Monday, June 22, 2015

Life, Death and Dances with Squirrels

Many of my friends have seen this Tucson photo:

And they say to themselves that’s just John, old grandpa that he is, dozing and sitting around a fire pit while old age and Alzheimer’s take their toll.
Nothing could be further from the truth! I have, in fact, been engaged in cutting edge research, making countless discoveries about desert ecology.

I submit, therefore, this lengthy chronicle of my late night and early morning observations--an outlet for my own insomnia and a cure for yours:

Life and Death on the Desert's Edge

A Tucson Spring, Morning Arrivals
Not yet full dawn and a roadrunner is outside the bathroom window. I lean forward to see what’s in its beak. He obligingly pauses so I can admire a large yellowish insect which looks a lot like a scorpion. Guess I should appreciate his early morning efforts to make my hearth and home safe for bare feet and grandkids.
The roadrunner is a stately bird, as are all his kin, and the ones in our neighborhood particularly large and well-fed. Sometimes they call to mind slow roasted chickens or small turkeys on a rotisserie. But why eat something that eats something that can hurt you? The enemy of your enemy is a friend, right? I wish this roadrunner well, push myself away from the window sill and stagger toward the kitchen.
Coffee summoned, a weak momentum carries me outside to my pre-dawn observation post, a folding table and beat-up deck chair. No binoculars, sadly. Maybe next visit. 

 Here Comes Peter Cottontail…

I prepare myself for visitors. First up today, one of the gate bunnies--so called because they always enter under a locked gate when they could just as easily slip through the wired squares of the fencing. Perhaps they want to declare independence from human barriers. This one eyes me suspiciously before making the crossing.

The cottontail then moves tentatively into human territory and south toward a more hospitable environment. You see, my more lenient neighbor allows native vegetation and a water bowl whereas I have terminated all weeds and would-be cacti between myself and the 40 yards to the fence. Sorry bunnies, but when it comes to separating myself from life forms beyond my control, I have one rule: “This far and no further.”

And as for my neighbor’s habit of leaving out a water bowl...
The southwest is certainly as parched by drought as California and easy water would be much appreciated by the local fauna. But what if it’s at the cost of a “kill zone” where predators gain an easy advantage over their prey, upsetting long standing natural balances?

More on this later—and it won’t be pretty.

Symbols of Peace—But Not Quiet

Soon I will be visited by noisy neighbors, the ubiquitous doves. They sit on the top of the dividing fence, singing their diminutive brains out. I remember the words of a prominent Arizona ornithologist, Stevie Nicks. All knowledge pertaining to the science of dove calls is conveyed in her 80’s classic, Edge of Seventeen, the Rosetta Stone of dove talk:
           Just like the white winged dove
          Sings a song, 
          Sounds like she’s singing
          Ooh, ooh, ooh
Note the incremental variation in the following lines:
         Just like the white winged dove,
          Sings a song, 
          Sounds like she’s singing
          Ooh baby, ooh said, ooh

Astounding, isn’t it?
Listening to the songs of actual doves, I can’t help but hear the same cadence:
          Ooh, uh-ooh, uh-ooh, ooh
So there it is, the genius of Ms. Nicks. These multi-syllabic calls represent the rudiments of communication, a sort of Morse Code of dots and dashes. And though I’ve yet to fully decipher the entire code, I interpret the above passage as follows:
          I’ve just sat on barbed wire,
          Ooh! Ow! Oooh! 
 (sing it Stevie!)

Obviously, I need to gather more data before submitting these findings to Bird Turd Fancy.

Wear a Fez, Go to Jail

Anytime now the other destroyers of desert peace, quail, will make known their cacophonous presence. Theimost frequent call is a ragged and high pitched “ahhh” as if in some 19th century novel, a woman has “taken fright”.
          Ahhh! (high pitched and prissy)
Ironically, it is the tasseled male who’s responsible for this cry, usually while standing atop some fencepost. He stretches his neck to maximum height and cries out while pushing forth his black-patched belly. Kind of absurd really, picture a middle aged guy trying to impress girls by showing off his beer belly.
Always the cry is followed by Marco-Polo responses from distant points in the scrub. This dude bird call is obviously a way to check in with available females, running through his quall-cell phone directory, hoping for a booty-call.
The female responses to these come-on’s are lower pitched and better modulated, the females of a species always being more verbal (way more verbal). I notice that the female responses are sometimes broken at mid-utterance, much like the human salutation, “Hello”. Other variations parse out to a flirtatious “yoo-hoo.” Doubt me on this? Spend time on the sand--or visit a local single’s bar.

