Archives for the month of: February, 2014

My husband and I have been lifelong schnauzer owners.  After the last one died about five years ago, the only sounds around our home were our own, the plaintive cry of birds outside the window and the normal creaking, gurgling and cracking noises from our aging house.

So, it didn’t take us long to realize the scratching and rumbling sound on our deck each winter night signaled a visitor, and a persistent one.

As we trained our flashlights through the glass door, we couldn’t quite catch it but realized the elusive shadow was too big to be that of a stray cat, and it wasn’t meowing.

We had a vague memory of being warned not to feed wildlife, but we were just too curious.  So, we quietly left a plate of cookies and a ripe banana on the deck floor, and retreated to wait behind the curtain.

Within minutes, our visitor was staring directly at us while sitting straight up with the banana in her hand-like paws.

“Well, hello Dolly!”

This would be the start of a relationship that lasted three years.

A raccoon is a distinctive creature.  What amazed us was how much this one reminded us of our schnauzers. The same kind of face, piercing dark eyes, pointed ears, and black and white coloring. Even the button nose was a match.  At first we truly wondered if one of our beloved dogs had returned.

We instinctively assumed she was female, and she eventually equated the name Dolly to “banana,” her preferred meal.  We never knew why, since they don’t grow around here.  Nevertheless, bananas became a staple on our shopping list, and we watched prices like they were retirement stocks.

The bonding process had its limits, however.  If we tried to approach her, Dolly reacted with a hissing sound that was intimidatingly effective.

But she was very tolerant of other critters, happily eating alongside squirrels and chipmunks.  And she would stand beneath the bird feeders waiting for seeds to drop.  Room-service bananas were hers alone, however.

She became part of our lives.  When one of us would return from an outing, the first question was: “Has Dolly been by?”

All this was a learning experience for me.  I grew up in the Upper Midwest, where raccoons were generally considered destructive pests and were constantly hunted and trapped, often with dogs. They were always respected for their prowess and power, and stories would circulate about how they would drown dogs in the lake. I never remembered a raccoon as a Disney character, and assumed that the reputation was deserved.

It turned out that we had a neighbor who agreed – a lady who lived alone and was constantly peering out her window in search of marauders.  Dolly’s frequent visits to our place had not gone unnoticed.

We came to guard Dolly’s privacy.  One summer day, we saw a man walking around with what looked like a cage.  I approached him and asked what he was doing.  He said he was the “official trapper” for the town and had been engaged to rid the area of raccoons, skunks, foxes and woodchucks, because of concerns about rabies.  Residents couldn’t have their dogs attacked by a rabid beast.

When he asked me if we had seen any such varmints around, I replied with my own question: What does he do with the animals he traps? Oh, he said, they are never harmed but released into the wild in Roxbury, our neighboring town with plenty of woods.

Hmmm.  So much for all the concern about rabies.

“’Haven’t seen any,” I replied.

After a few days, Dolly didn’t come around.  Bananas were spoiling on the deck.  We assumed the trapper had done his job.

We didn’t think we would ever see her again.  But about six weeks later, we saw Dolly lying on the deck railing looking into the house with those plaintive, banana-wanting eyes.

We didn’t have any bananas on hand that day, but remembered that Dolly would try peanut butter and crackers when we had misjudged the banana supply. When I finally got this reserve repast prepared, I walked outside to find six little raccoons bounding up on the deck.

Yes, she was a female alright. They were the most adorable and rambunctious creatures we could ever imagine.

We now had a family of seven to feed.  So, off to the supermarket I went to stock up on everything they might enjoy.  Bananas, off course, and peanuts, fruit, sunflower seeds, and husked corn on the cob.

The day she and her new family came to visit happened to be Father’s Day.  Before leaving for a celebratory dinner, my husband said the sight of Dolly and her kits waiting to be fed was the best gift he could have received.

The growing family stayed for about a month.  But the neighbor lady was on the prowl.  She called the trapper again, and he soon caught them all.

Now we assumed she really was gone for good.  But a month later, there she was back on our deck, this time alone.  We immediately noticed she was bleeding.  Her left hind leg was missing.

