Birds do it

At the age of eight, Francie the Duck (Ret.) began turning into a drake. For eight years she had unquestionably been a hen, brown-feathered, egg-laying, but then she went through the change and now, two years later, her head feathers have a greenish tinge, her neck is thicker, her tail feather curls, her feet have turned orange. She has all the secondary sex characteristics of a drake.

What’s odder: her behavior has changed as well, and dramatically. Over the last year she took to watching over the two other remaining ducks when I let them out in the yard. While they grazed and hunted bugs, she kept an eye out. As a hen she had never shown a lick of interest in watching out for anything; she was the most devoted bug-hunter of the flock, but now she thought it more important to stand guard.

Rough earth snake

We found a rough earth snake in the yard last week. His kind was new to me: skinny and brown with pale bellies, they burrow under mulch and soil and feed on worms and bugs. He was trying to burrow when we found him, but he’d gotten himself on the wrong side of the sidewalk, where the rain and sun had alternately soaked and baked the red clay into a pottery slope held fast by a scraggle of grass, and in his haste to escape our approach he struggled furiously in place, diving at the impossible earth, rather than risk exposure on concrete . Likely he’d come from the old flower bed that runs along the house, but there he’d been bounded by hard surface, his options limited to a narrow strip of granny planting, so I slid a finger through his coil to move him to the garden a few feet away where the soil was more welcoming and, I thought, he’d do more good than harm. There are worms to spare; he can help himself.

The benefits of sloth to one’s fellow creatures

This Earth Day post on a New York Times blog, about why dandelions are ok and “Wimbeldonlike” lawns maintained in their sterile protection by a chemical arsenal are bad, left me nonplussed — not because I disagree; I’ve written before about my natural lawn care, my preference for wildflowers over grass and my thorough distaste for gas-powered lawn mowers. I was happy to see somebody in so mainstream a publication taking a stand, even a modest and polite one, against chemically-maintained lawns.

When we are not looking

Four deer are nosing through the pine straw for acorns the squirrels might have missed, barely shimmering against the background of russet-brown and dappled snow. Where have they been all week? I expected to see them out in the snow, but maybe some instinct tells them to stay hidden when the ground is pure white. What do they do, then? Huddle in the deep woods? Stare dumbly at the white stuff, trying to remember where they’ve seen it before? Sit by the fire, the bucks watching basketball on TV and the does working on their knitting? Grumble to each other that the weather is proof that global warming is just a liberal conspiracy to take everybody’s SUVs? Which would be a good thing for deer, because the small cars can more easily dodge them, but being only ruminants they are easily swayed by cable news reports?

I imagine up north they just suck it up. Like everybody else.

Life cycles

The miracle of a butterfly is a cliché, but it’s a miracle my daughter, who is four, hadn’t yet witnessed, and she gave me daily — if not hourly — updates on the caterpillar’s progress. And, really, it’s a miracle that never grows old. When the aptly named “Parsley” went off into the wide world we were all a little disappointed that we wouldn’t see her emerge as a butterfly.

black rat snake

Howdy, neighbor

This gal has taken up residence in my workshop:

black rat snake

Or guy. I asked, but she wasn’t talking.

When I cleaned out the shed Monday after leaving it fallow for a year and a half — with a job and a kid and a novel I’ve had no time for woodworking, can you imagine? — I found eight million mouse turds but no mice. Yeah, I counted. They were everywhere, along with grass seed from a chewed-up bag. Evidence of several mice, but they were gone.

Then Tuesday morning my daughter and I went outside and found a five-foot black rat snake hanging from the tool rack, looking at us. She dropped off and hid in the corner and I thought we had scared her off, but the next afternoon she was back, hanging around the rafters. So now I know what happened to the mice.

Black rat snakes aren’t dangerous — they’ll strike if cornered but they’re constrictors, so their bite isn’t serious, and I think we can leave each other alone. (She flicked her tongue at the flash, but I don’t blame her. I don’t like getting my picture taken, either.) Meanwhile, I no longer have to worry about mice in the workshop. And the kid thinks she’s the coolest thing ever.

Yep, it’s wild kingdom out here.

wheel bug

The wheel bug of life

wheel bug

Photograph by Ronald F. Billings of the Texas Forest Service, USDA Forestry Service Archives, image 226085.

Since we began gardening several years ago—when we moved into our first house—we have grown our vegetables in raised beds. This has always been primarily a practical decision. Had we topsoil to till, I would gladly till it, amend it, and leave it where it lies. But in our present home we had to cart in, wheelbarrowful by wheelbarrowful, two pickup truckloads of soil and compost just to get started. There was no point digging it into solid clay; far better for our backs and our crops simply to dump it on top and build a box around it to keep it in place.