of mice and Men (highly educated men)

It seems like the phone only rings when I am either feeding something or washing a fuzzy little butt. Either way it is an interruption and hopefully I get time to wash my hands before I pick up the phone. On this particular day, I was feeding two fawns and washing another fawns butt (in one end and out the other) when the phone rang. I managed to tuck one of the bottles under my arm and wipe my hand on my apron before I grabbed the phone in the shed. (I have phones in the oddest but most convenient places around here) I wedged it between my ear and shoulder so I could continue feeding.

The professional sounding voice on the other end hardly waited for me to say hello, “This is DR Edward Hildibrand,” He said athoritively.  “My daughter has found a squirrel this morning and you HAVE to take it.”

This conversation was arrogant on so many levels, that I was already loosing patience. “Well, Dr Hildibrand, tell me how you found this squirrel and what does it look like?” After spending years chasing after supposed bear cubs that turn out to be old porcupines and retrieving a seagull, that the caller INSISTED was an eagle under her porch, I have gotten in the habit of asking for descriptions.

There was a tone of exasperation on the other end of the line. ‘We found it in the driveway this morning. It doesn’t have any hair and it’s about an inch long. You have to come and get it NOW, we are on vacation and I have things to do.”

Oh gosh, he was on VACATION, he must have really pressing, important things to do, but since he was a doctor, I’d give him the benefit of a doubt. “Well, sir, I said, I don’t actually come to pick up the animals. It’s standard for the person who finds it to bring it to me. “ I explained as concisely as possible that if I were to travel to pick up every animal call every day, not only would I not have any gas, but there would be no time left to take care of the animals I did pick up. I could tell he didn’t like the idea, he was on VACATION after all and that was more important. “Are you sure it’s a squirrel?” I asked, it sounded awfully small to be a June squirrel.

You could hear the ice form over the telephone line. As he spoke slowly enough for someone of my obvious low IQ to understand. “Yes, I’m sure it is a squirrel. I have a PHD for God’s sake. My daughter found it in the driveway and she won’t stop crying till we take care of it. I told her that you people get paid to come take care of these things.”

Ohhhh, A PHD doctor….on VACATION!  Wow, this was my lucky day! I tried to keep any trace of smugness from my voice as I said.  I’m sure you weren’t aware of this sir, but we don’t get paid to do this job and I’d really appreciate it if you could drive the animal out to me.”

Then he played what he thought was his trump card. He put his daughter on the phone. She sounded about seven. She was crying.  “My Daddy said that you would come and take care of this poor baby squirrel so we can go on our boat trip. He promised that you would do it!” I could hear her little foot stomp in her hundred dollar sandals.

“Well honey, I will take care of your little squirrel, if your daddy would just be kind and generous enough to drive him to my house. You see, I can’t leave right now because I am feeding some baby fawns. Would you like to see the fawns? They still have their spots and will drink out of a bottle for you.”  HAH! Ace in the hole.

I could almost hear her eyes get big and round as she told her daddy, in no uncertain terms, that they were going to get in the car and drive her little squirrel to the nice lady’s house and feed the baby deer.

He got back on the line. It was difficult to understand him with his teeth gritting so loudly, but I made out that they would be leaving shortly for my house. I had saved the coup de gras. Are you sure,” I asked slow enough for even a PHD on vacation, to understand, “That it is indeed a squirrel?  I want to have the proper formula ready and it would be different for, say, a possum or a chipmunk or a bunny.”

I’m sure there was spittle flying around his phone as he growled. “It’ a squirrel, damnit. I know a squirrel when I see one.”

“Ok,” I said cheerfully, “we’ll see you in about 20 minutes. Do you need directions?”

I could feel him roll his eyes and curse ever coming to a backwoods place with so many ignorant country people for his precious vacation. “No thank you. I have On Star.” He hung up.

OOOOOOH, ON STAR. Now I’m impressed

I busied myself getting an intensive care room ready for the squirrel if he should require it. Actually, intensive care means that I put a heating pad in the bottom of the cardboard box, but it sounds good. I mixed formula for what I assumed would be a red squirrel and watched Martha Stewart until I saw the shadow of a huge SUV with Detroit license plates block the sun from the window. I met them on the porch.

