By Bill Wilson
I wake today in pre-dawn light and rambunctious birdsong, draw the window shade to peer outside, and scan the yard for critters that seem to multiply by the day. The three or four resident adult rabbits have become far more, promiscuous bucks and does joined by tiny cottontail progeny, who by year’s end will do the Bunny Hop and follow their elders with babies of their own. They are cute but they are many. We tolerate them while lamenting the damage they wreak on our gardens, those bulbous white tails tossing insults our way when we scold their brashness and chase them from our plantings. Not to be outdone, our local songbirds have become a large chorus. Several nests once full of eggs sit empty, chicks hatched and fledged, the young joining tired parents among the flora, singing the morning awake as I rub my eyes, glance at the clock, and head downstairs.
Our ticklish little rescue pup has clicketty-clacked across our laminate floor and waits for her master to settle on the second-lowest riser, turning her backside my way for an early-morning butt scratch. Her ears and eyes relax as she enters a weird pleasure zone at my fingertips. Though she was long ago spayed, I imagine her mind drifting to an erotic memory from her mysterious past and wonder if spaying removes such desires or simply denies reproduction. My fingers stop before she gets too hot and bothered, and she cocks her head sideways while giving me a look as if to ask, “Come on Billy Boy, is that all you got?”
I rise and gently nudge her wagging rear end with the tip of my toe to suggest it’s time for breakfast, breaking the spell of her carnal thoughts. She scampers from the room, full of delight about her plans for the day, and heads to her food bowl as if my recent rubdown meant nothing to her. There she waits for her laggard servant to attend to her next desire, and her wish is my command.
With the crunch of my chunky little canine granddaughter munching her morning meal, I ready the coffee. As it begins perking and bubbling away, filling the kitchen with subtle Latin American aromas, I walk to the dining room window where I look outside. The wood duck drake floats on the pond, directly in front of the nesting box where his mate dutifully sits on their clutch of eggs. His silhouette is motionless in calm water, appearing as if he’s resting on a pane of glass. The scene is muted and gray, the striking colors of drake subdued and only a memory this early in the day. We will learn of the birth of the brood by the eventual absence of the male, unless we are lucky enough to be present the instant they climb the tiny grooves on the inner wall of the box, drop from the small hole in the front, and are spirited away by their mom, out of the water and into the safety of nearby brush. Our “woodies” are attentive parents, but not prone to brag about the kids.
I crack open the window and listen to the continuous gurgling, burbling, croaks, and grunts of our local bullfrog horde, a wetland soundtrack audible night and day. They are boisterous enough to keep our infrequent guests awake, and I think about how fun it would be to synchronize their mating calls to a light show, certain the visual pattern would rhythmically circle around the entirety of the water, crisscross at regular intervals, repeat itself, and loop back occasionally against the flow to enliven the whole affair and confuse any predators equipped to detect and kill by sound alone. Like many other creatures, the singing and calling of the frogs is done to attract a mate. From spring through much of summer, our pond is home to horny amphibian suitors brazenly announcing their intentions. The males defend their lily pads against all comers as they woo willing females to their territory, hoping for slimy intimacy only frogs enjoy. I wonder if there’s something in the water giving them so much stamina and determination. To discover it would be grand. To harvest it could make me wealthy. To drink it might be like sipping from a fountain of youth and lead to unintended consequences.
My wife and I ease into these spring and summer mornings. Coffee in hand, we open the sliding glass door that is our window to the yard and wait for the dog to join us. Looking pleased with herself following a massage and breakfast, she settles before the screen at the open door to sample the air outside. Her nose is a barometer of the wildlife that might have passed through last night or are waiting to greet us when we decide to go outside. The whitetail deer have dropped their fawns by now, and we are aware of the possibility of a sighting and thrilled whenever it happens. The deer birth between one and three fawns—most typically two, and there have been instances in the past when the doe openly nursed her hungry newborns in plain view. Their spindly legs and delicate joints look like poorly assembled Tinker Toys, creaky, crooked, and barely able to support the rest of them. But they are far and away the most adorable animal babies in the valley. We welcome them knowing they will mature, reproduce, and poach our vegetable crops, annuals, perennials, berries, and anything and everything edible when their time arrives.
