Our Patio Pets
For sixteen years we have enjoyed watching generations of birds, squirrels and racoons begging for seeds and peanuts on our patio. Our French doors are a window into their world to our jungle patio. We are official “bird nerds,” keeping track of our feathered guests’ arrivals and departures in our bird book. Our respect for the hierarchy and allegiance to each species’ prescribed rules keeps us entertained. We’ve learned favorite feeding times, nap times and evening nesting times. We installed a beautiful birdbath for their drinking and bathing pleasure.
Our birds recognize our voices, mine, high pitched, using a voice I once used with my own children when they were babies in tender musical tones: “Hey sweetie, hurry up, hurry up, get that nut! There it is, you got it! Good baby!” Tim’s voice is lower, with many chuckles and congratulations on their accomplishments in catching nuts thrown to them.
We learn their many voices at different seasons of the year. Our favorite songs are in the spring when the parents are courting and making nests. It is the most musical and sweet time of year. The males feed the females, gently placing nuts in their mate’s mouths. The swooping battles for food become more intense as new nests are being built and new babies are hatching. We learn the demanding shrieks of all the babies, waiting for their meals in their nest before they have learned to fly.
Over the years we have learned much from regarding their dietary wishes. Their favorite meal is peanuts, sunflower seeds, and crumbled stale bread. They prefer the most expensive wild bird seed mixes available. Anything that costs less than eleven dollars for twenty pounds of seed is scorned.
Some announce their hunger through many varied antics. Our feathered guests fly in front of our French doors. They hop about and stalk our patio, strut on our table and stare in our windows. The titmice have mastered the art of mobile acrobatics. They land and spin on my glass mobile as though on a carnival ride, swinging and arcing wildly. Their remarkable ability never fails to elicit treats.
Our little animal kingdom feels secure enough to raise generations of their young in our yard. It is easy to recognize the baby birds not only by their size, but by their large eyes, clumsiness and ineptitude at flight. They follow their parents and parental instructions on diet: bugs, worms, lizards: great. Bread, peanuts, seeds: better.
We worry over our baby flocks as we witness their early attempts at flight and independence. Four young Blue Jays learned to fly from our clothesline. They clumsily crash landed into the bushes at the edge of the patio. The Cardinal clan was ruled in flight instruction by their dad. He frantically chased his babies as they launched and flew away from his protection. We could almost hear his fatherly admonitions, made obvious by his hysterical flight after his babies, “Wait! Slow down! Stop! Land softly!”
We occasionally saw our screech owl family in the hollow of an old tree, hearing their hooting calls at night and in the early morning. They rarely appeared, only their hoots made their presence known. They eschewed our owl nesting box preferring the hollows in our old oaks for bringing up their young. Much to our amazement, on June 23, 2018 at two o’clock in the afternoon, two baby Screech owls settled into our birdbath for a wash. We could easily read their messages to one another as they pushed, shoved and jockeyed for space in the birdbath. Their slowly twisting heads and fluffed feathers spoke their intentions to one another clearly, “Move over, stop splashing all the water out, times up, my turn, get out, now.” Just like kids, they reminded me of the local pool with children waiting for their turn at the water slide.
Tim and I are extremely protective of our animals, chasing away neighborhood cats and keeping an eye out for all predators. We lost one Mourning Dove, the species we call the Homer Simpsons of the bird world. A Hawk swooped onto the patio and plucked a slow moving, oblivious dove from safety. All that was left were feathers floating from the path of the Red-Shouldered hawk’s flight.
There is a strictly-followed pecking order among our flocks. The largest birds reign. The smaller, faster birds race about, snatching up nuts, bread and seeds before the larger birds can grab treats. The Thrashers, Woodpeckers and Jays are in constant battle. We were astounded when we watched a Blue Jay stealthily creep behind a Thrasher who was devouring peanuts. The Blue Jay waited till the Thrasher’s tail was turned and then flew up and landed on top of the unsuspecting, larger bird. Enraged, a battle ensued with both birds quickly flying into the treetops.
The smaller birds, Wrens, Titmice, Cardinals and the occasional Chickadee and Blue Indigo are the last to feed. They stick together and share their allotted space on the patio pavers and table. Occasionally, they share a drink or a bath in our birdbath. Unlike the larger birds, they seem to enjoy one another’s company. I imagine them gossiping over the bird bath, “So, how are the kids? I see Myrtle has a clutch of four. Emily fusses too much. She just should let those fledges have more space.”