The daughter was adorable in her matching sun hat and shorts ensemble. It was pretty obvious that her sunglasses cost as much as my bib overalls, T-shirt and shoes, combined. She came skipping up the steps and plopped on my porch swing. Daddy came sauntering up next. He didn’t use the railing. I think he was afraid he might get dirt on his Geoffrey Bene shirt. (I don’t think my car cost as much as HIS sunglasses)  He glared at my slobbering Labrador who was eager to do his happy-lick-lick dance and shoved an L. L. Bene shoebox under my nose. “It’s in there” he sneered as he took out a bacterial wet wipe from his pocket and washed his hands.

“Thank you”, I smiled and looked to his daughter. “Come on honey, you can pet the deer while your daddy fills out the paperwork”. The child was squealing with joy as the fawns licked her face and hands. I got out my record book and asked him to spell his name. I entered it and he reminded me, twice, that I had omitted the DR from in front of his name. After I finished with the address and phone number (and he reminded me about the DR again) I opened the box containing the “squirrel”.

I looked up at his well tanned face, “What kind of doctorate do you have?

He puffed up and looked down on me. “Economics, of course. Why do you ask?”

“Because,” I deadpanned, “I wondered what kind of education you need to have to tell a squirrel form a mouse.”

I couldn’t help it. I started to giggle. I’ve never seen a man’s face get that particular shade of red, before or since. He stood there, opening and closing his mouth like a fish in the bottom of a rowboat as his little daughter bounced in the back door.

Is my squirrel ok? What will you do with it when it grows up? Will you let it go free like my daddy says you will? Can I see him again, can I, can I?” She was literally dancing with excitement around me feet.

I told her that even though it might have LOOKED like a squirrel,  it was actually a mouse. I reasured her that even if it was just a mouse, I would take care of it anyway. The only problem would be that the mouse would be so tame that it couldn’t be released back into the wild and someone would have to take care of it for the rest of it’s life.  At this exact moment, I looked downcast and said, “It’s too bad that I don’t have a little girl of my own to take care of a pet mouse  as pretty as this one will surely grow up to be.” As she was peering sadly into the depths of the shoebox, I asked, “How long will you be here on vacation?”

“Oh, we have the whole summer here. We rented a big house on Lake Michigan and we aren’t going home till August. Are we Daddy?”

The fish face turned ashen white as Dr Hildibrand realized what I was going to do next. It was like a train wreck in front of you. You see it happening, but you are powerless to stop it. All you can do is hope you get out of it alive.

I’d let him live, but not let him off easy.

I put my hand on the little girl’s shoulder. “If I feed the baby mouse milk until it can eat seeds and cookies and all sorts of mouse stuff by itself, would you like to come back and take it home with you to live? You must remember though, it can never be released to live in the wild or it will die and he will need lots of special mouse food and fun mouse toys.” At this, I smiled beatifically up at the good doctor.

He stood there with the look of a condemned man meeting the preacher at the cell door. His adorable, but spoiled little girl threw her arms around his legs and chanted “ThankyouDaddy! ThankyouDaddy! ThankyouDaddy!”  He let out a long sigh of resignation.

I like a man who recognizes when he has been beaten by a master.

We spent the next 45 minutes feeding the mouse with an eyedropper and putting together a mouse cage for her to take home till the mouse was ready to live in it. Finally I wrote my phone number on the inside of the little girls shoe so she could call and check on his progress. (Phone numbers written on paper can get lost you know). It was time to send them off in their gas guzzling SUV so they could finally go boating.

As I was waving good-by, I heard the lovely sound of thunder.

I hate raising mice, but sometimes, gosh, it’s worth it.

I am a Raccoon Whore


 I have often said that the reason I don’t take raccoons is that it’s like loosing your virginity. You gave in once, why say no the next time.

I said yes once this summer, then again and now,well, I admit it….I am a raccoon whore. I just can’t help myself.

Number three is snuggled with her stuffed moose in my studio now. She is little and still on the bottle so she has more time to worm her way into my heart. It’s those soft little hands that hold my fingers. It’s the shoebutton nose and eyes in that adorable mask. It’s the little “Whoot” that she greets me with. Oh it’s all too irresistable. How can I even think of putting her outside with thoes other coons from the wrong side of the woods?

