Happy Wildlife in Princeton
Surprise encounters – some resonance – and a smile remains
Princeton is a quiet university town with a beautiful campus, a small business district, and suburban living for twenty-five thousand residents. Where is there room for wildlife? Not much on campus. The curriculum is too demanding for the students to get wild. The scientists are too involved in their quests for the next Nobel Prize. But look at the fringes of our town. There deer herds move in from the surrounding forests to harvest the flower gardens in town. Look above, where drifting turkey vultures circle silently high in the air or delta formations of Canadian geese migrate swiftly by, their cries of distant freedom occasionally still heard through the night. But the animals that live in town are adjusted to suburban life, closer to us humans. Who can still doubt their capability for consciousness, thought, and emotions after observing them long enough with empathy? Let me write about some of my animal friends who live on our own property.
When I write, I sit at an octagonal bay window, where a stately Japanese maple provides shade in the summer. This tree also provides seeds for the squirrels to feed on. By now, one of those squirrels knows me—the same one that pokes deep holes into my otherwise beautiful front lawn to hide its reserves. I tell it to get a safe deposit box at the bank in town but it only tilts its head and scampers on. Sometimes, that squirrel climbs to a branch really close to my window. There it sits for many minutes observing me writing at the computer keyboard. Finally it looks as if it wants to ask me something.
“Why do you always scratch at the same place with your paws where you don’t find anything to eat?” it begins. “That’s not the way to support yourself and save for hard times or old age!” it continues in an almost patronizing way. Had it heard me talking to my sons?
“You must apply yourself, jump around, search here and there where it makes sense. That’s the way to find good things!” and off it jumps—just to the next branch—munching on some seeds and looking over its shoulder to make sure that I saw and got the point.
It does that three or four times, always returning to my window. Then it sighs, gives up on me, and goes after its own business, leaving me behind to keep scratching the old keyboard. In gratitude, I put some walnuts out on the ground under the maple tree.
In late fall, when the frost comes as soon as the early nights approach, our roles are inverted. A mild light emanates from my warm office. Then, the squirrel comes up and sits there, looking and thinking, its head slightly tilted, again. But as if to prove that it is not all on the wrong side, it jumps down to the lawn, retrieves a nut from one of those holes, and disappears in its nest of fall leaves high above in a tree—not without looking at me over its shoulder one last time in triumph.
This year, the local crow family, part of a larger clan in town, built its nest right above our back porch, high up in an ash tree. We observed the coming and going as the nest was built and then the quieter time of incubating the eggs. Finally the small heads of the crow chicks peeked over the edge of the nest. The parents had a hard time keeping the chicks well enough fed.
Last Saturday evening we had a spaghetti and chicken dinner on that porch. The crow parents looked on with great envy; there was so much food on the table we could not finish it all. How could we live so comfortably in our house knowing that those poor crow chicks would go hungry up in their nest?
I got a paper plate, loaded it with some spaghetti, put some nice pieces of chicken on top, and placed it quite a ways down the sloping lawn, where I thought it would be found easily.
It took the crow parents only one overflight to spot the food. Both parents perched on high branches of the spruce and black walnut trees in back of our garden and vocalized their excitement loudly—but too careful to fly down to the food immediately.
More than ten minutes passed in the crows’ careful approach of their prey. They always looked nervously at us as they descended slowly to lower branches. Any movement or sound from us made them quickly return to higher ground.
Finally, both sat on the lawn, though still at a safe distance from the tempting plate. One or the other approached the plate with careful steps, ogled it with tilted head, and retreated once more to safety with a jump.
Then came the breakthrough. One of the crows—was it the male or the female?—came close enough to the plate to pick at the food and tear out a spaghetti noodle like a long, white wiggling worm. Soon the other one came and made away with a good morsel of chicken meat.
Once they got to the plate, there was no more holding the line. The crows’ beaks dug deep into the pile, and the happy parents flew up with big strokes of their wings, heavily loaded like cargo planes, to the nest in the tree, where the expecting chicks had observed everything with great longing from the rim of their lofty home.
The plate was empty before the night arrived, and everything turned happily silent in the nest. I know those moments from when our children grew up with us, and we enjoyed the yearly tax refund celebration dinner at the Alchemist and Barrister or Rusty Scupper restaurant in town. The kids even took leftovers home for another late supper.
