Big Bushy Backyard

This past semester, I might have chosen my own backyard just as easily as I chose Piedmont. In fact, if I had, I’d have encountered far more wildlife, albeit familiar wildlife.

Heinrich, the fornicater extraordinaire.

The yard is actually three yards together, and the property belongs to my father and my uncle. The three houses on the property do, too. In fact, the three lots were purchased at the turn of the 20th century by my great-great grandfather and his two children. Each built a house on the land and the entire family lived here for the remainder of their lives. The patriarch would die relatively shortly after building his house, but his son and daughter would live their lives in their respective houses next door and my grandfather and great-aunts were all born here. I’ve written extensively about this family story here, in Weelunk. It’s unusual and amazing and will take up 20 minutes of your already-busy day.

Anyway, my parents now live here and I live next door to them, and for forty-plus years my father has been planting trees on the property. It’s about two acres. We grumble about this, as it causes the houses to accrue mold and the gutters to clog. The amount of work my poor husband has to do for autumn leaf-cleanup is beyond measure. There are easily one-hundred trees here. Some of them are Christmas trees my parents planted after using them in the early 70’s. Many are volunteers. We have silver maple and oak (pin and red) and poplar, sycamore (horrible trees) and magnolia and hemlock, honey locust and ash and on and on and on. Dad has this thing about Nature. (I have to capitalize that.) Things must be allowed to flourish, to their own ruin, even. Weeds are unwelcome if they’re growing in the driveway, but any little sapling that shows up, even if it’s growing right in the middle of the area where we play kickball, is encouraged and loved. Flora are rarely trimmed, here. Except by me.

Mama woodchuck and one of the twins

In fact, Shawn and I have a running joke about our insanely unkempt forsythia. For propriety’s sake I won’t repeat it here but we refer to it as the crazy 70’s bush. We can trim the sides, but it’s so massive that we can’t reach the top, and so it gets taller and wackier every year, and doesn’t bloom as heartily as it used to for that reason. It needs a good trim. But, as nature tends to do, it tucks us into our yard in increasing privacy, and we like this. More importantly, the crazy 70’s bush is a dense thicket of habitat for birds and rabbits. Many birds spend blustery days hiding there, although the most common resident of the unkempt bush is the sparrow, and if you don’t know how I feel about sparrows, you soon will. Mama rabbit (all seventeen of them) stay in the bush during the day. And under the little shed next to the bush we sometimes have a groundhog. One year she produced twins, and so we were thrice-blessed in the whistle-pig department.

One can never have too many whistle-pigs.

Oh, yes they can. And we did. Daddy groundhog lived under the front porch and he was, as they say, arnery. They’ve dispersed in the past few years; on occasion we will see one under the shed.

Sycamore out front, two honey locust in back cover the
entire house.

The canopy above the houses is thick, so thick in fact that Google Earth does not show my house, and only a bit of the houses on either side. Now imagine your life as a squirrel on this property. Glorious! My red squirrels find themselves the luckiest little twitchy bastards in the east. Their feet don’t have to touch the ground. Additionally, this canopy provides cover for the fox squirrels too. Fox squirrels are terrestrial squirrels; they make leaf nests and reproduce up in the trees, but they spend a good deal of time foraging on the ground, and under this thick layer of green they are protected from flying predators, including our resident sharp-shinned hawk (although I think he may not be big enough to tackle a fox squirrel).

The photo displays the vast wilderness-in-the-city that my father has created. The deer sleep in the yard year-round, and on the north side of the property a little run (creek) flows towards the west, so critters have a water source. And as a bonus, children can find both water for their sandbox and a perfect opportunity to contract poison ivy. As a child I got it so many times that my parents banned me from the creek, not that I would be banned. In fact, I was in there just the other day collecting rocks for my newest pond project. Much of the creek is technically on the neighbors’ side of the property line. The neighbor is the fiercest attorney in the state, so I wait until everyone goes home at the end of the day before I start hauling out my sedimentary booty, just in case.

While are bird varieties aren’t particularly sexy, on any given day we see:

Where have all the finches gone?
To my house.

Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
House finch
Nuthatch (my favorite)
Blue Jay
Downy Woodpecker (we have a mated pair)
Red Bellied Woodpecker

We recently acquired a group of the bawdiest crows in the world. They nest in the box gutters next door, and they sit in the trees above the yard and throw down their raucous laughter and what I can only assume are dirty jokes based on the way they all cackle. They’ve changed the dynamic of the yard significantly.

The sharp-shinned hawk is never far. It’s presence is always announced by the other birds, and it calls frequently. Once in a while a red-tailed hawk will show up, and two summers ago one of the Ohio River Bald Eagles flew over the house.

Every September our little screech owl makes his/her presence known. I know the owl is always around, but of course we’ve never seen it. It sits in the honey locust every fall and cries its heart out in a beautiful and disturbing series of lonely cries. This Easter we lured to dinner a friend who works for the power company. We gave him food in exchange for his services in climbing a poplar and hanging a screech owl house about 25 feet in the air. The house faces east, away from northerly blasts, and it’s near a little branch so any chicks born might have a place to hop around. I’ve read it can take anywhere from a few weeks to several years for the owls to discover the house, and within two days I had bleeping starlings checking it out. Nobody seems to have moved in yet, thankfully. I look every day, hoping for a little owl face to peer out at me.

It’s a little biome all its own, here. We gripe incessantly about the yardwork (my parents are old enough that Shawn and I have taken over the maintenance of the three yards), and the trees. It’s impossible to imagine the variety of wildlife, though, without the arboreal habitat that sustains them. I’d write more but I have to go get the honey locust seeds out of the fish ponds.

Stop having babies in my herb garden!

Swaggering chuck

Buns and chucks and chucks and buns

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