We always keep a well-tended hummingbird feeder near our patio, along with a nectar-producing hanging basket of flowers. Through the door, we watch and listen to the hummingbirds feed and perform part of their mating rituals. The tiny birds are both social and aggressive (not towards humans), extremely fast aloft, and to be near their food or territory is to be among aerobatic avian darts with ruby throats and whirring wings. Outside of the mating season, their reproductive organs shrink to accommodate flight and aren’t active, but once breeding begins, things change. The females’ ovaries (usually only one at a time) begin producing ova, and the gonads of the male spring to life. The brains of the birds are large in proportion to their overall size, so we have polygamous males zipping about with hyperactive glands and abundant gray matter, looking for females ripe with ova and wanting a home of their own to fill with offspring.
So burning are their urges, copulation is sometimes done in flight. But even when not doing the dirty in mid-air, the little birds put on quite a show. The hummers hover to display colors more vividly, then circle and perform multiple horseshoe loops and amazing straight-line sprints, both to attract mates and ward off territorial and sexual rivals. They buzz the hairlines of our guests and family, are a pleasure to watch and fun to be near, but caution is key while sipping hot beverages as the hormones kick in and the birds hit their stride. Native wisdom suggests hummingbirds are a symbol for great joy and happiness, and their spirit is attracted to and will help those hoping to move from a negative point in their life. Hummingbird people are said to be full of loving, healing energy.
The most prolific little buggers in the burg are the dreaded chipmunks. They scurry, dash, dart, pop up, and run all over the place. To view them is to see an animal with a severe eating problem combined with a hyperactivity disorder. With appetites to gather any and all available food, they stuff their cheeks and rush off hither and yon to stash it away, multiple times during the day repeating the cycle. They taunt us with unabashed theft and vandalism. They chew through the window screens and wooden walls and doors to the shed and make merry once inside. Automotive wiring is an evening snack. The pesky rodents mock our inability to control their overwhelming numbers. To play whack-a-mole with the little bastards would result in terminal tennis elbow and forearms the size of Popeye, so vast is their number. Chipmunks are rats with racing stripes, nicer tails, and better public relations, but we are not fooled by Alvin, Simon, and Theodore or the theatric pedigree these three cinematic vermin carry. Friendly little chipmunks are a myth. Cute and cuddly they are not. We long for something other than bullets to make them all disappear. Until then, we dream of a universe in their absence.
We can always rely on a few families of woodchucks to join us and wander about the premises soon after hibernation ends. From different corners of our acreage, the newborn kits enter the world and waddle around like furry little meatloaves with legs. We’ve watched these curious rodents play as family units; they are social with kin but not with us. Older chucks laze about in the sun, and we have watched a gray-haired gent enter our yard, roll onto his back, and fall asleep. We coined him “Grandpa.” They have voracious appetites. Large, chisel-toothed rodents that like to eat, who dig prodigiously and are able to climb barriers and trees, are not welcome within our fortress. To their credit, males tend to sow their wild oats in private. I reflect on this as they burrow large tunnels under the fence and invade my vegetable beds. We have disposed of plenty of them over the years while trying to control their numbers and mitigate the damage they do, always with mixed results. To live-trap an adult specimen is an iffy proposition. They gift their captors with bowel-emptying discharges of feces and bladder-draining urine, despoiling the trap and the bed of our truck. And then there is always the question of where to deliver the bulky, nervous prisoner, the answer to which has varied over the years, and will forever remain secret.