I’ll have to wait a few weeks after she hits the stage where she screams and poops and eats like a pig looking for an acorn in a mudhole. (Raccoon babies like to wear their food….for days.) When I’ve had to wash her every time she eats and clean her cage on a daily basis….when I’ve had to scrape coon slop and coon poop off the walls….when every thing I own is covered with tiny, dirty handprints….well, maybe then I’ll put her outside. But for now, please someone stop me before I coon again.

Do Not Disturb any Further

I was sitting with a cup of coffee this morning (sitting is a rarity this time of year) and heard voices in the yard. I looked out and there were two women and three children in my yard, hanging over the fence, trying to coax the fawns to come to them. I tried to be polite at first and asked them what they were doing. They said they were driving by and saw my gardens so they stopped at the curb to look at them. Then the kids noticed the ducks in the pond and they decided to get out of the car to see them. From there, they noticed the other gardens and saw a fawn in the back yard. “They just wanted to pet him” they said. “And isn’t this the “rehab Center” that SO-and-so brought the bunnies?”
My patience was slipping like butter in a hot pan.
I explained to them that this was private property and that I would never consider invading their privacy in their yards. One of them chimed in that “I shouldn’t make it look like a park then”.
For a moment, I considered going for my garden trowel and giving them the “trowel of Death” threat. But instead, I told them to leave and not come back without knocking on the door and getting permission first and I went in the house.
I had barely closed the door when one of the children knocked and asked if he coud go in the back yard to see the deer. All patience evaporated.
I am ashamed to say that I had some very ugly words with the mothers.
What the hell is wrong with people? Usually, my patience holds out till August. I ran out early this year. It seems as though people are getting more and more demanding every year. They expect me to take the place of Critter Control so they don’t have to pay to have possums, raccoons and skunks removed. They want me to drive to Rapid City to pick up a baby bird the cat brought in. They expect to bring their aunts and uncles and brothers friend from Alaska to visit the animals they brought ANY TIME THEY WANT. (Honest to God the brother’s friend thing was just last week and he was CREEPY)
THIS MY HOME! It is a sanctuary, not just for the animals, but also for my and my family It’s not public. I do not get paid for this and I do NOT have to put up with their shit. MY FRENDS come to visit (and then it had better be to visit me as well as the animals). THEY CALL FIRST. I LOVE having my friends come. I DON”T LIKE strangers running about my yard. If you don’t even know my name….KEEP OUT.
And yet, there has been the most incredible outpouring of support for what I do this year. For the first time many people have left donations for the animals they bring. The girls from the dance studio held a wonderful fundraiser for me this spring, that allowed me to continue what I do (even though they say it was just a good excuse for a party). These are the people who make it worthwhile. They are genuinely concerned for the animal’s welfare. I love educating them about the different animals and often invite them back to see their animal’s progress.
So I guess it all work out in the end. It’s all about balance. The good people and the bad. The animals that survive and the ones that don’t. The tears and the joy. It’s simply what I do and I love it.

I Will Not Feed My Children to the Cat

It’s baby bird season and it seems as though someone calls every day with some feathered beak that needs feeding. Every time I get almost everyone to the point of release and out of my studio, another half dozen come in. Right now, it’s mourning doves and cedar waxwings. I love the doves, they are quiet gentle birds. You feed them with a syringe and they are happy for hours. The wax wing is a different story.

I have a new mantra and I recite it several times a day and several times a night. I will not feed my children to the cat… I will not feed my children to the cat… I will not feed my children to the cat. No matter how much I want to, I will not feed my children to the cat.

It reminds me a spot a few summers ago, when I just could not keep ahead of the birds.

It all started when someone called me from the local resort and wanted me to come get some baby birds on the golf course (there are 5 golf courses at this particular resort). The caller claimed that her boss found these baby birds and wanted somebody to come get them NOW. I explained that I prefer people to bring the birds to me and if they did I would be happy to take them. She said, “well he’s on a golf outing you know”. I counted to 10 under my breath.

“Oh of course” I said with all the sarcasm I could muster. “How could I possibly think MY time was as important as a GOLF game?” I heard giggles on the other end of the line. She said she would get back to me. I returned to work in the garden.

