Helen Chappell: September 06

Natural History
Helen Chappell

     Well, it’s summertime again, and the living is anything but easy. I, for one, welcome the onset of autumn with a sigh of relief and the hopes of a lower electric bill.
      It’s not that I hate summer, precisely. It’s just that I think when the temperatures are cooler, I keep better. No, I don’t hate summer at all. What I detest and despise is the humidity, as in it’s not the heat, it’s the. . .
      Humidity makes people crabby. Every time there’s a spike in the viscous liquid we call summer air, it’s no surprise that the homicide and assault rates go up. When you’re inhaling an atmosphere the consistency and temperature of fresh chocolate pudding and someone says something really annoying, you eye that knife you’re using to slice those tomatoes and imagine what it might feel like slicing someone’s wifebeater undershirt to shreds.
      A couple hundred years ago, people thought miasma, the foul summer air wafting from damp and swampy places, was the cause of diseases such as yellow fever and malaria. Of course, now we know these diseases are carried by the mosquitoes who live in those swamps. But does that really help when you open the door of an early morning to be smacked in the face by a hot, wet washcloth of air?
      Air conditioning and summer visitors have made life bearable these past couple of months. There’s a lot to be said for falling through the door with a case of bottled water to be greeted by a cool, dark room. And I really love the lazy circles of a ceiling fan on a hot afternoon. It conjures up images of Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell on the lam from gangsters in Macao, holed up in a hotel room with the exotic aura of mosquito netting and slowly circling blades.
      The visitors who have enlivened these hot months are not humans, but the wildlife who have stumbled onto my property.
      I can sit on my back porch on a sweltering twilight and watch the single doe who has chosen to meander into my yard. Since she has to emerge from a distant woodlot, cross a vast, open soybean field, wade a small creek and forage her way through the trees to get here, I respect her courage.
      Somewhere in the brush, I can occasionally catch a glimpse of her fawn hiding in the deep green jungle of vines and thickets. The fawn has not yet lost its spots, so the doe keeps it out of sight of possible predators.
      If I sit very quietly, I can watch her chow down on my daisies, neatly biting the heads off each one before she turns her attention to the day lilies, which she thoughtfully chews down to the stems, one by one.
      I suppose I should chase her away. Like many people who live in the country, I’ve had my share of deer dents. Bambi has long since lost any charm for me.
But I like this deer. She has excellent taste in garden plants for one thing, and for another, as the new houses close in around me, she and her kin have fewer and fewer places to live in peace.
      I think I would rather watch a deer munch the bolted lettuce than have to look into the windows of yet another house only a few feet away. To hell with the garden. I lost interest in trying to keep up with it months ago. But I do like watching the doe, and sometimes, the flash of her fawn.
      One dawn in late June, I was awakened by the loudest bird song I’d heard since I lived in New York with a painter who kept twenty cockatiels and parrots. A high liquid note was followed by a declining trill, and in my drowsy state, I thought maybe some giant Amazon exotic had escaped and was hiding from the law on my back porch, only inches from my head.
      It took a while for me to discover this big, Ethel Merman sound was coming from a bird no bigger than that cliched baby’s fist. I thought I recognized that cocked- up tail, but I had to dig out my Petersen’s to confirm I was being visited by a house wren.
      Wrens are among the cutest of the little brown birds. They perch, head cocked and tail raised in such an appealing manner you can’t help but like them. They have attitude. And they’re playful, too. Perky, cheeky little birds who always seem cheerful, although for all I know, they may have the personality of Jack the Ripper.
      Because I leave the screen door propped slightly open so the cat can come and go into the yard, the wren probably thought he’d found paradise. A roof over his head, lots of nice cozy rafters and corners to hide in – it must have seemed like a perfect place.
      All day long, the wren would bounce in and out. And the whole time, this tiny little bird was putting out a song about fifty times bigger than he was. It was enough to startle me awake at five a.m.; he sang all morning and well into the afternoon, only getting quiet at dusk or when he was out doing whatever it is wrens do.
      Too lazy to get a Sibley and look up the personal lives of wrens, I seemed to recall that a male would set up nests with two different females, and travel back and forth between families, like any good bigamist. No deadbeat dad, the wren.
      Birds apparently sing for several different reasons. To mark their territory, to attract a mate and to warn of danger are the three reasons I can think of off hand.
      Needless to say, the cat was also taking a great interest in the wren. William would watch from the ground for hours, while the bird fluttered safely overhead, well out of claw reach.
      Once or twice, I tried to shoo the wren out, worried the cat would finally do the nature red in tooth and claw thing. But they don’t call modest intelligence bird-brained for nothing. That wren would cling to the screens, squawking angrily at me, as if I were the villain of the piece. I’d get him herded toward the open door, and just when I thought he’d find his way out, the same way he came in, the wren would take off and fly to the opposite side of the porch, while the cat practically drooled.
      After a week or so, they seemed to have reached an uneasy détente. The wren stayed in the rafters, safe from the cat’s claws, and William, in turn, pretty much ignored the bird in favor of Tuna and Egg Dinner.
      Then, the balance of uneasy power was overthrown.
      The wren returned home with a girlfriend. Perhaps they were thinking of starting a nest. Maybe she just liked the real estate, but for several days, the wren pair flew in and out of the porch, as if debating its merits.
      One morning I was awakened to frantic bird cries and feline yowls, and I suspected the worst.
      Well, a second wren was just too much for the cat. He watched and waited, and when he was fairly sure I wasn’t watching him, he’d tried to claw his way up the screen to get at the wrens.
      But the wrens weren’t having any of it. The pair of them were shrieking like angry banshees, and dive bombing poor William with sharp angry beaks while he hung helplessly in the screen, yowling in pain and frustration.
      This wasn’t the first time he’d been dive bombed by a bird: I thought an encounter with a very smart mockingbird a couple of years ago had cured him of going after our winged friends.
      So, I detached his claws from the screen, and told him he was a bad, bad cat. William jumped out of my arms and dashed out the screen door, the wrens in hot pursuit.
      William spent the rest of the day hiding under the house, coming home that night a very chastened feline.
      But I haven’t seen the wrens since. I guess they’ve gone on to find more peaceable neighbors. Or at least a place without a cat.