(No) Pets on the Monocacy

Painted Turtles, big and small American Toads, baby crayfish, Eastern Snapping Turtles: if my boys can see them, they can get their hands on them. So can I, of course, but most of the time I’m pleading for their release, because, one, we don’t need another pet and, two, wild things need to live in the wild. I was acquisitive of animals as a child, too, which is why I know that healthy wild things seldom thrive once put in a tank or a cage. The frogs and toads get away only to be found months later petrified at the back of a closet. The turtles eat your hamburger but look so morose that eventually you just have to put them back where you found them. And the crayfish? Either something in the fish tank eats them, or they eat something in the fish tank. I’m happy to say that I never took a Snapping Turtle home. My brothers were once attacked by one in a lily pond, and that settled the issue.

A few weeks ago, my boys caught a baby rabbit that was living in one of my flower beds. It was small, clearly just out of the nest, and rather stupid about just allowing itself to be handled. (Well, maybe more naive than stupid). I had the boys release it across the street, but it reappeared in the backyard a short time later, and, without telling me, my oldest put it in the cage with his two friendly pet rats, Sugar and Anastasia. Thrilled to see the maiden rats treat the rabbit as if it was their own long lost child, my son called me up from the garage, which I was cleaning, to his room to see a “surprise.” This is what I found:

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Yes, indeed, that is Anastasia grooming the rabbit. As you can imagine, it was very difficult to convince the boys that this situation, while adorable, was not actually good for the health of any of the animals involved. In the end, however, it wasn’t the boys that gave me trouble. They agreed to release the baby rabbit across the street again, but the baby rabbit had other ideas. Within minutes of being let go, it hopped right into the garage, where I was still cleaning, and up to the back door.

“Oh my God,” my husband said, “did it imprint on us?”

“I guess it liked being mothered,” I replied.

I am pleased to say that, no, despite the baby rabbit’s apparent desires, we don’t presently have a rabbit living with our rats.  It took several more tries, but it finally stayed away when we made sure that it noticed that we have two dogs and a cat living in our house in addition to our two affectionate rodents. It’s now living underneath a hedge two houses away.  In the wild.

Squirrel Tail, Slugs, and Wet Socks

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A few nights ago I dreamed about a Great Horned Owl that lifted its wings and, before my eyes, transformed into a Barred Owl before flying away from me. When I awoke, I decided that, if I believed in such things, this would no doubt have been a powerful omen.  I mean an owl and a transformation: either someone was going to die or I was going to be visited by a god (Athena, maybe?). Being a sensible realist, however, I decided that I was probably just thinking too much about birdwatching.

Omens aside, this morning was strange.  While I was eating breakfast, I heard a harsh yelp from the deck where my younger dog was surveying the property.  It was an unusual sound for her, but my husband recognized it as fear and jumped to see what was happening. Following him through the door, I noticed my dog’s flattened ears, tucked tail, and shifty lip-licking, just as my husband exclaimed, “Wait! What is that? Did she get something?”

He pointed to a puff of gray fur balanced between two slats of the deck’s railing.  When I looked more closely, it was quite clearly the last three inches of a squirrel’s tail.

“Yeah, she got something,” I said. “Or at least part of it.”

We ventured a few “good girls” to reassure our dog, who’s been tentative to the point of fear about hunting since our lackluster response to a rabbit kill. The poor, neurotic thing was so anxiously thrilled that she snapped up and gulped down the bit of fur before we could do anything about it.

I can only suppose that the stupid squirrel was on our deck and caught by the tail just as it jumped through the narrow slats to escape, and now I’m waiting to see a stub-tailed squirrel around the neighborhood, chastened but alive. He belongs in a story, like Roald Dahl’s fantastic Mr. Fox.

While I did not see the squirrel again on my morning walk with the dogs, I did find a pair of perfectly good but soaking wet socks. They were on the path by the river, accompanied by a half-full water bottle.  I stuffed both in my bag of trash without taking a picture, although I did photograph one of the many slugs clinging to the tall, wet weeds by the trail.

Owls, squirrels tails, and slugs?  Add the wet socks, and you have a modern potions recipe.

Frogs and Pollywogs

 

A few days ago, I was attempting to take a picture of a plant that I couldn’t identify when I heard a suspicious commotion. Laughter. Lots of it. And the startled shrieks and shouts of boys who are immensely impressed with how clever they are at amusing themselves. By the time I’d shoved my phone into my back pocket and  scurried down the riverbank, one of the boys had plunged knee-deep into the water, the contours of his face sharp with the concentration of pursuit, and the other was grinning at something cupped in his hands.

“Look, Mom, we found the snake again!”