Ten minutes later the phone rang again with the same voice on the other end. “Well,” she said, He can’t possibly get away from his game, but you can pick them up on the sixth hole.”

I took a deep breath and dug up bit more sarcasm, “Gosh, I hope they aren’t in the way on the sixth hole, because it will snow in July before I run all over a golf course looking for those birds. Believe it or not, I do have other things to do. Tell your boss, that when he comes in to pee or get another beer or has lunch, he can just bring the birds in with him.”

More giggles on the other end. “I’ll call back”, she said. I went back out to the garden once again.

Twenty minutes go by and I’m thinking that the birds are a non-issue now and the phone rings again. I know who it’s going to be.


“Someone is going out to get the birds. The will be on a towel at the pool.”

“I hope they enjoy their day at the pool. I’m not coming to get them. It doesn’t work that way. It works like this…you find the birds, you call me, you bring the birds out to me and then I take care of them”

“I’ll call you back”

At this point I’d have done anything to keep her from calling back. I gave up. “Ok”, I said. You win. I’ll come and get the birds on my way into town. Have them in a box by a door.”

“They will be at the pool on a towel.”

“They will be in a BOX and someone will have them in their POSESSION or I will NOT come to get them.”

“Ok”. She said then nothing but a dial tone.

As frustrated as I was I figured that I could drive around to the backside of the pool, grab the birds and still make my appointment in town. I headed for the house.

“Ring… Ring… Ring”

I held my breath and gritted my teeth as I answered the phone. It wasn’t her. It was someone calling from a local tattoo parlor. They had a bird too. They couldn’t bring it out either. I started breathing so deep that I thought I was going to hyperventilate. Ok, two sets of birds. I could do that.

I changed clothes, slid my feet into a pair of cheap and uncomfortable flip-flops and ran out the door. I got to the resort and the access road to the pool was blocked off. I parked in handicap parking in front of the health club. (Hey, let’s be honest here. What were the chances that all the handicap parking would be needed at the HEALTH CLUB?) I left the car running just in case I needed a quick get away. Inside, I discovered that I was two buildings and a tennis court away from the outdoor pool.

My appointment in town was rapidly approaching. I set off at the best trot a 50 plus-year-old rather chubby woman could muster. “Oh Owwwww!” I forgot about the cheap flip-flops. “Ok, I’ll just slow down”. I finally made it to the pool and tracked down the person with the birds. All three homely fuzzy birds were in a vodka box lined with a very expensive golf towel. I carried them all the way past the tennis courts and through two buildings.” Damn cheap freaking flip flops!”

At last the car was in sight. So were a tow truck and two burly security guards.

“You realize that you can’t park here without a permit,” said first security guard.

“Yes I know, I was making a pick up” I said holding up the vodka bottle box with the birds in it.

“Then you should have used the sewice dwive.” Said security guard two with a slight lisp. I started to breathe deeply again, my right eye began to twitch. They probably thought they were turning me on. “You know. I could wite you a ticket for pawking here with out a puwmit.”

I was breathing way too deep and way too fast. I was getting dizzy. “Look”, I said. It’s 90 degrees and I have just run all over this stinking place in cheap flip flops chasing after some stinking birds that someone from here called me to come and pick up. I’m hot and I have a blister the size of Rode Island. You go wite ahead and wite me that ticket, but you better be prepared because I KNOW what I’m gonna do with these birds when you’re done!”

The tow truck driver, obviously and older and wiser man, took the security officers by the arms and counseled, “Boys, I don’t think you want to screw with this lady. Her bumper sticker says “Caution: Driver just doesn’t give a damn any more”. Let’s not find out what exactly that means. Then he winked at me.

The birds and I drove off peaceably and unmolested or ticketed.

I went to my appointment and by the time I got back to my car, all five birds were screaming their heads off for food. I turned the radio up and ignored them as I drove to the tattoo parlor. There they had a young blue jay waiting for me. I like blue jays; I wasn’t disappointed and could feel my mood lifting. As I walked out the door, the young man with enough metal studs in his face to confuse a compass said. “Thanks for picking him up. The cat was pretty pissed off when I took him away”.