We liked the display of natural behavior from our tenants on the tree—and we felt good about having helped them out a bit. So we put more food out, almost daily. One evening, we ate so late that it was dark when we finished. The crows are not night foragers. We heard their complaints in the dark, but we put the plate of food for them under the table on the porch to keep it away from the prowlers of the dark, the opossums and the you-don’t-know-whats—specifically, away from the neighbor’s cat.
Shortly after six in the morning, when the sun had barely risen, throwing its wonderful golden light on the tops of the summer-green trees, we were awakened by the angriest rebuke projected at us by one of the crow parents, sitting just outside our bedroom window at a place where he or she could see us asleep in bed. There would be no more rest until I got up and—still in my pajamas; what a sight!—retrieved the loaded plate from under the porch table and put it out where the crows rightfully expected it.
By that time, the chicks had left the nest and sat only a few feet away from the plate. The parents shuttled back and forth between the plate and the chicks. How good can life be?
Furthermore, word had gotten around to the larger clan about the high life in our backyard. First one uncle or aunt, then at least ten of them with their youngsters, appeared and wanted to be part of public welfare.
I have some experience with people, and thus stated that we were doing the crows a disservice. The chicks would not learn to find food for themselves, and the clan would lose its neglected territory to other clans—not to mention the crutch effect of too much help. From that day on, the food supply was cut off!
Wild complaints from the crow clan continued for weeks. I never told anybody that I secretly continued to put out some food for quite some time. How could we live so comfortably in our house, knowing that those poor crows would go hungry?
The crows still come to the feeding spot from time to time and vocalize nostalgically, especially when they notice me watching.
The Bird in the Bush
I like to walk through our backyard and sit on a bench we placed under a canopy of branches of a wide and tall bush on the left side of the down-sloping lawn. From late spring on, I am usually greeted by a little bird with a melancholic voice.
“Yeeeeeeeeaaaaaahhhh!” it softly cries, starting with a high pitch and ending with a much lower pitch.
I have learned to answer with a “yeeeeeeeeaaaaaahhh!” of my own.
That’s just what my little friend was hoping for: a little conversation.
And so it goes, “yeeeeeeeeaaaaaahhh,” “yeeeeeeeeaaaaaahhh,” back and forth for some time.
The little bird changes position in the bush, starting on my right side and moving to my left, slowly getting closer until it’s finally calling from close behind my back. But a wrong movement—or maybe a missed pitch—makes it quickly withdraw again. I have seen it only once when turning around—feeling like Orpheus—and it flew away immediately, not to come back again that day.
The garden is very quiet most of the time. But when I come to that bush, the “yeeeeeeeeaaaaaahhh, yeeeeeeeeaaaaaahhh” starts again.
Lately, I have tried to add a somewhat happier sound into our exchange. Sometimes it seems to work. But the attempt at a sparkle of rhythm is definitely rejected. Life in the darkness of the bush seems to have a melancholic tune.
Now it is winter. Only some snowbirds, chickadees, and an occasional woodpecker come to our bird feeder.
I can’t wait to see spring and my little friend return, as it has done for several years by now.
Let me already call out a welcoming “yeeeeeeeeaaaaaahhh!” for the New Year to you.
We have a guest “cottage” in back of our house, and we don’t want you to call it a converted garage! There is beige carpeting on the floor, a Chinese dragon kite hanging between the beams, a nice bed for our guests, and even a reproduction of a Hudson River School painting of wonderful mountain scenery on the wall behind the bed. The bed’s mattress is covered with a friendly Amish quilt, and under it are two soft pillows (we do accept married couples, mind you!).
The cottage is very quiet, but guests have occasionally mentioned rustling noises coming from in between the beams. How about that? No, there is no ghost that walks around carrying his head under his arm, a uniformed veteran of Washington’s Battle of Princeton in 1777, waiting for his beloved Hessian sweetheart to come and bury him.
Once, we expected a lady guest late in the fall. I wanted to be sure that there was no problem with that noise, so I stayed in the cottage for a while at dusk, keeping myself very quiet. I even held a camera to take a picture of whatever appeared. Yes, I did hear a very faint, muffled noise from the direction of the bed. But the noise was so faint, and there was nothing to be discerned on or under or behind the bed, that I did not raise any fuss about it. I didn’t even invent a new story about the noise to get the family excited.
Eva, my wife, had to prepare the bed before the guest arrived. What did she find? Right under one of the pillows, she found a nicely arranged, generous cache of wild seeds.
“Mice!” she screamed.
I ran to see what she had found.