The Unknown

In the background are bird calls which I have yet to associate with a particular species.

1.  The Repeat Bird can often be seen  standing on fencepost. 
Other than his perky tail, he's a nondescript brown bird who calls out an incessant and shrill “repeat, repeat!” from morning to night. Oh, occasionally he might say his name, "Repeat Pete," but otherwise all he has to offer is “repeat, repeat!”.

Get a freakin' miracle ear, deaf birdie! And shoot me if I'm reduced by old age and deafness to a constant barrage of “Say what, say what?”

2. Then there’s the Taunting Bird who says “Stewart, Stewart” over and over in the same plaintive tone. For some reason, this call annoys the hell out of my otherwise deaf and placid dog.

3. Similar high register tones come from the Rude Bird who utters a cat-call whistle identical to construction workers showing their appreciation for a major babe crossing a street near their job site.

4. And then there’s the Car Alarm bird… but maybe I’m just hearing actual cars somewhere in the distance…
Admittedly, several (or all) of these calls could be emanating from a single bird. But again, with more time on the sand, I will become more positive about my findings.

And Now the Fun Begins…
One species I have positively identified is the Round Tailed Squirrel, a family of which have set up their household underneath the large white rock on the other side of the fence. We're talking Lilliputian squirrels that seem all the smaller because their tails are less than the diameter of one of those large pipe cleaners we used for crafts as children. Imagine a chipmunk-sized creature, erect as a prairie dog. His/her gaze is intense, having the balls and curiosity to stare right at me. Perhaps he is trying to decide if the fat blob in the chair represents any kind of threat. 
I remain perfectly still, cease reaching for my coffee because I don’t want to miss any of the show. It’s May, the time for pups to come out. This happy family has at least four of them, probably two months old, feisty and playful as a child's best memory of puppies and kittens.

Though they stay close to the large mother rock, their antics take them further and further from the den and involve endless variations. There’s the Circle Race where one pup frantically chases another. And the Fence Hang where a pup dangles from the wire fence like a monkey. The Huddle, where they all stand facing each other as if deciding on a critical sports play. But only until one of them drops down and attacks the others, followed by a melee of wrestling. My favorite moment: when a pup  gathers enough courage to charge a passing dove, scaring it enough to discharge feathers into the breeze. I scan the sky during each diminutive circus, hoping no hawk will end the festivities by flying off with one of the performers.

Adults and Prelates Only

A matinĂ©e performance of this show involves only adult squirrels. The couple forges deeper and deeper into the perils of my neighbor's backyard. Obviously they’re on a family support mission.  The frolicking and all inclusive family activity I witnessed earlier in the day was a mere training activity.  This outing is serious and the stakes are survival.

Late afternoon might also involve a visit from a local dignitary, one who brings a scarlet effusion of red to the predominant green and yellow of the desert spring. The rare occasion of a cardinal sighting is an experience well beyond my powers of description.

But give me time. I’m just getting started here.

Morning Rain, a Little Pain

Much cooler and little activity, the squirrels must be snuggled down. I sip my coffee in a damp backyard.

My wife and I leave to buy groceries.
She sees a roadrunner.
“He has his something in his beak. I think it’s a mouse.”
“That’s not a mouse, Deb. It’s a baby squirrel.”

For a moment I am sad. I know it’s just that circle of life stuff.  But where’s a coyote when you need one? You know, like the one in those old Warner Brother’s cartoons who kept his adversary so busy he never had time to spear baby squirrels?

Later that day I take a photo. A roadrunner is stalking the squirrel den.

Who Will Stop the Rain?
Another cool morning, very quiet. Trailing showers drift over the Catalina range. Birds silent, squirrels absent. My phone/camera is beside me and I'm ready to record the next squirrel circus and send it off to America’s Funniest. 
I finish my coffee and wait for things to warm, sleeping bag around my shoulders. Nothing. I’m about to go inside when an adult squirrel stands straight up, hands held limply in front like the stuffed prairie dog I saw at a Tucson museum yesterday.

