For the birds

Close-up of a male great-tailed grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus) standing on the pier (2008_12_07_001566)

I had a dream once.  For the birds, I might add.

I dreamed I discovered a new species of warm-weather penguin.  They were native to North America.  And the reason they had gone unnoticed until now was because they existed in only one place: my patio.

And since my patio is private, the penguins had been left to their own devices.

But how had I not seen them before now?  Well, in the dream my patio was a veritable jungle, with grass growing directly from the smooth concrete floor, tree branches sprouting from the fence railing and joists and latticework, and all manner of ivy and understory growth filling the area.

Yet it wasn’t just the penguins that I discovered.  No, it was much better than that.

In the dream, I rolled over in bed and looked out the windows that line the wall.  This is not at all unusual in the real world as it’s something I do all the time.

Nevertheless, the scene outside the windows was unfamiliar, all green and growing and wild, although in the dream this seemed perfectly normal, and as I watched, much to my delighted shock, a penguin hopped up from behind tall grass and settled near the window into what was no doubt a nest.  (In truth, in the dream I seemed not to notice what brought the penguin to the window, although I knew inherently that it was a nest.)

And as I watched the bird and became increasingly excited, somehow knowing this was a new species, a most unusual thing occurred—as if seeing a penguin on my patio in the middle of Dallas, TX, was not already unusual.

The penguin settled into its nest even as a capuchin monkey knelt down beside it and began petting it.

So you see, beyond the discovery of this new penguin species living right here in Dallas—right here on my patio—my dream also included the discovery of a heretofore unknown colony of North American capuchin monkeys.

But it gets better!  These discoveries, as marvelous as they seem, were made even more miraculous by the apparently unusual friendship between the two species.  A relationship not seen anywhere else on the planet.  Except on my patio.

And henceforth, my patio was always surrounded by observers and explorers, all interested in these magnificent discoveries and whatever other secrets the jungle of my patio might yet contain.

Most agreeable to me was that I never had to get out of bed to make any of the discoveries, nor to report them, nor to realize how these finds brought all manner of curious people and scientific types right to my home.  In point of fact, all this happened without me ever having to leave the comfort of my own bed.

Now, I wonder what Freud would say about all this…

A Male wood duck (Aix sponsa) standing posing on the lakeshore at sunset (2009_04_10_014839)

— — — — — — — — — —


  1. Male great-tailed grackle (Quiscalus mexicanus)
  2. Male wood duck (Aix sponsa)


I watch a large fly buzz past my head and disappear into the kitchen as I close the garage door.  Oh boy, I think to myself.  Even as Logical Me says “He’s dead,” Memory Me worries for the mayhem to follow, for Kazon becomes an ebony tornado of mass destruction when flying things enter our home.  And because at this moment it is Memory Me who holds sway over the world, I quickly shut the door and hurry through the kitchen toward the office where I can hear the winged interloper inexpertly bouncing around the bright windows.

Back in 2001 or 2002, Derek asked me a question to which I offered only a mocking look in answer.  It was one of those questions that lives its life somewhere below rhetoric and more in the realm of warranted mirthful derision, for the silliness of the thing fails to strike us until after the final question mark is enunciated, the kind of question we can’t help but laugh at ourselves for asking—but only after we ask it, a synaptic misfire of the humorous kind.  “Do you know what Kazon does when you leave?” he had asked.  It seemed self-evident that, no, in fact, I did not and could not know what Kazon did when I left since, in point of fact, my leaving meant I was no longer there to see what Kazon did.  After we both enjoyed a chuckle at the inanity of it, Derek mastered all his powers of self-image repair and began again: “Let me tell you what Kazon does when you leave.”

The fly weaves between the blinds and circles above the desk.  I see it as I cross the room, and I watch it smack into the blinds before it navigates between them and back to the sunlit glass.  Without realizing what I’m doing, my eyes dart about watching for the oncoming mayhem, watching for Kazon to leap into action as his hunter instincts and large body set to work on the task of dispatching this delightfully agile prey.  And destroying the house in the process.

“Within a minute or two after you leave,” Derek said, “Kazon goes and sits in front of the door.  He just sits and stares at the door.  I’ve tried calling him away sometimes, but he won’t move.  After he sits there a minute or two, he starts crying.  It’s so mournful and empty.  It’s not a cliché to assume he feels like he just lost his whole life and that he knows he’ll never see you again.  He’ll sit there lamenting for up to half an hour.  Sometimes, if I call to him enough, he’ll come and get some attention, but he won’t stay.  The moment I stop petting him or when he realizes he’s been away from the door too long, he goes back to his vigil and starts crying again.  Like I said, he sits there a while, probably longer than is healthy.”

al-Zill notices the fly and gives chase when the insect performs a quick aerial inspection of the darker living room.  There is a brief leap-turn-twist-reach-grab maneuver involved, but the fly escapes back to the office.  al-Zill follows with serious intent, and I begin to wonder if he intends somehow to replace Kazon in this regard, becoming the danger to house and home when a flitting critter invades.  But Memory Me still rules, so I accept al-Zill’s role as temporary and continue waiting for Kazon to hear the fly and come running.

