Our pool deck is under repair and so the pool cover has been removed much earlier than usual. A pair of ducks has visited each morning before the construction crew arrives. They swim circles in the dirty pool water for a while. Then the female lands on a planter on the adjacent terrace and begins backpedaling last year’s dirt and settling herself in. I assume she is auditioning its nesting suitability.
I’m enthralled, but ultimately, their nesting choice is impossible. I’ve considered moving the planter to a secluded spot away from the barbecue grill and the lounge chairs. Perhaps the pair will make a distant part of the garden their home for the season. Visions of downy ducklings in the pool warm my heart until my husband reminds me that the skimmer sucks in the cute as well as the nasty and that our use of the terrace will be curtailed while the eggs are incubating. The planter stays put and we encourage the ducks to look elsewhere.
We like our wildlife to be convenient.
When you grow up in a cement fortress and move to suburbia, every close encounter with wildlife feels like you’ve been chosen to witness something extraordinary.
Over the years, we’ve had regular visits by a family of red foxes. Sometimes we see them, nervous, alert streaks of crimson in the lower garden. Sometimes we only know of their visits by the presents they leave us on the stone steps. My husband is annoyed at the mess. I am enchanted.
We like our wildlife to be tidy.
A few years ago, a large and unpleasant wild turkey stalked the neighborhood. He chased my husband as he wheeled the trashcans to the curb. No one was sorry to see it move on.
We put up a bird feeder a few years ago drawing finches and woodpeckers and cardinals, all of which we observe like proud parents. But then there’s an onslaught of sparrows that chase away the other birds, vacuuming the loose seed in minutes and leaving none for their feathered brethren. If only we could bar the sparrows.
We like our wildlife to be considerate.
Most annoying is our ongoing battle with the squirrels drawn to the suet-laden bird feeder. In an attempting to dissuade the squirrels from stealing food from the intended, my husband greased the birdfeeder pole. Then he installed a baffle to stop them from dive-bombing onto the top of the feeder. Then a second baffle to stop them climbing the greased pole. All unsuccessful efforts. Lately, he has enticed them, one by one, into a Havahart trap and relocated them miles away. For some reason, we are keeping count. Thirty-three, to date. I kid you not.
We like our wildlife well behaved.
And then there was the raccoon that found her way into the crawl space between our kitchen ceiling and the floor of the first-floor bedrooms. We heard her scampering around, its mass and tapping fingernails ghostlike. It wasn’t until she peed in our ceiling fixture that we got the trap out and moved her far away.
We like our wildlife to know its boundaries.
Recently, I had the pleasure of listening to the eminent primatologist, Frans de Waal, promote his new book, Are we Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
In it, he writes about qualities like empathy and a sense of fairness observed in animals. As humans, we allow that perhaps a few animal outliers, those biologically closest to us, may display complex behaviors that we claim for ourselves. De Waal’s fascinating experiments counter this narrow view.
He believes that ‘every cognitive capacity that we discover in other animals ends up being older than we thought,’ meaning that animals we believe more primitive than our primate line are capable of complex behaviors as well.
When I was an anthropology major in college, we were taught that only humans made tools. It was one of the characteristics that separated us from other primates. Now we know that crows, chimps, capuchin monkeys, octopus, and crocodiles have all been observed making tools.
Animals are capable of planning for the future (see de Waal’s fascinating chimp observations) and recognizing themselves in a mirror.
Yet we continually deny, as de Waal says, “that animals have human-like mental experiences.” We call it anthropomorphizing and it is generally derided among American scientists. I subscribe to de Waal’s view. We just haven’t figured out how to understand them yet and therefore, we don’t appreciate how wickedly smart they are.
So when I think I can convince the squirrels to leave the bird suet alone and forage for their own scattered nuts, I am assuming that my superior intelligence will overcome their clearly inferior instincts. And yet, I am the one refilling the bird feeder constantly and chasing away the squirrels.
They are well-fed and happy. I am annoyed.