He held it out for me to see, and, yes, it was the same unfortunate water snake I posted about a few days ago. Before I could speak, my other son appeared at my side, panting and glowing with sweat and success.

“I got it back,” he smiled at his brother, spreading open his palms to reveal a stunned bullfrog.

“Okay. You put yours down after me,” the older one said, placing the small snake on the rocks. My younger one obeyed, practically dropping the frog on the snake’s head.

This would have been a perilous situation for the frog, had he not been about five times bigger than his natural predator. So, while the snake did lash out at the frog once, the action looked to be born more out of defensiveness than hunger. Still, it was a rather unfair game and one that I didn’t want to encourage. I reverted to my (to the boys) annoyingly logical, let’s-be-nice, mom voice.

“Boys, leave those poor animals alone. Look how stressed out they are!” It took several minutes of such cajoling, the boys countering that I was no fun, a wimpy girl, all sorts of arguments that just weren’t going anywhere near making me change my mind, until the creatures were finally set free.

I’m hoping that the snake’s reptilian brain has convinced him that it’s time to move on. I haven’t seen him since. There are so many bullfrogs, though, that it’s beyond my ken to distinguish the boys’ victim from amongst the several I see daily. Millions of tadpoles (or pollywogs as I liked to call them when I was younger) now swim in the long, shallow puddles left behind by the Monocacy’s receding waters, and, in the murky, lethargic pools off of the main river, mature frogs beat their drums and strum their chords amidst roots, leaves and the occasional Bounty paper towels wrapper or Sonic Styrofoam cup. I don’t think that they’re easy to catch (my overeager pups certainly don’t help with that), but I’m not the one they need to worry about.

It’s late spring on the Monocacy, the predators are out, and they’re hungry for fun.

The Wild Life, Part 2

There is a dirt path off of a paved trail that leads to a sort of overlook of the Monocacy River.  There, one can simply stand and watch the murky river wend its way toward the Monocacy Boulevard Bridge, or one can skid down a steep and often muddy trail toward a makeshift footbridge that provides access to the water. Usually this is a popular spot for fishermen, but this morning I encountered two painted turtles instead. As I generally only see them sunning themselves on logs from a distance, I was surprised to find them in the shade on a rocky path.  I assume that they forgot to move with the sun, which, like the water, was only a few feet away.  When I moved off with my two unimpressed dogs, the smaller one peeked out of its shell and gradually scrabbled toward the water.  The larger one, which remained calm throughout the ordeal, apparently wanted another chance at the snooze button.

The good news for these river-dwellers is that I’ve been encountering far less trash.  The visible sort, at least. The cleanliness of the water, subjected for miles to agricultural runoff and the vagaries of development, is another matter entirely.  For those who are interested, I have been gathering links to information about the river’s history and conservation on my page The Monocacy River.

The Wild Life, Part 1

 

After a spate of recent frosts, the warm, sunny version of spring finally seems to have arrived, along with an uptick in animal appearances.  Over the weekend, my boys got their hands on a few American toads, most of whom were clearly just waking up from their long winter’s sleep in the mud.  They were far more docile than they are midsummer, two of them even sitting comfortably on my sons’ open hands to pose for the camera.  In July, fingers will have to be closed around those amphibians to prevent escape, and I won’t be able to take my time fishing out my phone.

The boys did extensive work on their dam this weekend, which left me free to explore.  While I need to supervise them, I don’t like to hover. Although an imaginative adult, I’m still an adult, and, therefore, will inhibit their creativity by watching over them. (That’s a fact, but I’m not footnoting it). In my wanderings, I encountered a pair of mallards that were less skittish than I expected considering I had two dogs on leash.  Likely they have a nest nearby.  Or they’re really stupid. Or really, really smart. They let me take a picture, too.

A large and growing herd of white-tailed deer occupy the protected land along the stretch of the Monocacy where I walk. There are over twelve of them, now, and this morning I encountered about half of them lounging in the shade of a few trees.  They’ve grown so used to people that they’re hesitant to move if they’re comfortable, and this was the case this morning, when, with my two very alert dogs, I stopped to take a few pictures.  Camouflaged by the brush, they flicked their ears and casually watched me watching them.

A groundhog I encountered wasn’t nearly as blasé.  Even before I noticed him, he was hurling his fat body over a hill in an effort to escape me.  I believe I’ve seen his hole before, but I have no intention of bothering him.  When I was a kid, my father had to live trap several of them to protect his garden, but it’s the rabbits that are problems for me now.  I did see one of those later, but the picture I took wasn’t very good.  They’re not as complacent as the deer about my overeager dogs, who, only a half-hour before, where chowing down on loose rabbit fur left behind by another, more successful predator.  (Maybe that barred owl who loves the neighborhood so much?)

And the trash for today? An empty maxi-pad bag.