Whenever a cat touches a bird, whenever a cat even looks at a bird, the bird dies. Oh not always right away and not directly from his injuries, but he dies anyway. Cats have a bacteria in their mouths that as soon as it comes in contact with a small animal or bird sets off a chain reaction of massive septic shock. It’s like being bitten by a poisonous snake, sooner or later; it’s going to get you. In the case of cat spit on a bird, The bird has a maximum of 24 hours to live.

“How long ago did the cat get him?”

“Oh, yesterday afternoon. But he’s been doing really good since then”

I was hoping he was talking about the cat, because the bird didn’t look like he was feeling all that great.

On the way home the blue jay keeled over in the box. One down, three to go.

Now, one of the problems with baby birds is that for a certain length of time, you can’t really tell what they are. At that stage, we call them UFO’s (Unidentifiable Fuzzy Object). You can make some good guesses at what they are, but it usually takes the appearance of some feathers to be sure. I suspected these to be starlings and they were the last birds I wanted to raise…. Or so I thought.

As soon as I got home the phone was ringing again. Someone else had two baby birds, but at least they were willing to bring them over. They also thought that they were starlings. “Oh well, I already have three”
Several hours later they finally arrived and instead of two baby birds, there were FIVE baby birds. Oh boy, EIGHT baby birds to feed. I started soaking kitten chow.

The easiest thing to feed a baby bird is soaked kibble, either dog or cat. I like kitten chow as it is very high in protein. I remember my mother always tried to feed baby birds we brought home bread soaked in milk. They always died too. I wonder how that tradition ever came about. Though birds DO have breasts, they have no nipples. No nipples…no milk.Birds do not drink milk, but that’s what everyone thought you should feed them. It didn’t take me long to figure this out and used to mix up boiled egg, grains, peanut butter and olive oil for nestlings, but dog or cat food is so much easier and I always have it on hand.

The first night was tolerable; I popped bits of wet kitten chow into their wide-open mouths about every hour till I went to bed. The next morning though, I could hear them from upstairs. It took my sleep-blurred mind a few moments to process exactly what had woken me up at dawn. I went down and fed them. By the time I got dressed, they were hungry again. I fed them till they stopped screeching and made coffee. They were hungry again. This went on from dawn to dusk. Every time they heard a noise or saw a shadow, they thought they should be fed. We started tiptoeing around the house and speaking in hushed tones.

Within a few days I could tell that none of the birds were feathering out like starlings. The set of five was developing soft gray plumage and the three younger ones were coming in blue black. Starlings are always black with whitish speckles. I’d have to wait a bit longer to see what they were. There was one thing I knew though; they were getting on my nerves.

Every time the five started to scream, it would make my skin crawl. I would go in to feed them and the noise would match the decibel level of an old lawn mower…in a small room. They would finish eating and I would somehow feel sad. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Then in a flash, it came to me.

When the great towers fell on 9-11, the television coverage of ground zero was constant. The world watched while they searched for survivors with heavy equipment and trained rescue dogs. Every once in a while they would stop all the equipment and listen for sounds of trapped survivors in the collapsed buildings. The only sounds were the whistles of the emergency locators on the gear the firemen buried in the rubble. The sound the birds were making was the same sound. The sound of lost heroes. No wonder it made me sad. Thankfully, the birds only made that sound for about a week. Then they moved on to a new screech that was more like fingernails on a chalkboard.

It wasn’t long before I realized that the gray birds were cowbirds and the black birds were grackles. Two of the most destructive and obnoxious birds in the wild. Cowbirds lay their eggs in other bird’s nests. Usually only one or two at a time (they must have thought that the starling parents were real suckers and gave them the whole family). The cowbird eggs hatch with the host birds eggs, but the cowbirds grow much faster. They will take most of the food that the parent birds bring and crowd out the smaller nestlings. Soon all that is left is one or two very large, very fat cowbird fledglings. Grackles at least raise their own young, but travel in large flocks and are capable of emptying a bird feeder in the blink of an eye. They are noisy and far from pleasant sounding songbirds. Combine the two and you have an eardrum rupturing, nerve-shredding, head splitting experience.