I wait, muscles frozen. No other members of this family of six emerge. Just a single squirrel, which for no particular reason I assume to be male. He stares fixedly across my back lot, a playground where squirrel pups romped about just yesterday. I try to imagine what is going on in that walnut-sized skull. Is he lonely or just perplexed by the empty landscape before him? 
Maybe "loneliness" is perhaps too complex of an emotion to be ascribed to a lower mammal. Still I wonder if he dimly expects them to return? Does he remember the road- runner’s fatal rush toward his family? I hope not.

Just Another Day

Again, not much is happening. I've been at my chair for several hours.
Breakfast is calling and I’m about to go inside.
I witness an explosion of activity to my right. Two bunnies race in different directions, the larger disappearing between the houses. Another is coming straight at me. I’m about to stand up and drop kick this possibly rabid rabbit when he swerves off. 
I settle back and wonder what caused all this commotion.

Just down from the where the bunny race began a tawny flash emerges beyond the fence, a coyote. We face each other. He recognizes me for what I am. A nuisance competitor, potentially dangerous and the one responsible for the loss of his bunny breakfast. He vanishes--as do my hopes of getting a photo.
I'm trying to reconstruct what just happened. Then the tawny back of Mr. Coyote rises again from behind squirrel rock... He creeps on his belly. I decide against intervention. The squirrel, if still alive, must take its chances. I get out of my chair to view the endgame. Mr. Coyote repeats his disappearing act. Close call for Mr. Squirrel.

Why is life is so harsh in the desert?
And as I approach the house, I wonder whether the leftover meat from last night’s dinner might go well on this morning's scrambled eggs.

Another Morning, a Few Days Later…

I pause before assuming my post at the observation chair. A squirrel again stands atop the rock, prairie dog style, staring vigilantly into the distance. I sit down, phone in hand, frustrated because I have no record of the previous drama. The squirrel has melts down into the shadows beneath his den.
But I stay hopeful, recalling the term “wait time” from my teaching career and the agonizing seconds while I prayed that that someone out there might actually have heard my question and, given enough time, would answer back. Yeah well, that only worked about half the time…
Shadows move through wash, hide and seek behind the bushes. I hear a roadrunner in the vicinity of the squirrel den (by the way, it’s not a “beep, beep” like the Warner Brother’s cartoon but a clicking buzz created by the rapid chattering of upper and lower beaks). At times, it sounds like the pneumatic wrench when a tire guy tightens down my lug nuts.
Minutes pass. Then the blur of passing roadrunner. He's in the fence shadows sprinting with the forward lean that is so characteristic of his species. I barely manage a photo. 

Upon reaching a clearing, he stops to raise his tail feathers. This repeated pattern of rushing, stopping, and elevating feathers must be a way to analyze each new location for air disturbances made by approaching predators.

With his tail up and immersed in shadows of a mesquite bush, he is a study of invisibility.

I sip my coffee, blink, and he’s gone. Things happen fast in the desert, sometimes faster than the shutter and nearly always faster than the finger that controls it.
I trek toward the squirrel den, phone/camera armed and ready. There he (she?) is, half in shadow outside the den entrance. Closer. And closer…
All the while my finger tapping away until I lean over the fence and take the following photos.
Pretty obvious here why they're called round tailed squirrels.

I was less than three feet away when the squirrel bolted into it’s hole.

The wide open ear and ovoid cranial structure is nearly identical to a prairie dog. I return to the house shocked at how close I got to this squirrel. Had he lost the will to live?

Dusk, Four Days Later


Not a single squirrel sighting since. Light lingers long past sunset. It’s always light in Southern Arizona--which I suppose makes the brief hours of darkness all the more dark, filled with sounds sudden and strange. But only until 4:30 in the morning when I can sit in my observation chair with sufficient visibility to make out advancing snakes and scorpions.
The den has a desolate and uninhabited look, the earth around it bereft of tiny scratching's. He's gone, I decide, but still he deserves a name: The Lone Survivor.
I wonder what became of him... 
One more kill for the carnivores?