The male red or gray squirrel is a pig, no offense to swine intended. We never get to see baby squirrels, which is fine by me, as the adults are sufficiently loutish to make us pre-judge their young. The verdict is that squirrels are a curse to rural homeowners. So far as mating goes, females are in estrus for merely a single day during the breeding season. The most dominant male under the spell of her charms mates with her repeatedly that day, has a smoke, gathers up his nuts, tips his cap, and walks away. Less dominant males then take their turns, ignore paternal paperwork, and do the same. None of these boorish fellows play a role in child-rearing either. Leaving the females to tend the young, the males find their way to our property and make nuisances of themselves twenty-four hours a day, three hundred and sixty five days per year, with a bonus day tossed in every fourth.
Red squirrels are nothing but juiced chipmunks, bigger, bolder, more destructive, but thankfully far fewer in number. What they lack in count however, they compensate for with insolence and the desire to invade our home, vehicles, and outbuildings. We give them no quarter. To spy one is to flash back to when they have nested in the attic and stowed away in the garage and root cellar. It is a time to grab a weapon and stand guard. With due pardon to the squeamish, we shoot red squirrels at every opportunity and offer them up on a sacrificial willow stump to airborne and land-based predators. At various times, they have gnawed through one-inch thick boards to access the shed, eaten sparkplug wires and connections for anti-lock brakes and oxygen sensors in our cars and truck, and built nests the size of small wading pools in our structures and filled them with particles and fabric ripped from outdoor equipment, buildings, motorcycles, and automobiles. Of note, they are too fast for our little dog to catch, and though she tries in vain, her reward for doing so is nothing but stiff joints, sore muscles, and injured pride. The chipmunks watch from the sidelines and see her falter, offer up a cheer, and themselves become more emboldened, were that even possible.
My wife and I are not voyeurs, but we have witnessed mating habits of deer, rabbits, frogs, toads, snakes, songbirds, and a few species of waterfowl. Neither she nor I is a prude. Sexual behavior and reproduction are natural urges, instinctual and necessary to guarantee the continuation of species. Even when the coupling isn’t seen, we live among the visible results. Babies proliferate. They nurse, feed, play, burrow, cry, howl, and die in our presence. But there’s a lot of sexual activity taking place on our acreage behind our backs and occasionally right before our eyes. Whenever I’ve watched animal copulation, I’ve wondered if there’s pleasure involved for the participants.
This gets to the deeper question of whether or not animals in general experience pleasure. Of the latter I am certain, having viewed young deer, fox kits, and black bear cubs play together and have themselves a ball. Of the former I believe it’s true some of the time but not always. Does the female Mallard enjoy the drake mounting her back, submerging her in water, all the while aggressively pecking away at the back of her head? Is the female snake having fun when the male inserts his dual hemipenes into her cloaca for upwards of a day? When considered together, can we judge whether or not animals mate for fun or out of biological duty and necessity, or possibly both? Can they distinguish between the two? Can they link having a good time with the estrous cycle and its fallout, and how would they know when or how to prepare for the party? I suppose the same can be asked of certain humans, but we’ll leave that go for now.
Consider the mating behavior of porcupines. Oh, the porcupines! We haven’t owned a dog whose curiosity about them hasn’t been rewarded with a snout full of quills. Even our current queen of the family, a once scruffy tick-infested and abused bitch prone to caution and long ago saved by our son who found her wandering the tough streets of Savannah, Georgia, was impaled by a quill pig while out on a casual stroll with her grandmother. She dropped over the side of the trail to investigate a noise and returned a pin cushion. The quills have reversed barbs that slowly but surely penetrate deeper and deeper into the victim unless removed, and experience has taught us the removal is best done under sedation to spare our pets the intense pain. Porcupines, too, inflict much damage on the homestead.
Over the years, they have entered the yard during the night and eaten sections of our garden sheds, garage, front porch (joists and decking both), and the 6X6 pressure-treated timbers that form the stairway to the road and our mailbox. Beware, the chromated copper arsenate (CCA) in the boards is not a deterrent as some believe. If anything, the chemicals attract the beasts and spur their appetites when they grow tired of chewing the bark off of our fruit trees and eyeballing vehicle brake lines.