She got her banana, ate it and limped off.  We never saw her again.

Dolly had come back to say good-bye.  She left three paw prints on our hearts.

– Susan Aiken 02/25/14





Tired of all the snow?  Think of the birds and all the other critters out there who have to live in it.  At least, they don’t have to go hungry.

My favorite place to watch them eat is from an old, overstuffed bucket chair in the living room, located next to a full-length glass, sliding door.  The door opens to the deck.  Bird feeders hang at the nearest corner of the deck, about 15 feet above the ground.

The bird feeders are hung on a forked oak branch, with two crossbars.  Oak branches wear well; they don’t rot like birch or crack like hemlock.  This one has withstood 16 winters.

There are only two feeders.  One is a standard tube, with horizontal perches for bird convenience.  The other one is also a tube, but equipped with a ring at the bottom that spins squirrels off if they land on it.   I have never seen a squirrel thrown off mine.  I think that is because they have already experienced these devilish contraptions, operated by a hidden battery, and learn quickly.

The birds are too light to set the thing off.  The squirrels still try to beat it by hanging by their rear feet from the crossbar and try to reach the seed door at the bottom.  But the feeder is too long for them to reach the food.  They get very frustrated.

It’s not that I don’t like squirrels.  I do.  Someone described them as The Flying Wallandas of the mammal family.  They are great fun to watch.

Not only are they incredibly agile, they are quite handsome.  Ours are Eastern Gray squirrels.  Their fur is a soft gray, with flecks of brown along the spine that denses up around the head.  The ears taper to a pink point, and Asiatic brown eyes are lined with a precise, tan-colored ring.  Then there’s the tail, fluffier than the pelt, trimmed in white and very versatile.  When a squirrel hangs from a branch, its tail helps the hind legs hold on.  It also flicks to show anger or alarm.  When a squirrel is foraging on the ground, it tucks its tail over its back, out of the way.

The most intriguing thing, to me, is the way squirrels eat.   They sit on their haunches and the front legs transform into tiny hands with fluttering fingers, pushing food into their mouths.  There’s something very human about it.

They are voracious eaters and, like us, are into instant gratification.  A well-stocked bird feeder, with all those seeds and nuts and fruit for the taking, is a God-send.  They don’t like anyone horning in, even their own kind.  Birds keep a wide berth.

Humans have devised all kinds of ways of keeping squirrels off bird feeders.  I don’t think it’s because we believe they should starve.  But they are real pigs.  They are also clever, and because of that, they test our mettle.  My father-in-law rigged up an electric plate that zapped them when they touched a feeder, but somehow they figured out if they didn’t stand on the grounded plate they wouldn’t get shocked.  So, the old man resorted to a pellet gun.  But as soon as he would open the sliding door, even very quietly to take a bead on them, they took off.  Thus, the spinning feeder.

As for the birds, anyone who watches them – even rank amateurs like me – can detect the basic techniques of each species:

First, there are the grab-and-go eaters, like chickadees and titmice, different from the stay-and-feed types, like junkos and crows.  Then there are the perchers, like goldfinches and nuthatches, as opposed to the ground or flat feeders, like doves and wild turkeys.

Perching birds tend to take their food to a nearby branch to eat, but woodpeckers stay for a few bites before flying off.  (They prefer suet, but raccoons like it too, and invariably knock the holder to the ground).

The experts say that grab-and-go birds don’t like to stick around for fear of predators, like hawks.  The stay-and-eat types mostly congregate in groups on the principle of safety in numbers.  This does not apply to crows, who are big enough to do what they want.  No one hangs around, though, including squirrels, if a hawk is detected in the neighborhood.

My favorites are the junkos.  With their chunky little bodies and yellow beaks sticking out of dark gray feathers, they merrily eat away on the railing and the deck floor, oblivious to others.

Chickadees are the gutsiest of the lot.  Some don’t even wait until I have finished filling the feeders before alighting, sometimes mere inches from my head.

All these antics are endlessly fascinating, and I don’t care whether we’re fooling around with Mother Nature by interceding, as some purists believe.

Wildlife is entitled to the pursuit of happiness, just like I am.

– GAK 02/09/14

Blue Jay