I felt like Quasimodo with the bells of Notre Dame when he grabbed his head and cried “The bells! The bells!” With us it was “The birds! The birds” Evil thoughts started creeping their way into my head. A little voice was whispering in my ear. “Cats. Cats eat birds. Just call the cats…. Here kitty, kitty, kitty”

“NO! I WILL NOT FEED MY CHILDREN TO THE CAT!” I will chant it as often as I need to. “I will not feed my children to the cat”. They will be grown up soon and fly away. I can do this. Only a few more weeks.

The magnificent Eleven

The past few weeks have been rough ones. First a young bobcat took all five peacock babies (and the income they represented), then started on ducklings. There were a lot to choose from too. We had 11 that I hatched from a batch of eggs found at the state park and six that were brought at other thimes. There was the Rouen, Momduck and her brood of 8 and then one little woodduck, that I see only on ocasion that he darts from the bushes and grabs a bill full of chicken food and dissapears again. They spend much of their time lounging around the pool (the goldfish pond) in the front yard. I round them up every night and put them back inside the fence, but in the mouning they are out again.

After the cat ran out of peacock chicks, we noticed that two ducks were missing, (when you have 27 ducks in and out of the yard, it takes a while to notice if one is gone). Then each night, we would loose one or two ducklings. One morning I got up to find Momduck, wounded, letyhargic and covered in flies. I wasn’t sure she would make it, so I cleaned her up, treated the wounds and kept her in the house for a few days.

Meanwhile we proceeded to do everything we could to tighten up the fencing so they could not get out. I’m not sure there is a fence tight enought. The largest squares in one small section are 4 inches square and a half grown mallard obviously can squeeze his fat little butt and floppy feet through.

As Momduck recovered and was moved to the yard, I decided to tak away any dark spots for the cat to hide. My yard is lit up like a cross between Christmas in Central Park and Kennedy airport. It seems to be working we have achieved a stable number of ducks for four nights running. It’s a little hard to sleep, but we have ducks!

We only have eleven ducks in the pond, and Momduck (who looks a little ratty and hisses at the house cats, but seems fine) Of course, we also have 7 new little ducklings (loons killed their parents) waiting in the wings. That’s one thing about this place, you never seem to run out of ducks.

The eleven who are left all, of course have imprinted on me and follow me like a parade about the yard. It made me think of a batch of eleven that I raised years ago. I called them “The Magnificent Eleven” and this, my friends is their story.

The baby ducks came to me, all downy and soft. They were unbelievably small; it seemed as though you could still fit them in an eggshell. They were Mallards; about three days old and there were eleven of them. Their mother had been struck by a car while leading them across a busy road. I’ve never understood Mallards. They seem to pick the oddest places to nest. Never, it seems, near enough to the water to not necessitate crossing a street or highway to get from nesting area to the nearest body of water. Their choice of actual nest location can be a bit inconvenient also. I know of one hen that insisted on building her nest under the slide on a school playground. Not wanting to disturb her, the children gave up their slide for the remainder of the year and she successfully hatched her brood.

This particular duck had nested in the bushes of a Mexican restaurant while the drainage basin she obviously intended her ducklings to occupy was on the opposite side of a busy highway. She had managed to somehow guide all eleven of the ducklings across the road and back for two days. Each morning and each afternoon, traffic would stop, as the tiny parade would cross from the parking lot on one side to the neatly manicured grounds of the strip mall on the other. Cars would sit idling while the fuzzy; Ping-Pong ball babies would scramble over and up curbs and down into the basin.

All it took was for one driver to either not notice or not care what was transpiring. One witness stated that the car did seem to make an attempt to avoid the duck, but it was too late. Somehow, the driver only struck the mother duck in the front of the line of ducklings. She was killed instantly and without her sound cues to guide them, the babies scattered across the pavement.

Some brave soul got out of their car and herded the confused ducklings to the side of the road where another driver helped round them up and capture them. By 9:00 AM they were waiting in a box at a local realty office for me to pick up. When I arrived, there wasn’t much house-selling going on, every realtor and the receptionist had at least one fluffy baby duck cupped in their hands.