Porcupine mating is noisy, smelly, and tactile. The old joke about their mating being of necessity “very carefully” is not true. The female is fertile for less than a single day throughout an entire year. Weeks leading to that day, she wanders her territory leaving behind a vaginal urine-and-mucous-scented concoction to trigger the reproductive behavior of the males. Rival males engage in vicious battles for her attention, occasionally to the death. The chosen swain follows his prickly maiden in a courtship marked by grunts, groans, shrieks, and squawks, and his ritual urination on her head and body which triggers her response of lifting her tail and exposing an area free of quills. Coupling ensues, and can continue all day (including more urination, rest, and cleansing) until the female chases him away with a series of screams, thus ending their tryst. Was this pleasurable for either of them? Is she screaming with delight at the close, or reviling in disgust at what he did to her? With so much urine involved, one could ask about their political affiliation, but since this essay is apolitical, one will not.
As with woodchucks, live-trapping porcupines isn’t for the feeble or faint-of-heart. Adults weigh on average about twenty pounds and can be two to three feet in length, but this is deceptive due to the length of their tails and quills. With a defense of thirty thousand quills and razor-sharp teeth, the trap must be large enough to contain their bulk and leave some breathing room for the trapper. Porcupines aren’t fast afoot, but their tails can lash a bunch of quills when confronted. They, too, purge their innards when caught and excited, and as we now know, can spread urine a fair distance with accuracy. The physical act of carrying them is burdensome and opening the trap and releasing the imprisoned animal very dicey. My wife and I know of no one anxious to have immigrant porcupines brought to their property. By the time we take them far enough away from civilization to let them go, the truck smells like the pile of shit it has become, their odiferous droppings scattered about and sitting in pools of piss, flowing in the grooves of the truck’s bed-liner. But they are kind of cute in a unique, plodding sort of way.
Yesterday as I mowed our grass, I was slowed by baby toads. No larger than the distal phalange of my thumb, I waited until they passed, or stopped mowing to gather them up. To a toad, they all peed in the palm of my hand. I released these beneficial amphibians into a garden where we would prefer they live and feed. In his essay Some Thoughts on the Common Toad, George Orwell offers an ode to Spring along with a short summary of toad reproduction, suggesting it is a period of “intense sexiness” for the male. It is a time when the male desires nothing more than to “get his arms round something,” as Mr. Orwell writes, and is willing to settle for a stick or your finger until a female comes along. I smiled to myself while holding these miniature toads and thought of the “intense desire” they one day would own. I wondered if they’d take pleasure in the act. There were a lot of them hopping around amidst the grass, weeds, and clover. The strong urges of their smallish dads riding atop of much larger moms had paid off for these little guys, and I was happy for them despite their uncouth comportment.
We have often seen playful behavior from gray fox kits and black bear cubs. A few years back, we noticed what we at first believed to be a family of woodchucks emerging from brush adjacent to our potato beds, which we don’t fence because animals tend to leave them alone. But when the mother fox joined her kits, we realized what they were, and when they appeared daily, knew they lived nearby. We had some cat food from a former pet, and I thought it would be interesting to see if the kits would eat it. I took a handful of food, placed it on a paper plate, and set it where they had entered our yard. Not only did they enjoy the food, they began using the plates for a toy. When the kibbles were gone, one of the young would grab the plate in its teeth and play keep-away from its siblings, using the rows of potatoes for a track. This they did for about a month or two, until they reached maturity and dispersed. The adults are believed to be monogamous, but we never saw the adult male. On a few occasions, the female nursed her kits while in the open yard, and she once growled at me while hidden in the brush as I picked up a few torn and scattered plates. Fox aren’t large animals, but her warning was loud and clear and well-received.