I'd like to think he just moved on, found somewhere else to live--a place without memories.

Next Day

I wake and look out the windows that afford my best view of the desert. Strangely enough, the best seat in the house is the toilet of the master bathroom. Here I can watch the drama without worry that my slightest movement will make me a part of it.
Outside three young quail, neither babies nor large as adults, are chasing each other in a circle. Wreckless teenagers cavorting with too much energy. “Watch Out!” I want to yell, “Things happen fast here, and death is the fuel of this ecosystem.”
Later as I exit the shower, I see six tiny quail chicks followed by Mama as she leads them to the water bowl my neighbor has so graciously provided. Are Messrs. Coyote or Roadrunner stealthy spectators to this parade? A prey buffet.

Late May in the Observation Chair

I'm still questioning my neighbor’s wisdom in providing a water hole thinking back to the bear I saw “put down” in a national park too accustomed to human handouts.  But with all the west experiencing a drought, what’s the harm in a little supplemental water?
Unless, of course, your best intentions create the kill zone I referred to earlier. It's time to take photos at the scene of the crime.

The "bunny gate" on the left, toward the right a slanted platform (where I suspect food is deposited from time to time), and behind the shady tree the is ultimate trap... a cut Folger's can filled with water.

Blending into the shadows is a roadrunner. He stands silent as death, patient as hunger.

The Dating Game, 10 am

I thought my photo ops over for the day. Deb and I sit on the elevated porch and roadrunner couple pay us a visit.


Below us the male performs a flashdance to impress the female.

But can he provide for her? She has her doubts and walks past him toward the front.

Standing under our orange tree, she looks expectantly up into the branches. Then she does something I've heard about but didn't believe. She imitates the"ooh, ooh" of a cooing dove.
"Come on down baby doves," she sings, "Momma wants to hold you!"
I rush to the other side of the house to see what happens next. Down the street, something is walking up the sidewalk toward the orange tree...a fledgling dove.


My appearance disrupts this touching but violent meeting. I walk to the back where I last saw the male roadrunner. I find him at the fence. He's pounding something against a rock that might once have been a lizard.

My photo comes out blurry. Considering the gore factor, probably a good thing. Nonetheless, his girlfriend must have been  impressed.

I must talk to talk to my critter-enabling neighbor. This highly efficient predator needs no additional edge to provide for itself.

Next morning... (5/20/15)

I’m sitting out back. An exotic bug lands near my coffee cup—gold wings, red highlights. I flick him off. Don’t care.
I'm thinking about our dog, how uncharacteristic for him to resist our morning walk. His urinary functions were normal, but his back legs are losing their coordination and strength. After defecating, he fell l back into it. I did my best to clean him up. Back at the house eventually he came to a complete halt. He looked up at our back steps as if facing Everest. I carried him inside and made sure food and water were nearby.
He’s been sleeping all day.

Canis Familarius. Just a dog. In this case of indeterminate breed and age. Our daughter found him in 2001, apparent road kill. She took him to a kind vet. He cautioned her not to adopt until all operations had been completed. She could then inexpensively claim him inexpensively at the animal shelter. So he became ours.
And his age? Since he seemed mature then (well, within his limits), he must've joined our family around the age of three. So now he's anywhere from 16 to 20. Calculate that in dog years...
Throughout his long life, he’s been the source of immeasurable joy and a little frustration. A terrier mix, bouncy, enthusiastic but strangely barkless. Yes, he has been known to bark but only when extremely excited or happy.
He’s never snapped at a child, never chased birds of any size small (even peacocks) when they helped themselves to his food bowl. He just wants to coexist. We once had another dog that treated him roughly. Stewie’s response? Walk to the corner of the patio and turn away. Gandhi would’ve been proud.
Canis Familiarus, just a pet. He wouldn't survive long in the wild. Too dependent on people. We've become equally dependent on him, a constant source of happiness. We try to imagine our lives after he is gone…
Dinner tonight, like a wake. We hold back tears as Stewart drags himself out of his bed for the first time today and staggers around the kitchen. Blind with cataracts, deaf and dealing now with some sort of neurological impairment, his sojourn is not graceful.