I brought them home and set up a brooder in my studio. It consisted of a large cardboard box with pine shavings in the bottom placed near the heater. At that time, my studio was in a converted garage attached to the back of the house. It originally had garage doors on each end, which we replaced with a large window and a sliding glass door leading out to the back door. In the wall near the door, was the doggy door. It was one of the inexpensive ones with the plastic flap and was drafty and inefficient. Well, maybe it was too efficient. Not only did it allow the cat and dogs to enter and exit at will, but also every bug, toad and chipmonk in the neighborhood.

The ducks grew quickly and reveled in all the attention that the family gave them. They especially liked it when I would cover a large area with newspaper and allow them to run around the floor while I worked. After a while, they would tire and group together in front of the old gas heater and snooze. On sunny warm days I would take them outside and they would follow me just as they would their mother. There, they would chase bugs and grab at anything that moved in the grass.

It was on one of those sunny days that I decided that God created ducks for pure joy. I have never known any other animals that go at life with such enthusiasm. They run full tilt through the grass, stumbling and rolling and getting up again. They peep and chase bugs with abandon. They play tag with each other. They sprawl full out to sunbathe. I spent hours watching them and laughing at their antics.

About this time, we started having problems with the septic system. We had only owned the house for a few months and decided to have the tank pumped, hoping that was the cause. We called the septic pumping company and in due time someone showed up. (For the uninitiated, a septic company is a bit like the Cable Company; they’ll be there between 8 and 5 Wednesday or Thursday. Friday, at the latest. They promise) I guided the service man to where we had determined the tank to be and went back in the studio to work. I never thought about the ducks.

In about an hour’s time, the workman had dug a rather large hole to get to the lid on the septic tank. I could hear an occasional word or sentence out there and figured that he must be talking to himself. Eventually I looked out the back door to check on his progress and saw him on his hands and knees looking down into the hole. In a circle, ringed about the hole were 11 little ducks. They were all looking into the hole with the workman. He stood and straightened up. The ducks looked up at him expectantly. He looked down into the hole again and all the ducks leaned over the side and peered into the darkness. All the wile this was going on they were chattering and quacking in the way that only ducks do. I went out the back door and started to shoo them off. The workman gently stopped me. “But aren’t they in your way?” I asked.

“No”, he said, wiping the dirt from his hands on the back of his overalls. “They aren’t bothering me, but I sure wish they would keep their advice to themselves.” I will forever carry the picture in my mind of that large, rough workman staring into that hole with eleven baby ducks watching his every move.

A duck has glands that secrete oils, which it uses its bill to spread over every single feather on its body. Without these oils, its feathers are not waterproof and the duck will become waterlogged and not only sink but be unable to insulate its body from the cold. A mother duck naturally transfers these oils to her offspring through bodily contact. Since my ducklings had no duck mother, they lacked these oils and had to content themselves with small dishes of water in their box until they produced enough on their own to swim in the goldfish pond.

Pond, may be an optimistic word for what we had at the time. It had once been the foundation for a very small house and the roughly 15 foot square area had been allowed to fill with water from the flowing well. It was about three feet at the deepest point and had grass growing in the shallowest. There were a few water lilies that I had purchased struggling in the icy cold water. A few old goldfish and one large koi lived under a rock ledge and where the ivy grew over the sides. That summer I had splurged and picked up about dozen bullfrog tadpoles at a nearby pet store. It definitely wasn’t conventional water feature, but I loved it and it certainly added a bit of dazzle to an otherwise sparsely planted yard.

The ducks could not have cared less about the aesthetics of my pond. To them it was a diner and playground all rolled into one. One warm day, I led my little battalion of ducks out the gate and across the yard. We got to the edge of the pond and I expected them to dive right in. Not so. The all stood at he edge and seemed to discuss the situation thoroughly. They walked up and down the side and discussed it some more. Just about the time I was thinking of shoving them in with my foot, one of them fell off the rock and into the water. I cannot describe the look of absolute shock on that ducks face. His little bill gaped open; his eyes were round and wide. He stretched his neck out and flapped his partially feathered wings as if trying to fly out, and then suddenly he seemed to realize what he was in.