What should we do? I know from experience that people react quite differently to animals, depending on how they look. A rat is ugly and rejected right away. A hamster is cute. A gray house mouse is also not acceptable. But the white-bellied field mouse with a tan pelt, as common in the New Jersey wilds, is so pretty that it can be found in toy stores reproduced as a stuffed little animal for children to coddle.
I got a trap. Sure enough, I caught a mouse. It was one of those cute and beautiful little field mice. The matter seemed resolved, particularly as the rustling noises were not heard any longer.
But what to do with the cache that the mice needed to get through winter? It was cleaned out, the bed was shampooed, a French lavender perfume from our time in Cannes was added, and our guest did not learn about that once hidden treasure—enjoying our “elegant accommodation.”
But then, we put a bag of grass seed into the remaining storage area of the garage with ready access to the garden outside or the beams of the cottage next to it.
The mice returned the courtesy by staying away from the bed, preferring to stay closer to the bag of seed.
Sometimes I wish I were nocturnal and small enough to visit with the mice and celebrate the good times with them.
I would throw a party—right on top of those pillows—dancing, feasting, and all!
But I would clean up afterwards.
Did you hear that, you wild mice?
We have a rabbit in our backyard that we call “Bunny,” as usual. Bunny is a loner. Only once in a while, in spring, Bunny appears with very small baby bunnies. But those disappear as they grow up. Or are they captured by the owl? Only our good old Bunny always remains.
Bunny is well behaved, normally eating only the grass on the lawn. One summer, when we had a severe drought and all the grass turned gray or brown, Bunny got up on her hindquarters and ate the blooms of our white flowers in the shaded area of the garden. Eva, my wife, was upset. I scolded Bunny und put out some fresh salad for her—even a cup with water—that the other animals drank at night. But I also put out a trap, loaded with all kinds of succulent things in it. Bunny, however—the one that always looks so naïve—was too smart to get into it.
As time went by, we all got used to each other. Bunny did not hide any longer when we came into the garden. We could approach her up to just a few steps away if we walked slowly.
We told our four-year-old granddaughter, Christina, in California about Bunny. She was excited and wanted to come over right away. When Christina finally came to visit with us a few months later, she asked immediately about Bunny.
We walked into the backyard with Christina and—we couldn’t believe it ourselves—Bunny was there, waiting for her. Bunny sat in the lower part of the lawn, munching on grass.
Christina wanted to run out and greet Bunny, but we told her that she had to walk very slowly and not talk, so as not to scare Bunny. It was a wonderful sunny day. All the flowers were blooming, and there walked, step by step carefully down the lawn toward her new friend, our little blond granddaughter.
Bunny was insecure and acted as if she did not see Christina. Bunny just went on munching grass. But I noticed that Bunny’s head turned toward the child and her eyes fixed on Christina.
When Christina was just a few steps from Bunny—walking very, very slowly—Bunny raised herself up on her hind quarters, her ears up, her forepaws lifted, and looked straight at Christina. Our granddaughter stopped mid-step, one foot still raised behind her from the last step, both hands lifted slightly sideways in suspense. She smiled with bright eyes at Bunny. How could Bunny resist? She looked as if she smiled, too. What a picture to behold!
Just then a loud noise came from one of the neighbor’s gardens.
Faster than the eye could follow, Bunny disappeared between some low plants. Christina remained standing alone in her lovely pose in the sunshine on the lawn. Had she just experienced a real fairy tale? Had she also just experienced reality?
Slowly she turned to us, half smiling and half crying, and was taken up in the arms of her mother.
Bunny came back a while later when we were all gone. I could see Bunny from the house as she looked around where little Christina had stood.
Since then, I have not seen Bunny for more than half a year.
Yes, there are also deer in Princeton—many hundreds of them. But that is neither a funny nor a happy story. That is not just the question of the deer eating all the flowers and decorative bushes in people’s gardens. There are all those car on deer collisions. More than a hundred of them, in some years. The cars get dented, sometimes skid into a ditch or tree. People usually don’t get hurt. But the deer get severely hurt. If they don’t die on the spot, they may have to be relieved of their pain by being euthanized. Deer are not that good at jumping fences either. They can jump high, but apparently they cannot see wire-mesh fences very well. If they misjudge the height of such a fence, they don’t land properly on their feet after the jump and may break one of their tender legs. We had this happen the other day in our own backyard. The suffering animal was barely able to move to the center of our garden. It lay down at the spot with the most beautiful view of all the shrubs and flowers and gave up the struggle.