I try levity. It falls flat, something lame about the difference between “life sucks and then you die” and the better fortune implied in “life sucks because you die.” To this day, Stewart has been a happy dog, enjoying each moment of his life. He’s going to vet in he morning, we decide, and barring some miraculous remission or cure, we don't expect him back. He lies down on the floor and enters a deep sleep.

Next Day

Morning dawns early in this inflexible piece of dirt called Arizona, with its constant sun and aversion to daylight savings. Take a bathroom break at 4 am and mountains are visible outside the window. By 8:30, the sun is shining like noon in California and the ground too hot to walk on. Today we stay in bed until 9:30. But we've been up. From time to time both of us have crept by Stewart’s bed, checking his breathing.

Nobody wants to start this day. Coffee pot is activated by Deb. I force myself off the mattress. Stewart is awake but his legs are in an unnatural position.

I take him carefully outside and down the steps. I am grateful that he does not whimper with pain. After setting him down, he doesn't move and looks up apologetically. I coax him with a gentle leash tug. Nothing doing. "Stew!" I whisper (though screaming it inside), "Today more than ever--right now--you've got to get up, walk and do your business!" He can't. I carry his shivering body out to my chair. He's lies in my lap and we're both enjoying the sun. The second to last photo we have of Stewart:

After a while, his shaking subsides. I hear a shower running inside the house. Deb and I prepare ourselves for Stewart’s final journey.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see something unexpected and a bit absurd.  "Soul Survivor" is hanging on the back fence like those comical Garfield's we used to see suctioned onto the back windows of cars. But this one’s real and looking in our direction. He gets off the fence, digs furiously at what might be a new den, then stops. What happens next surprises me so much that I make no attempt to photograph it. 

The squirrel begins a halting march towards us. Stewart lays inertly in my lap, barely aware of my caresses and oblivious to is happening. 

A mere six feet away, the squirrel halts and solemnly regards us. It's as if he understands and has come to pay his respects. Any second a roadrunner could appear, I worry, and destroy this moment.

I scan sky and brush. After a moment, Lone Survivor scampers back to the beginnings of a den. Dirt flies as he resumes tunneling.

Strange being face to face with a creature that has experienced more loss than I can imagine, a mate and four offspring. Yet he’s busy adjusting his environment to new circumstances and continuing to take risks…

The definition of “living” maybe.

An Ending...

And yeah I'd like to conclude these notes positively, throw out some light-hearted quip or plot twist. But things didn't go that way at the vet. Stewart is gone.

Deb and I sit on the patio and tell funny stories about our dog, his crazy adventures and how when we felt everything had truly gone to pieces, he made us laugh. Feels like we're moving in the right direction...
Sweet dreams, Stew. We will miss you.

The desert is harsh but the heart…
Ah Hell, you finish that sentence if you want.
I'm done writing for a while, can't possibly imagine establishing a new den. 

June and the Heats Just Keep Coming!

My wife emerges from the bathroom like the goddess she is and announces, “Rodents are racing around your fire pit.”
 I look out the window and, sure enough, it looks like Lone Survivor--with a new girlfriend!

June 5th

Sensing some weird need for exercise, I hop over the fence that separates me from the desert. “Be aware of your environment,” I tell myself.
It’s a chore I’ve long put off, exploring the wash.
I find only dirt, sand, clawing needles and some not so fresh javelina tracks. In the background, the gattling gun click of a roadrunner. The heat is unbelievable and before long I return to the fence. I meet a roadrunner returning from the general direction of the kill zone. A limp mammal hangs in his beak.
Damn. What is it with these birds? The're like ISIS. Can’t just make a clean kill, they've got to parade their prize around like a political statement. Thank God they don’t have access to vidcams or the internet would be overrun with their triumphs.
I remember yesterday's conversation with neighbor Tom, the one responsible for the kill-zone. First we shared our appreciation of local wildlife. Apparently he, too, is a “watcher” as evidenced by the white chair in a previous photo. 

“Oh yeah, the squirrels, they got wiped out by roadrunners,” he says.

And as we compare notes on the squirrel holocaust, I casually mention that his water bowl might be tipping the odds in favor of the higher order predators.