“Like a duck taking to water” is certainly an appropriate expression. He put his head under the water and blew bubbles out his nostrils; he bobbed up and down and paddled his feet madly. He swam in circles and dived as deep as he could only to shoot to the surface and bob again. All the while he was doing this joyous water dance; he was quacking up at the top of his lungs. Ducks hate watching another duck have fun without them. Soon all eleven ducklings were flapping about in the pond, much to the consternation of the stately old koi. The fish disappeared as the babies zipped about the pond, gaining confidence with every turn. Amazed, I watched bubbles stream from their feathers as they “flew” under water. They all got to diving and swimming in a circular fashion about the perimeter of the pond that water was actually sloshing over the edges. So much for the water lilies. A few days later, I also learned that ducks eat tadpoles. It was a good thing that the fish were the size they were.

It got to be a ritual for me to walk them to the pond in the morning and in the evening, shoo them out and into the back yard. Within a few weeks, they didn’t need me to walk them any more, they found a gap in the fence and could go on their own. It wasn’t long and there was a chill in the air and fall was not far off. The nights were cool and the heater in the studio came back on.

I was preparing my Christmas line of sculpted fairies and often worked late into the night. I would be hunched over my work table and hear the quiet slap and click as the doggy door opened and closed…eleven times. I would hear the whisper of 22 flappy little feet as they sneaked across the floor of the studio. Soon all the ducks would be in a group settled in front of the heater. Then they would start a soft chattering to each other like gossiping women at a Laundromat. It would continue for awhile and one would suddenly stand up and “Quack! Quack! Quack” and flap his wings. I always felt that it was like one had told a joke and the other couldn’t help laughing out loud. Then I would turn around and say “Hey! You know ducks don’t belong in the house! Everybody, Out!” Eleven ducks would look embarrassed like a schoolboys caught being naughty and file back out the doggy door. Within 20 minutes, it would start all over again. Some nights I would spread newspaper on the floor and let them stay awhile.

The maple tree in the yard turned from green to gold and the sky filled with the calls of ducks and geese flying overhead. We live near a large millpond and flocks frequently spend the night there in their long migrations south. Each time a group of ducks passed low overhead, the babies would tilt their heads and look up with their dark, round eyes. Occasionally they would run, flapping their wings the length of the property below the flying birds. Sometimes they would lift off the ground and take short surprised flights, but they always returned home.

One day I returned home from a trip to town and there were only six ducks on the goldfish pond. The remaining ducklings were swimming in agitated circles. The next morning, there were only three, by night one. The lone male stayed on the pond for another week. I could tell he was lonely. He would quack loudly whenever he heard ducks on the millpond or saw them flying over. I was beginning to worry that something was wrong and he couldn’t fly well enough to leave. There wasn’t. Early one evening, a flock of ducks flew low over the house, two dropped out of the formation and landed in the fishpond. You could tell that they were the siblings of the remaining drake, by the way he greeted him. I took them corn and some crusty bread and they stayed through the night. The next morning, all my ducks were gone.

It was quiet on the goldfish pond. The water stayed clear and unmuddied. The goldfish and koi began to appear in the open again. One of the poor tattered water lilies even sent out a single Lilly pad, but no ducks returned. Snow and ice came to blanket the yard and all was cold and silent for months.

Spring came and in about mid April I saw a program on the local news about an odd duck. It seems that he had shown up at the sliding glass door of a used car dealer about a half-mile from the house. They opened the door and he walked right in and made himself at home near their heater in the office. The salesman on camera commented how strange it was that the duck would actually sit on newspapers and not makes a mess on the floor. They were sharing their lunches with him and putting him out every night, but he would be waiting for them at the door in the morning.

I got in the car and took a ride. It was my duck. As soon as he heard my voice, he came waddling out of the office. He seemed glad to see me an gave me a “What took you so long?” look as I put him in the car. He stayed for about a week, lounging by the fishpond, eating whatever tidbits I brought him. One morning, I looked out the kitchen window and there was a hen on the pond with him, by noon, they were both gone.

Ever since then, I have occasional visitors of mallards to the goldfish pond A few hens have raised broods nearby and brought them to the fishpond to swim and feed. I don’t know how many or who are from the original 11 as I have raised many Mallards off this place, but I like to think that as ducks fly overhead on their long migration path that some of them are looking down trying to spot a septic truck or a faulty doggy door.