“The days of the dawn chorus are nearly upon us.”

This morning I opened the back door to hang out some pillowcases and heard robin song. I’ve noticed birds everywhere these days. Yellow-rumped warblers, sapsuckers, chickadees checking out the houses, a high crowd of violet-green swallows above the garden yesterday when we were taking a break from various chores, hummingbirds in the red currant, and of course robins. They’ve been around for ages but I haven’t heard their chorus yet. We did hear Swainson’s thrushes two weeks ago when it was warm enough to have the window open in the very early morning.

The robins have always nested around our house, sometimes in an elbow of grapevine, sometimes in the crotch of a rose by the front door, and often on a beam that carries wisteria across the patio. We’ve watched the couples build their nests, watched them sitting on the eggs, and even watched the young fledge. One year the nest was a little higher than I am—I’m 5’6″—and I kept a sort of diary of the progress of its construction and what happened after. At one point I held a camera over the next when the parents were off in search of worms and this is what I saw:

open

Only one of those fledged. (And you can see a little dead bird on the left.) A few years ago the robin couple built a nest on the beam and there were eggs, then tiny nestlings (again, the camera held from high so a blurry image):

one egg

I was looking forward to watching the whole cycle again but a weasel raced along the beam and that was the end of that story. The parents were briefly distraught and then began a nest somewhere far from the house. I’m sorry not to see the nests so close but on the other hand, we have a cat now who likes to recline on that beam, and I’ve heard the weasel in the night, hunting on the roof, so it’s better than the robins find a safer location.

I sit at my desk, thinking about the way we try to live our lives in the best possible way. We try to raise children who are ethical and purposeful and who can survive outside the nest (though we hope that they will also remember the nest and the parents who fed them tirelessly while they opened their mouths to the sky). We try to do the right thing for the earth, whatever that might be. (I suspect it’s too late but that’s another topic.) And daily, I try to record what I love, what hurts me, what I am puzzled by, or what I hope for.

The days of the dawn chorus are nearly upon us. I have been very lucky, I think, to see robin eggs in a nest, tiny nestlings, those gawky open mouths. I’ve seen a weasel at my door, once, standing up and looking in at me as I sewed in my rocking chair by the fire, and again, on the stoop where I hang out laundry. I think of Annie Dillard’s essay, “Living Like Weasels”, and realize that in some ways we too can live close to our instincts, if we are lucky and the light is right:

We could, you know. We can live any way we want. People take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience–even of silence–by choice. The thing is to stalk your calling in a certain skilled and supple way, to locate the most tender and live spot and plug into that pulse. This is yielding, not fighting. A weasel doesn’t “attack” anything; a weasel lives as he’s meant to, yielding at every moment to the perfect freedom of single necessity.

I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you’re going no matter how you live, cannot you part. Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.

laundry stoop

hidden, and then visible

In May, I was lying in bed one morning when I saw a face in the window, peering in from the strands of trumpet vine that run along the side of the house. What I saw and what I understood about an empty robins’ nest  was discussed in this post.

the culprit (1)

Most nights I read in bed and almost every night I hear something in the roof by the bathroom. We live in a wild area and so we’re accustomed to creatures — well, mice —  finding their way into the walls sometimes. In the past we’ve had cats but not now. (And given the abundance of coyotes in our area, I don’t know how long a cat would last.) But this never sounds like mice. They skitter and you can hear them gnawing. This sound is something else — a sound resonating in metal. (We have a metal roof; it replaces the original roof of cedar shakes.) John is always kind of skeptical. I know he believes I hear something but he is usually downstairs when I’m reading and so he hasn’t heard those feet racing through metal.

Hadn’t. Until this morning. He was in the bathroom and there it was. Something in the roof, or at least that’s how it sounded. He went outside and looked around. Nothing. As he was coming in the sunroom door, he looked up. And peering out of the little metal tunnel — where the lower roof of sunroom meets the side of the house — there was a face. A weasel. It came out, then backed in. He called to me and I came upstairs. How beautiful, the face of a tiny weasel looking at us through trumpet vine. The weasel I saw in May was probably a mother with a burrow of young somewhere near  — I saw her in the woodshed so I suspect she had her brood among the firewood — and about this time in the life cycle, she and a male (not necessarily the father of her young) will be teaching the family to hunt. So this could be a young one or an adult. By now the babies are full sized, though the males aren’t yet sexually mature. (The female young have probably already been impregnated by the hunting male.) We didn’t have a camera at hand but I went out later to see if the animal was still there. No. But you can imagine it just below that orange trumpet flower, its bright eyes and tawny body emerging, then backing in again, though not completely. We spoke to it. It sniffed the air. Us.