Our Catbird is our only migratory bird. He arrives mid-October and departs mid-April. Since he is not a year-round visitor he is the one we spoil the most. We shop for the fattest blueberries and throw them to him. He rewards us with his sprints across the patio deftly catching the berries.
The squirrels are another matter entirely. Our flocks of birds ignore the squirrels in disdain of their battle tactics. The squirrels have mastered ballet. They leap, spin, pirouette and launch themselves at our windows. They fight over nuts, leaping in their ballet-like moves to outsmart one another. They chase and fight over prized peanuts. They climb up our French doors and windows and watch us intently from their side of the glass. Their efforts are rewarded. Their fat little bodies attest to their success. One or two have accidentally dived into our open door in their efforts to find and retrieve nuts. Those interlopers were easily herded back out the door. They were as surprised as we by their indoor presence.
The only animals I am not fond of are the racoons. Initially, one foursome of baby racoons captured my heart. They wrestled and tumbled with one another until their mom would split them up and drag them back into the safety of our backyard jungle. As with all things, the babies grew up and became a nuisance. They knocked over and broke one birdbath. They broke the second one which fortunately Tim was able to repair. They tipped over and broke our beautiful grape vine logs adorning the edge of the patio walls. They washed their paws in the birdbath and occasionally have left black tarry gifts designating their ownership of the birdbath. Eventually, they depart for greener pastures along the Hillsborough River. I am never sorry to see them depart.
One large racoon recently returned. I was discouraged and chased the large 'coon away. Tim would not, and admonished me. “Look at that poor racoon eating up all the bread, he must be hungry.”
“Hmmpf.” I replied. “Used to arrive at four. Now he shows up at noon, two, four and even later. He eats all the bread leaving none for our birds. Our birds and squirrels don’t like him. Neither do I.” One afternoon I exploded. My racoon goodwill evaporated as the racoon devoured all the bread on the patio. “Enough!” I said, as I raced out the door and chased the racoon away. Tim was disgusted. “What if it’s a female, and she’s pregnant?” That did give me pause until I found my excuse. "We don’t need any more raccoons.”
A few days later my patience and goodwill evaporated once again. I ran out the door to chase the hungry, large racoon away. Tim pleaded his case or that of the racoon, who had just arrived for its fourth visit that day. He begged me, “Really, why shouldn’t we feed the racoons? We feed everybody else. You’re discriminating.”
I had to admit, my philanthropist husband had a point which became abundantly clear a few days later. The large racoon climbed over the patio wall. Damn, I thought, wondering if I should chase the visitor off. Then, the racoon turned, reached over the back of the wall, and pulled a tiny replica herself over the wall: a wobbly, skinny baby and with spiked, short fur.
I was thrilled beyond measure. “Oh, look! She has a baby!” Tim and I both watched the antics of the mother and baby racoon. They were adorable and heartwarming. Mom grabbed the baby, tumbled her over the patio and wrestled with her little one playfully. They touched noses and mom returned to her important task. She ate all the bread and seeds ravenously. She shoved her baby beneath her protectively as she ate. She grabbed the baby in her jaws and dragged her off when she came too close to our door. Eventually, when she was full to capacity, mom dragged the baby across the patio, picked her up, and carried her over the wall.
Tim smiled at me ruefully. “See? I told ya. She was pregnant and now she’s nursing. We should have been feeding her. Good thing we did." Again, I had to admit he was right.
Now, we look forward to her visits, usually by herself. We wonder where the baby is sleeping and how mom manages to convey to her child to remain hidden in their nest. She brings the baby by once or twice a day, watching over her less and less. We know eventually they both will be gone, off to the river or another yard.
Just as the birds, squirrels and racoons understand their hierarchy in our yard and respect their rules, I now do also. Humans might be at the top of the food chain, but our animals have taught me a great deal. They continue to provide endless hours of enjoyment as we spy their world. They teach us their pecking order. They are aware of one another’s boundaries.
We buy bird seed more frequently and put out more bread than we ever have. Our patio pets have other homes to visit. We notice they still pluck bugs, worms, lizards and seeds from our lawn and trees. I’m happy to be part of their world, learning their life lessons. They appear to be happy in our world, evidenced by their presence and devouring of meals. After all, we are in their territory, trespassing on their homes. They were here first.
Our patio pets have taught us to respect one another’s boundaries and help one another survive in our remarkable chain of life. We co-exist, happily.
Notes from author: If you are unable to open my videos please cut and paste the links below:
Authors Note: I apologize for having no feathered friends featured. They are too fast for me to capture. I also apologize for Tim and my voices on the videos. Just hit your mute button for happier viewing. I'm a far better writer than photographer or video editor.