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May, 2005

Backyard Menagerie

by Valerie

Sometimes a yard is just a yard, with a bit of grass, shrubs and trees. It is a buffer zone between the outer world and the house. Some yards are more interesting than others, though. Not many people can boast of having a mother-in-law who, without going to extraordinary lengths, has created a wildlife haven in her backyard. Everyone who visits Julia's home in Woodway is treated to an animal viewing area that seems as natural as the residents themselves.

seven-spotted ladybug beetle

At first glance the yard appears to be just like any number of suburban lots: not particularly large, with a manicured grass lawn, some trees, and some flower beds. It has the advantage of being adjacent to an undeveloped area and a large lake (not visible from the house), but it takes more to welcome the fauna. Julia has added the requisite features to entice wildlife: food and water. At times she's had a salt lick for the deer, and frequently puts out leftovers, as well as maintaining bird feeders and a bird bath.

The viewing situation is ideal. There are large glass doors and windows all across the back of the house. The back fence is just a low chain link barrier, and the undergrowth in the immediate vicinity behind the yard is kept mowed, so the view extends out to a little clearing in the woods. Breakfast is a special experience when one might glimpse early morning wild visitors through the window while enjoying the savory repast. It is also not unusual to spot creatures while sitting in the living or dining rooms. Watching wildlife from the comfort of a nice house is a pleasure not to be ignored.

The most noticeable and frequent visitors are birds. From the tiny hummingbirds to crows and roadrunners, they are visible during almost any time of the day. Doves, cardinals, blue jays, finches, warblers, nuthatches, mockingbirds, wrens, grosbeaks and woodpeckers can be seen from any of the back-facing windows. I was once sitting in the covered patio outside the kitchen when I heard a scratching on the roof overhead. Assuming that a crow or jay was up there, I went out in the lawn to take a look. It was rather startling to see a roadrunner calmly searching for insects in the tree debris up on the roof, acting much like a barnyard chicken. The hummingbird feeders hung under the same patio roof will lure the tiny birds to within a few feet of a person sitting still, and seed scattered near the back windows assures close-up views of cardinals.

What many people miss, partly because they don't spend as much time out in the yard as I do, is the variety of smaller animals. From insects and spiders to snakes and lizards, there is almost always something to see. I've watched bees and scorpionflies in the planted beds, seen butterflies visiting the wildflowers just beyond the fence, observed jumping spiders and longhorn beetles within a few feet of the house, and seen rove beetles and skinks while weeding in the garden. One hot afternoon was much more exciting when I spent time in the garden shed watching the mud dauber wasps at work on their nests. I saw not only the wasps bringing in spiders to feed their larvae, but also witnessed a cuckoo wasp laying its own eggs in the larger wasps' nests. The fight that ensued when the interloper was caught in the act seemed as vicious as a lion and hyena squabbling over territory. Another time, I was walking back to the house and suddenly met a snake that happened to be passing through the grassy lawn. I've even seen smaller animals from inside the house, like moths and the surprising tree frog on the window.

Of course, the animals that most impress us are the megafauna. I'm not talking about animals as big as the famous Pleistocene mammoths and ground sloths, but rather speaking in relative terms here. Think "bigger than a breadbox." We commonly see squirrels and rabbits, and sometimes even raccoons. Opossums are likely to be encountered when we take the dog out to do her business at night. But the best sightings are the deer and coyotes that occasionally appear just beyond the fence. Mostly in the early morning, these moments have a magical quality, with the animals appearing suddenly out of the surrounding brush and then vanishing just like actors who are done with their scene.

eastern yellowbelly racer

There is nothing quite as successful at reminding us of the much bigger world we inhabit than to glimpse a bit of it from the cozy comfort of a typical suburban home.

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