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This kind of tunnel — there must be a name for it but it’s where the metal roof material covers the flashing — runs along all the gable ends of our house. And we have many rooflines because our house grew. And parts of it are two stories high, other parts — the kitchen, the sunroom built off one end of our bedroom where a door takes you out onto a deck over the back of the house, where the children’s bedrooms were — are a single story high. (A single story! As though there’s ever a single story to anyone’s life.) So when I’m sitting at my desk and hearing that sound, when I’m lying in my bed hearing it, when we are anywhere in the house hearing it, it’s because weasels are hunting mice in the place where the roof meets the house. It’s almost an ecotone, an area of transition. Not in the house but not outside. I know bats sometimes rest there during the day and I don’t like to think that they are probably forming a part of the weasel family’s diet. But you don’t get to choose.

In the lore about weasels, much is made of their smell. Yet the one that came into our house two years ago and raced up and down the bookshelves in my study didn’t smell. And going out just now to see if the one in the roof was still around, I could only smell the morning lilies.

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My old friend Gaius Plinius Secundus (who ya gonna call?) remarks that weasels are the only animals that can kill a basilisk, those fearsome serpents capable of killing with a glance. And it seems that they are useful too in preserved form for any kind of snake bite.

There are two varieties of the weasel; the one, wild,1 larger than the other, and known to the Greeks as the “ictis:” its gall is said to be very efficacious as an antidote to the sting of the asp, but of a venomous nature in other respects.2 The other kind,3 which prowls about our houses, and is in the habit, Cicero tells us,4 of removing its young ones, and changing every day from place to place, is an enemy to serpents. The flesh of this last, preserved in salt, is given, in doses of one denarius, in three cyathi of drink to persons who have been stung by serpents: or else the maw of the animal is stuffed with coriander seed and dried, to be taken for the same purpose in wine. The young one of the weasel is still more efficacious for these purposes.

1 The ferret, most probably.

2 See c. 33 of this Book.

3 The common weasel.

4 Probably in his work entitled “Admiranda,” now lost. Holland says “some take these for our cats.

“The Natural History. Pliny the Elder. John Bostock, M.D., F.R.S. H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A. London. Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street. 1855.

 

Reading the Lone Pine Field Guide to the Mammals of British Columbia

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Weasels have an image problem: they are often described as pointy-nosed villains, and the name “weasel” is frequently used to characterize dishonest cheats.

This morning, a face at the bedroom window, a tawny curious face, with bright eyes. The weasel was stretched along a cable of trumpet-vine, as surprised to see me as I was to see it.

Despite its abundance, the Short-tailed Weasel is not commonly seen, because, like all weasels, it tends to be most active at night and inhabits areas with heavy cover.

The other morning, on the patio, darting in and out of the wood-shed, climbing the laundry stoop (as I have climbed it hundreds of time, with baskets of sheets and towels). And is this the animal I’ve heard for weeks now, at night, racing across the roof just under the eaves by my bed? Sometimes I hear mice but this wasn’t a mouse. And it was too swift for a raccoon, too grounded for an owl. The sound too loud to be a Little Brown Bat waking from its roost between the fascia boards and the wall.

Habitat: The Short-tailed Weasel is most abundant in coniferous or mixed forests and streamside woodlands. In summer, it may often be found in the alpine tundra, where it hunts on rock slides and talus slopes.

Or on homesteads on the Sechelt peninsula where it can be found on blue metal roof-tops, on trumpet vines reaching across the expanse of bedroom windows, in wood-sheds where the family barbecue waits for the next party and where some fir logs are stacked, fragrant with pitch, the bin of kindling split from cedar shakes salvaged from the old roof an occasional trap for mice and lizards.

Food: mice, voles, shrews, chipmunks, pocket gophers, pikas, rabbits, bird eggs and nestlings, insects and even amphibians. They often eat every part of a mouse except the filled stomach, which may be excised with surgical precision and left on a rock.

Three blue eggs, almost ready to hatch, from the robin nest above the beam carrying the wisteria across the patio to the porch. And, oh, where was the tree frog that usually greets me at the hot-tub in the morning, the one I’ve moved (for its own good, I tell it, knowing, even if it doesn’t, that chemicals aren’t good for creatures with such porous skins, skins needed for their respiratory processes) – moved to an old bathtub pond, moved to a trolley of verdant kitchen herbs, to a bowl of water growing scouring rush, to a collection of potted roses with damp soil. (“These weasels are quick, lithe, and unrelenting in their pursuit of anything they can overpower.”) A small green tree frog, poised on the edge of a hot-tub, its pale grey throat pulsing?

Young: In April or May, the female gives birth to 4-12 (usually 6-9) blind, helpless young that weigh just 1.8 grams each. Their eyes open at five weeks, and soon thereafter they accompany the adults on hunts. About this time, a male has typically joined the family. In addition to training the young to hunt, he impregnates the mother and all her young females, which are sexually mature at two to three months. Young males do not mature until the next February or March – a reproductive strategy that reduces interbreeding among littermates.

I remember a tiny dead weasel, left at the sun-room door many years ago, how its tail was tipped with black, and its eyes were closed, as though sleeping.