An Arizona pause. Was he thinking or dealing with flatulence?

“Well, I figure there’s thousands of them out there, thousands.”
An enticing argument which I consider for my own long moment. I hear the voice of Mike Nakada. Decades ago, we were collecting seaweed for a marine biology project. I picked up particularly large and beautifully starfish, dropped it into my bag.

"Why did you do that?” asked Mike, sounding very much like the son of a biology prof he was.

“It looks cool and after it rots and dries, I might put it up on my apartment wall. Look around, it’s low tide, there’s tons of them out there so what’s one less?”

Mike laughed his strange Burl Ives laugh and said ruthlessly, “Right John, and do you really think that somewhere out there a voice says, “Attention everyone! We’ve just lost starfish 5,796 at More Mesa beach, Santa Barbara, California. Starfish 5,797 please move up and take its place.""

“Geez, Mike," I said, “It’s only an echinoderm...”

But I realized Mike’s ecological argument would be lost on Arizona Tom and resorted to a more lawerly approach.

“No doubt there are thousands Tom, but didn’t you just say how much you enjoyed seeing these squirrels scamper about your lot, picking up the food YOU provided, filling their cheeks and going back to their pups?”

“Yeah, that was fun.”

“Uh, huh. I think so too. And would it be fair to say that you will miss them, now that roadrunners who gather around your food and water bowls have probably nailed every last one them? All ambushed on the way to a resource not normally provided by nature.”

Tom shrugs his shoulders. After another long moment of what passes for thinking around here, he evades the point of my cross-examination.

“I have a friend way across the wash. He feeds two coyotes, Long Tail and Short Tail he calls them. He likes to watch them up on the hillside along with a Javalina family and their babies.”

I did not comment on these babies, babies not likely to have been conceived without his friend’s beneficent interference.

But feeding javalinas! That is wrong in so many ways that I didn't know what to say. We’re talking an animal that has the size and looks of boar in looks but is actually a large member of the rodent family!  Feed them? There’s a reason that Tucsonians never put their garbage cans out until about 20 minutes before the sanitation trucks arrive. Otherwise, javalinas will mount a charge, throw their considerable girth against the cans and strew the neighborhood with nasty refuse. Feed them?

Seeing this man was beyond both sentiment and reason, I slapped myself mentally on the forehead. I'd forgotten the state’s unofficial motto:  “Arizona, It’s a Dry Hate.”

But today as I cross over the fence back into my lot, I’m really not that bothered by the roadrunner's success (even though the dead animal in his beak looks a exactly like Lone Survivor). 
I go inside the house for a moment and return to my observation chair with a cold one.  Beyond the fence, Mr. Roadrunner is repeatedly slamming the body of my favorite squirrel against a rock, reducing it to a bloody pulp.
And this does not particularly faze me, either. Which of us has not used a little hammer to tenderize a tough piece of meat?  Most of us have also put stuff in a food processor to create a substance more palatable for young children. Nothing personal here, just food prep for roadrunner babies.

Birds gotta hunt, babies gotta eat, men gotta drink beer.
The desert is about letting go. Learn from it or run from it.

June 10th

We're the edge of some tropical storm. The desert is getting pounded and the aluminum roof of my porch reverberates as if pennies are falling from the sky.

It’s a little after midnight and I am trying to end this overly long blog, proofread all that as wrong and rough. But I'm restless.

The rain still streams off the awning and I realize that tomorrow will be a good day for rock collecting. The exposed rocks will sparkle after being freed from a desert rhyme of dust and  the water sluicing down gullies will reveal new ones.
Rain usually energizes me. I want to stay up and clear up this mass (or mess) of words.

Good sense tells me I should go to bed so I that in the morning I can continue tutoring my grandkids with a clear head. I want to help them with reading and math so they won't be pulverized and eaten-up by life.

I'm tired and discouraged. Maybe I could instead share my excitement about reading, the satisfaction I get from learning new things, and my continuing struggle to grow and understand the world. The simple things.
Yeah, right. 
A walk in the rain might settle me down. And why not? This is Arizona, after all. It's a dry rain.        
                When the rain washes you clean
                    You'll know
                    You will know.
                     Stevie Nix & Fleetwood Mac, Dreams