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Love Notes from a Suburban Yard

Okay, well, technically, it’s my neighbor’s yard, and specifically, it involves someone else’s home – but this story plays out in National Geographic quality in view of my front yard.   It all started about three weeks ago, when I heard what sounded like a bunch of crickets in or near an oak tree by our driveway.  I heard it when I took the dog out in  the morning, and again when I got the mail in the afternoon, and as I hauled the trash cans back around the house later in the day.  It was a continuous cacophony of frenetic chirping.

After trying to zero in on the source of the noise for a couple of days, as I came and went in my driveway,  I finally went outside and stood alone under the oak tree, with the sole goal of trying to pinpoint the creatures making the sounds.   In the dance of the curious, I  craned my neck, cocked my head, cupped my ears, squinted and peered and finally detected a small hole high in a dead branch of my neighbor’s pine tree.

Aha! And just as I began to make the connection between the hole and the sound, a woodpecker lit in gravity-defying verticality along the branch with a grub in its bill, and poked its head inside the hole.  A woodpecker nest!

I’ve always been fascinated by the wealth of nature in my suburban Tampa yard. It’s your basic third of an acre St. Augustine spread, but with a healthy complement of oaks, elm, camphor and ligustrum trees, and lots of shrubs and bushes, as well as a lot of neighboring oaks and pines and other trees. I’m  saddened when I see those treeless, sterile looking communities that are all pavement and water-sucking sod.   Those  houses, however big they are, look hot and plain in the glaring sunlight without the framework of trees.

In older neighborhoods like this one, trees shade the streets and yards, and there are plenty of neighborhood bird feeders, in addition to my own.   There’s also a landscaped retention pond across the street, and bird baths in our yard, so all the basic Wildlife Habitat essentials are here: shelter, food and water.

Animals utilize these resources in great abundance here. We’ve got tons of insects, birds, reptiles and amphibians, and a decent complement of small mammals like racoons and opossums,  and my outdoorswoman daughter tells us she’s also found evidence of  coyotes and bobcats in our neighborhood, too.  All this within a couple of miles of busy urban roads and an expressway, providing ample evidence that our suburban communities,  while not ecologically ideal, can certainly be made into attractive and sustainable environments for wildlife, as well as for people.

The woodpeckers apparently agree.   And for the last couple of weeks, I’ve watched them engage in what would seem to be an absolutely exhausting feeding schedule.  I remember the wearying wee hours feedings of my own young, but am fully cognizant of the fact that I didn’t have to run around foraging all day to find food for my constantly squawking fledglings and bring it back one piece at a time.  I don’t know how they do it. I would watch for 3o minutes or so , and in that time, the parent woodpecker would fly back and forth to the nest at least a half dozen times, always with one insect in its bill.  I wished I could hand up a shopping bag to help!

After some debate, my birder daughter and I finally concluded that these are Hairy woodpeckers ( as opposed to the very similar looking Downy woodpeckers).  For the last couple of days, I’ve watched eagerly from the shade of the neighboring oak tree, to see if I could spot one of the babies.  The other day, I saw a large fuzzy looking head faintly outlined in the shadows of the nest entrance. And today, I was rewarded with the bold appearance of a nearly fledged young bird.  It’s amazing to think there are probably at least one or two more young birds in the nest.  How do they fit?!  I”m also gratified to see that both parents rear the young – although with feeding schedules like theirs, it would require teamwork.

But what a love note from nature!  There’s something deeply heartwarming and reassuring in watching birds nest and raise young, providing a basic affirmation of life in a world where death and sadness sometimes seem more the rule than the exception. And perhaps that may be the case – perhaps these birds are the exception to the rules of life.

But I don’t think so.  We won’t rule the planet forever – we can barely hang on to it now.  Wars and politics and the people behind them will come and go, but animals will carry on forever the instinctual and beautiful processes of their own lives, however they are able, without regard to us, in the universe of their own existence.  They find work-arounds to the inconvenience of our existence, using what they can, disregarding the rest,  unfettered by petty distractions and empty vanities, and attending to their own with unflinching devotion.

Maybe the lesson in the woodpeckers’ love note is that we should do the same.


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