Late spring through early summer is the busiest mating season for black bears. The males have a mating range of between ten and fifteen miles, closely resembling the range for a few of my former friends from school. Males follow favored females for days to evaluate her desire to mate, the sow having spread a scent trail throughout her territory, and the boars will fight for dominance among each other. After mating, they go their separate ways and look for other partners. Both are promiscuous. Birth occurs in the den during winter.
The cubs will live with their mother for more than a year and until they are able to survive on their own. She is very attentive and protective of her young. Bear cubs are closely guarded by the sow, and there have been many times we have seen them together. Years ago while walking down our road, my wife and I noticed four cubs with a sow in a pasture close to where we stood. The cubs were having a riot, playing among themselves in the grass and taking turns jumping up and down on mom. She sat on her large rump facing us, watching, and not moving.
We weren’t scared, but that would have changed quickly had she made a gesture our way. She never did. After several minutes, she rounded up her young and walked them up the hill and into the woods, the cubs taking turns hitching a ride on her broad back while she turned a few times to check and see where we stood. When the family was out of sight we continued on our way. We’ve learned not to fear our bears, but we always give them a wide berth and plenty of respect. They are strong, intelligent, faster than humans, and possess quick hands and reflexes. Bears patrol and plod and take their sweet-old time as they occasionally stroll through our yard looking for food or maybe just to let us know who’s boss. And they are so intensely black, they are even darker than the night.
A few weeks ago, following a spell of bears rummaging about our compost pile and stealing large contractor-bags full of shredded leaves I had gathered last fall (and doing only God-knows-what with them), I heard a slight but unfamiliar noise that woke me in the middle of the night. People who live among bears and learn their habits acquire a sense for the unusual and out of place. These large omnivores are stealthy as they forage and make mischief. The noise gave me a feeling something was up.
I slid out of bed in the dark, grabbed a spotlight off the dresser, and carefully stepped to our upstairs bedroom window. I allowed my eyes to adjust to the moonless night. Across the yard and beneath where we hang a suet cake during the day, a large black mass gradually came into semi-focus. When I lit the spotlight, the black form dissolved into pieces, as three bear cubs ran for cover in single-file leaving behind a much larger specimen, which stood and sniffed the dark sky and spied me with limey-green eyes that reflected my light. I’m guessing it was their mother, and she eventually joined her family, but not without pausing and turning around a few times as she left.
The stories of our bear encounters are manifest. We have shared so many over the years that one particular relative routinely asks for updates whenever we visit. It is no accident that these interesting animals make headlines if spotted near civilization, where the bears are featured on the evening news. People are fascinated by them for good reason. They exude danger and convey a sense of the wild, and though demographics show more and more people moving to the cities and suburbs, the bears remind them they are not alone among the hustle and bustle of urban life, and that humans retain within their DNA a link to a more primitive past.
Bears will stir the senses awake when sighted, but nothing excites the adrenals more than listening to coyotes, especially in the still of night. Scientifically Canis latrans—latrans being Latin for “barking”— these tricksters of the animal kingdom have been shot, snared, and otherwise trapped, poisoned, and blown from their dens for decades, and still they thrive. Government agencies and alleged sportsmen encourage and sanction coyote demise with mixed and occasional horrific results, not only for the coyotes, but for a host of other animals and birds that feed on their carcasses.
Hunters have long used the argument that their sport benefits wildlife and that hunting itself increases reproductive urges in their prey. They cite how excise taxes on their supplies fund conservation, and organizations to which they belong do likewise. Many wildlife biologists (at least those employed by state game commissions) agree. But isn’t it hypocritical when they turn around and say the only good coyote is a dead one? Were it true, deer hunters who shoot coyotes on sight, or as they emerge as pups from their dens, are by their own admission increasing the proclivity for coyotes to reproduce more, which if following their logic, would further decrease the deer herd.
