Hawk. Squirrel.

This morning, my usual Sunday sit-on-the-porch-with-tea erupted into a creaturely moment of predator and prey, split-second decisions of the animal kind.

Generally, the birds at the feeders and the chipmunks and occasional squirrel regard me as potential but not immediate threat. When I get up from my chair, they go into alert mode–the bolder ones stay, the more timid fly or scurry off but return rapidly. They seem to consider me more nuisance than threat; but they do not trust me, either. That suits all of us. I watch them, they half-watch me. I drink my tea, they eat the seeds we put out for them.

Our cats watch eagerly, in predatory stances, from behind a latched screen door. Thwarted, but fascinated. They were not the cause of today’s alarm.

The feeders have been swarmed for two weeks by legions of adolescent birds as well as adults preparing for migration or just plumping up before the frosts arrive. We’ve hosted flocks of starlings and dozens of finches of several kinds, nuthatches and sparrows and little brown songbirds, wrens, mourning doves, one remaining chipmunk from this summer’s litter, and the occasional bold squirrel–usually gray ones, though I have seen the little red ones once or twice.

At 8 am, I was enjoying a cool morning with my hot cuppa when the day burst into feathers, screams, and the scrabble of claws. A hawk swooped from the magnolia, aiming at a squirrel crouched on the patio under the birdfeeder. Something must have interrupted the hawk’s perception, however–it missed the squirrel, rotated fluidly in mid-air, and somersaulted onto the iron stand of the feeder, sending small birds into a flurry of down and shrieking in all directions.

A large buddleia bush obscured my view of the raptor, so I could not make out whether it was a young redtail (it was on the small side) or perhaps a Coopers or sharp-shinned. The squirrel’s response intrigued me. In a fraction of a second, it determined that running straight toward me was ever so much wiser than running the opposite direction (braving the open lawn to make for the treeline). I watched, amused, as the squirrel scurried along the porch to within a foot of my chair, where it suddenly scrabbled its legs, slewed sideways, and stared up at me in confused terror. Poor thing.

It climbed down the side of the porch and huddled in the bushes as the hawk shook itself and made for the oak tree and the small birds returned to their interrupted repast. The cats gazed out with renewed interest, having felt a bit flustered themselves, I could tell.

I don’t blame them. Everything lately seems so unprecedented and apocalyptic.

I feel simpatico with the squirrel.

Citizen scientist

From as far back as quite early childhood, I have been interested in science: zoology, botany, biology, entomology, physics–if I had been mentored differently, I might have become a researcher instead of a poet. I possess that quality of curiosity that pushes for details, a trait that people refer to as ‘geeky.’ For me, it is fun to contribute my backyard observations to The Dragonfly Woman’s research or to the Eastern Pennsylvania Phenology Project, which asks for assistance from ‘citizen scientists.’ This evening, I am taking some elderly best beloveds to a fundraiser concert for March for Science.

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March for Science logo. The March is April 22, 2017.

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Empiricists have to begin as observers, and here’s where my science and poetry passions twine. Today’s backyard notes involve gray squirrels and the hypothesis that they learn behavior swiftly through their (many) generations.

My backyard is essentially a lawn and meadow, quite open, with two pear trees and a quince almost halfway between the property lines, both of which feature narrow woodlots and brush hedgerows. For 16 years, we had a dog; between the dog’s presence and the fact of hawks–of which there are many–gray squirrels seldom ventured from one side of the property to the other. Both woodlots are replete with walnuts and sumac and wild cherries, so squirrels really did not need to get across the meadow.

As of last year, though, they have learned they can cross the lawn in relative safety, as long as they exert haste and stop nowhere along the way. The dog died, but the hawks are still around.

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Gray squirrels by Beatrix Potter, “The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes.”

They may have learned this behavior last summer, when a mid-season drought led to very thirsty squirrels who were brave enough (no dog!) to dash to the pear trees and harvest pears. Juicy!

So now, they race across the lawn…to have sex. Squirrel sex is a frolic of prinking, rolling, tumbling–a bundle of tails and feet, a flurry of gray and white fur at the foot of a tree, dry leaves scattered by the wrestling. Then the pair scurries off side by side. Today is actually the first time I have witnessed squirrel mating, though clearly it occurs frequently to judge by the numbers of these creatures in our yard.

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From Potter’s “The Tale of Timmy Tiptoes”

I think of Beatrix Potter as an excellent example of the citizen scientist. While her paper on mycology concerning the reproduction of fungi via spores [“On the Germination of the Spores of Agaricineae“] was not accepted as science at the time she wrote it, her observations were correct.

Her drawings of animals are marvelously accurate, even when she puts them into dresses, jackets, bonnets, and tiny slippers. Though she personifies them, she chooses human attributes that suit animal behavior rather than the other way around.

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Science, then, is close reading of the world’s phenomena, not really so different from literary scholars with their close reading of texts. Poets also view the world with close reading–observation, curiosity, changing perspective–asking questions about what we think we know. And revelations sometimes occur. Like squirrel behaviors, including squirrel sex; like spores, and the life cycle of salamanders, and dragonfly swarms.