14 May 2011

Patient Curiosity and Charming Snakes

Several months ago, I wrote about the dead packrat my daughters discovered in the yard. We buried it, and a month or so later, after the snow had melted and the ensuing mud had dried, they went to dig it up, hoping to see its bones. But the burial ground had obviously been disturbed, and nothing remained of the rat except a few tufts of grey fluff. Perhaps a desperate coyote had claimed it for a meal?

Soon after that, another morbid discovery was made in Arden’s horse stable after an especially heavy snow storm. She found a small owl, dead on a white drift. With her unwavering curiosity, she expressed her desire to see this creature’s bones, too. But she had learned her lesson with the rat, and didn’t want to trust these bones to the earth and to the coyotes. And so the owl rests on our porch, in an open cardboard box.

With help from Audubon, we identified it as a screech owl. Grampa John, a wildlife biologist, told Arden she ought to put some insects in the box to help the process of decomposition. Our UPS man, the most joyous man I’ve ever seen – really – was intrigued by the most unusual contents of this box on the porch, and asked many questions about where it came from, what we were doing with it, and why.

And still we wait. The owl appears almost the same as when she found it. The feathers are intact, and if anything has changed at all, it’s the weight. I suppose it is possible for the cold winter air to mummify a bird. The box has been blown about by the April winds, but the owl is still there, on the porch.

* * * * *

Last week, it was Dan who found wildlife in our yard – a gopher snake of more than five feet, sunning itself near the garage. We love these snakes, and think of them as good omens, as lore claims they keep the rattlers away. He captured it to show the girls, and each of us held the snake and let ourselves be charmed by its good-natured indulgence toward us. Ever since he spent a summer snake-sitting as a child, he’s kind of wanted a snake as a pet. But ever since I learned that some snake species can live for thirty or more years, I’ve said no. I can make a lifetime commitment to a person – and even to a fellow mammal – but I’m not sure I can make one to a snake.

The snake reappeared shortly after we’d released him into what remains of our woodpile. In the meantime, we’d noticed no shortage of squirrels around the house – which did not bode well for our budding garden. We’d trapped one squirrel but had seen more, and had also found the hole they called home.

Dan caught the snake again, mostly to see if he could make it interested in the squirrel hole. With one flick of its tongue, the snake must have sensed its potential meals, and it disappeared down the hole. Not long after, the girls, who had been playing outside, yelled to us that they’d seen two squirrels running as fast as could be.

During an evening game of hide-and-seek, the girls noticed the two squirrels again – dead now, victims of the snake’s appetite. It appeared that this was truly a case of the snake’s eyes being too big for his belly. We disposed of the poor critters, and man, we love our new pet snake.

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