Could constant killing be the reason coyotes are so widely disbursed and adaptable? There are researchers who believe it is, at least in part. Killing adults changes predatory habits of the remaining pack, forcing wider foraging for food and taking larger prey to support the group, including their pups. Fear and loathing aside, coyotes are part of the food chain and an apex predator due to the demise of wolves, bobcats, and mountain lions. They control mice, rabbits, opossums, squirrels, moles, voles, woodchucks, insects, and most importantly to my wife and me—chipmunks. Anything that enjoys a good chipmunk feast is fine by us, so long as they don’t eat our dog, which coyotes are capable of and apt to do during the height of their mating season. Pugs, Pekinese, Pomeranians, and other puny pups warrant close supervision in coyote territory.
Coyotes mate together as a pair for several years and sometimes for life. As the season begins, a male will follow a female for several days without being obtrusive. The male shows more attention in the female than she in him, and only when she gives definitive signals does he dare approach. They sniff and roll in each other’s urine for a spell (again the urine!), and then they mate. She can birth as many as fifteen pups, but the average is closer to five or six, and the young have a high mortality rate their first year of life, especially should my neighbor spot them.
Few things in the wild compare to the sound of coyotes nattering, howling, yipping, or barking, especially in our rural setting free of ambient noise. Without the steady drone of automobiles, sirens, late night-revelers, and distant gunshots common in American cities, coyote vocalizations own the night in our verdant country spaces. Old coyote lore tells us that to hear a coyote calling outside an open bedroom window suggests a prayer will be answered. Because they are tricksters, however, the prayer might be from long ago and no longer desired, or something you prayed for in jest and really didn’t mean. So be sure to be careful in dealing with these wily canines.
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More than two centuries ago, Benjamin Franklin said death and taxes were two certainties in life, but Mr. Franklin also advocated for the wild turkey to be our national symbol instead of the bald eagle. He was an intelligent man, but he missed inevitabilities more certain, plentiful, and common to any and all beings who call earth their home. We pay our taxes once or twice per year and will perish only a single time as we make our exit. But we live in an area where we constantly see the search for food and the desire for, and the necessity of, procreation.
New life abounds in many forms. Animals spend most of their time looking for food to survive. They stow it away when not eating directly. They fatten their bodies to accommodate breeding and winter survival. They fight for food and defend their stores and territories against thieves and moochers. It is life and death on a grand scale. And then there’s all the carnal activity. So much animal sex, it boggles the mind! It’s said insects will one day rule the earth, but that’s not true. Chipmunks will. Count on it. Shame on Noah for bringing them aboard.
After many years, I recently ran into the former owner of our home. We spoke for a while about our families and marveled at our graying hair. She birthed two daughters, we raised two sons. Both our nests are empty. But she surprised me when she suggested she once believed that my wife and I would not remain very long in her old homestead. She and her husband had us pegged for fifteen years at most before we’d head back to the city. We never had such inklings. We’ve lived here twice that long and then some. Writer Wallace Stegner once spoke of “boomers and stickers” in the American West. According to him, stickers were “those who settle, and love the life they have made and the place they made it in.”
My wife and I are stickers in the beautiful forested hills of northcentral Pennsylvania. Although we were city-born and raised, enjoyed it while there, and visit occasionally (and of recent more reluctantly), it isn’t where we belong or feel at home. To return there to live as some have pleaded with us over the years would not be “returning to our roots.” Our roots are where we settled to raise a family of our own, and did so on our terms, without apologies. This country life is the place we love and where we made it. These are our roots, and here among our many furred, feathered, and otherwise attired co-inhabitants, we have set them deep.
Bill Wilson graduated from the University of Buffalo in 1977, never having learned a thing about writing. He is a member of the Oswayo Valley Writers Guild under the guidance of Cheri Maxson. A hopeless bibliophile, he enjoys gardening, landscaping, and birding with his wife of forty-two years, Jean, a local stained-glass guru. Black Bear, Rituals