Sunday, January 22, 2012

Is there life without bugs?

The cold dark has closed in again.

When I opened my eyes about seven, my weather station said 33 degrees, 99 percent humidity. The famous lepidopterist Vladimir Nabokov (he was also a novelist) as a little boy in Russia would wake up in the morning and look to see if the sun was shining through the curtains. If it was, it meant it would be a good day for butterflying, if it wasn't, he went back to bed. I'm one of thousands of citizen scientists across the country who checks his official CoCoRaHS (Community Collaborative Rain, Hail & Snow Network) rain gauge at seven every morning and reports how much rain has fallen in the past twenty-four hours, so I had to get up.

No rain had fallen, but I could feel a mist on my face, and fog obscured the bare row-crop fields behind the house. When I got back in the house, Cheryl had already gone online and checked the Arkansas bird reports, and it seems some non-birdwatcher had taken a picture of a snowy owl down by Hot Springs in the center of the state and it was printed in a local newspaper. It's a snowy owl invasion year, and they have been seen as far south as Missouri and Oklahoma, and the Arkansas birders were dying to get one in their own state. But by the time the word got around, the bird hadn't been seen for a week.

Since this is a Sunday, I imagine every birder in the state is going to be driving the roads around where the bird was last seen. I thought: Cheryl and I will just drive the roads in northeast Arkansas and find our own snowy. We got everything ready to go, and then I went outside and realized the fog was now so thick I couldn't see across the front yard.

So I'm sitting here at my computer thinking, Well, that's a reminder that in winter (at least when it's not foggy) there are other things than insects around, birds and mammals, for instance. The acre lot our house is built on has been planted and managed entirely to attract wildlife, which means a pond in the back and the rest mostly native stuff allowed to run wild. Our guiding moral principle comes from the great British landscape authority Oliver Rackham ("The Illustrated History of the Countryside"): "You must learn to despise the word 'tidiness.'"

So in the 35 years we have lived here we have recorded twenty or so species of mammals on the property, undoubtedly missing some of the smaller ones. We try to practice ahimsa, reverence for life, which means everything is welcome, at least until it begins to cause trouble. At first we were charmed when the opossums moved in with us. One day we looked out the back window and an opossum gathered up a pile of dead leaves and wrapped his prehensile tail around them to carry them under the house. After that when we took our bath we could hear him in his nest under the bathtub scratching and snoring. Then the ticks and fleas began invading the bathroom, then he began ripping the insulation off our central-heating ducts to line his nest, so one night when he was out on his rounds I sealed off all the openings to under the house.

That was not the worst. When the fields behind the house are harvested, all the small rodents move to our back yard. One year it was brown ('Norway") rats. These are filthy scary things in cities, but out in the country they are more like regular animals, and are actually rather handsome. I learned that they are technically considered to be burrowing animals. They came to the compost pile we have in the back back yard, where we put all our soft garbage, and sure enough they dug burrows with runs between them and it was fun to watch them sitting at the mouths of their burrows, or racing down their runs, like a miniature prairie dog town. Then one night we had four inches of snow. When I checked back there I saw their little footprints where they had all deserted the compost beds, run along the side of our outbuilding (where we have our garage and my study), crossed the driveway, and made a bee-line to one of the vents leading under the house, burrowed under the screen blocking the vent, and entered the house.

They were a disaster. They sounded like ponies galloping up and down in the attic. I woke in the middle of the night, my stomach tensed, as I heard them gnawing on what were undoubtedly live wires. When something was in the way, like the floor, they simply chewed a three-inch-in-diameter hole straight through it. I set traps everywhere and they avoided them with contempt. One night we heard one in the kitchen. We went out there and the sounds were coming from the electric stove. I had come naked from the bed, but feeling a little vulnerable, had put on heavy boots.

We've got him, I said. I pulled the stove out into the middle of the room. We could see where he was hidden inside one of the legs. I got between him and his escape hole where the plug came out of the wall, turned on every burner to full, the oven on to cleaning-temperature heat, and waited holding a broom handle cocked over my head. Instead of backing me up, Cheryl kept threatening to take photographs of the scene. We were sweating from the heat in the room, but the rat patiently waited us out, and we gave up and went back to bed.

I finally did trap them out, and we no longer keep a compost bed, and for the most part we enjoy our mammals. When we have our bird feeders going in winter a hispid cotton rat (a well behaved outside rat) sits on his haunches eating sunflower seeds with the sparrows, a couple of squirrels sitting on either side of him like big brothers. The dead leaves ripple as the voles and bog lemmings race along out of sight underneath, occasionally sticking their heads out to pick up seeds dropped by the birds from the tube feeders.

Our feeders are hotting up at the moment. Up to now this winter we had had our usual local birds, our usual few dozen white-throated sparrows, juncos, and scattering of other sparrow species, and so far about a dozen goldfinches in their rather drab winter plumage. Suddenly in the last few days the goldfinch numbers have increased to 40 or more, and they have been joined by half a dozen beautiful purple finches, and, even more special since West Nile Virus devastated them, half a dozen house finches. We are of course watching now for some really special finch to show up. An evening grosbeak would be nice.

But sunshine, warmth, the chance for a bug, and we'd leave all this in a minute.

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