For the past week, my yard has been full of avian activity. I opted against the usual fall practice of raking up fallen leaves and cedar fronds, not because of laziness, but because of a naturalist’s contempt for the practice. Trees take up nutrients from the soil and when they drop their leaves, they return some of what they have borrowed. It’s an elegant system, and one in which I would rather not interfere. Although my bi-pedal mammalian neighbors may not appreciate my stance on the matter, my bi-pedal avian neighbors certainly do.
The avian activity that I mentioned earlier has been directly related to my lack of yard maintenance. On a nearly daily basis I have looked out my back door to find a dozen or more Varied Thrushes picking energetically through the leaf litter in search of a meal. These birds spend their summers at higher altitude in the Cascade and Olympic Mountains. They feed and raise their young by picking through the litter on the forest floor for invertebrates and foraging a little higher for a variety of berries. In the fall they move to lower elevations to avoid heavy snowfall. It’s much harder to pick through leaf litter when you have to dig through several feet of snow to reach it.
So imagine the disappointment a flock of thrushes must feel when they arrive in the lowlands to discover nothing but a bunch of yards that have been completely cleared of leaf litter. They aren’t really worm-pullers like their close cousin the robin, so a vast sea of grass has no real appeal to them. They are forest birds and they need something that at least remotely resembles a forest floor. I figure the least I can do is make them feel welcome by leaving the table set on the little patch of earth for which I am responsible. In the end, it’s a win-win situation for me and the birds. I don’t have to rake the yard, and I don’t feel any guilt from the neighbors because I look out and see a dozen gorgeous thrushes thanking me for not doing what society has come to expect. After all, I feel that the thrushes have a much better grasp on the natural order of things than do my neighbors with their immaculate lawns.
I spent a few minutes after work last night wandering around in a greenbelt about four blocks from my house. It was pitch black, so I was navigating by flashlight. As I walked along the narrow trail that runs the length of the nicely wooded patch, I was carrying a small wooden box. The box had wire screens over its two access holes to prevent its occupant from exiting prematurely. There was no sound or feeling of movement from the box as I carried it, but I knew a tense little being was in there, waiting to see what would happen next.
As I moved deeper into the greenbelt, my flashlight beam fell on the broad trunk of a large Douglas Fir Tree. I walked to the base of the tree and shined the flashlight beam upward, making a note that there did not appear to be any whitewash or other signs that an owl might be perching in the tree on a regular basis. It was well over 100 feet tall, with plenty of thick greenery starting about 30 feet up. Shorter Big Leaf Maples, alders and cedars surrounded it. It would be a perfect launching point.
I stood in front of the tree and I positioned the flashlight so its beam lit up the trunk. Holding the box up in front of me, I slowly opened it and I suddenly felt a small decrease in its weight. A furry blur came to an abrupt stop in the beam of my flashlight, and I was face to face with a Northern Flying Squirrel that was now clinging to the trunk of the tree.
The squirrel paused for a moment as if the sudden feeling of freedom was a little overwhelming. I saw him clearly in that instant. I absorbed every detail of his velvety soft fur, the loose folds of skin between fore and hind limbs, the large nocturnal eyes and the horizontally flattened tail that would act as his rudder as he glided from tree to tree. He had been treated for a broken leg he had suffered in the jaws of a house cat, but looking at him now you would never suspect that he had spent the last several weeks in a state of convalescence. He was beautiful, intensely alert and radiating the electric energy of a lightning bolt as he absorbed his change in circumstances. His instincts kicked in and he scampered quickly to the opposite side of the tree- a motion his kind repeats at the end of every glide just in case their flight has been followed by an owl or other nighttime predator. He was out of my sight, but I heard the soft scratching of his claws on the tree trunk as he scampered upward into the protective arms of the fir. I smiled as the sound faded into the darkness, and then I left the greenbelt to the flying squirrel and his fellow creatures of the night.