“Eventually he stops crying, but he stays at the door for a while longer,” Derek continued.  “After a while, he slinks around from room to room.  I’m pretty sure he’s looking for you.  The whole time he looks like he’s been beaten, his head hanging low, his tail held just above the floor.  And after the whole place is searched, he winds up on your pillow or your desk or your chair—someplace where you spend enough time—and he curls up and takes a nap.  If I move him—and believe me, I’ve tried because I feel so bad for him—he just goes back to where I moved him from.  That seems as close to you as he can be, and he needs it.  There’s no doubt about that.”

al-Zill sits atop the desk and watches the fly buzz in the window.  The cat’s eyes are intent, moving only to follow the insect’s movements, yet he doesn’t leap into the window, doesn’t knock books and computers and lamps and other civilized artifacts from the desk to the floor, doesn’t threaten to rip the  blinds from the wall, doesn’t fling himself with utter and blind intent through the air with hope of catching the fly, and all no matter who or what gets in the way, a cat blind to everything except the chase.  al-Zill watches and waits, something Kazon would never do.  Only at that thought do I again wonder why Kazon hasn’t discovered the fly and hasn’t begun his startling chaotic pursuit, and I realize as I wonder such a thing that Kazon is gone, that he won’t be chasing flies again, he won’t be wiping clean the desk and counters with reckless abandon, that he won’t all but rip the blinds from the windows as he focuses his entire existence on capturing a fly, that he won’t endanger the lives of others as he narrows his whole world into a single predator-prey interaction.

“When he wakes up from his nap,” Derek finished, “he eats and plays and comes for affection and acts like a normal cat, acts like you expect him to act.  But it’s obvious while he does that that something’s wrong.  You can look at him and see that his spirit is only half in what he’s doing.  You can tell he’s just going through the motions.  It’s so heartbreaking because, honestly, I think at that point he’s resolved himself to the fact that you’re never coming back, that he’s lost you, and the very idea of it has broken him.  I really don’t think he could live without you.  Me, sure he could lose me, although he’d miss me, but I have no deception in my head that he wouldn’t survive.  But you…”  Here Derek shook his head with an emotional realization of what he needed to say.  Then: “That’s a whole different story.  He’d die without you.  Sentimental though it sounds, I know it’s true.  Because once he’s done with  his halfhearted play or eating or litter box duties or whatever, he goes back to the door, starts in with the crying again, and the whole cycle repeats.  Until you come home.”

Derek knew no such thing took place while he was gone.  For reasons that only became clear to me by the end of his description of Kazon’s activities, he’d asked me previously if the cats acted strangely while he was gone.  Since by then he traveled frequently on business, it seemed an innocent question at the time.  In retrospect, I think he was weighing what he saw when I was gone against what I saw when he was gone.  And if he ever felt hurt by the differences in behavior, he never showed it, nor would he have, for he loved the cats and understood his growing travel schedule meant they spent more time with me than with him.  He also knew, in some way and for reasons we never comprehended, that the cats had always been closer to me than to him.

The fly still buzzing and al-Zill still watching it, Memory Me gives way, finally succumbs to the truth Logical Me had spoken—”He’s dead.”—and that’s when Philosophical Me moves in and reminds all of us that loss, though difficult, is never more painful than when in the grip of habit, for habits are hard to break and come of their own volition, and with them they bring expectations.  In this case, the habit is watching the fly and waiting, and the expectation is Kazon.  Though I always fear for the damage he will cause when chasing flying insects in the house, it was delightful to watch, fun, vigorous, and Kazon always displayed the most intent focus he could muster.  All of which Feeling Me knows, which is why his only response to the fly was to sit back and weep.

Finally Humane Me moves us to capture the fly and free it back to the outside world.  On the way, fly buzzing madly in my hand, I notice little more than the absence of Kazon leaping to my shoulders or climbing my leg in an attempt to get the neat toy wrapped in my fist, the self-propelled toy just large enough to see and chase yet small enough to be fast and difficult to capture.  Even as I set the fly loose out the door, I think of how empty the whole experience has been, and how damnable habits are when coupled with loss.

And I also think about what Derek said so many years ago: he felt certain Kazon could never live without me.  Since we essentially are immortal compared to our pets, at least I know he never had to try.

A desolation called Texas

A fox squirrel (Sciurus niger) standing on a fallen log (20080314_02632)

The world is brown now, and not a good brown, not a rich brown, not an earthen tone that looks warm against the skin and tastes good upon the eyes.  No, this is the brown of death, of drought, of crippling heat, of climatic records driven to the brink of extinction, then cast over the precipice of what was.

It started with drought, that’s all, the last appreciable rain falling in early September when the remnants of Hurricane Hermine came through, what with her tornadoes and floods and hail and wind.  But after that?  Nothing worth talking about.  In fact, what little rain came after just made it worse.

The few snow and ice storms we had helped get winter grasses started, but then the drought killed them and left dry kindling in their place, more dry kindling than we already had, more fuel for fires that swept the state, killing some, maiming others, knocking down home and hearth from border to border.

And the spring storm season gave us a few tornadoes, more lightning than the parched state needed, and a little rain here and there, just enough to start the spring growing season before the drought killed that smidgen of greenery, so more fuel for the fires, more death, more brown.

Burn bans spread almost as quickly as the fires did, crimson warnings seeping from major wounds in the map of Texas and spreading, oozing, spilling in every direction, all the while chasing the flames that gushed across the landscape.  And still no rain.

Then summer blasted in on the heels of a spring that grew hot, too hot, and summer’s been hotter, really hot, splitting the skin of weather records and pouring salt in the open wounds of worry.

A black and yellow mud dauber (Sceliphron caementarium) building a nest (20080708_09205)

Insects are scarce, something people have noticed since we’ve had no mosquito problems for quite some time, a surprising fact since we always have mosquito problems, even in winter if the day is warm enough.  And people noticed there are no moths around outside lights at night, and that surprises folks because, like mosquitoes, we always have moths and butterflies, as long as the day is warm enough.

I found the majority of wasp and bee nests have failed, many abandoned before they were completed, even in the nesting box I built early this year on a sleepless night, the majority of the abandoned attempts losing their queens over a single two-day period when temperatures soared and refused to fall, and climbing steadily higher since.  I’ve seen more dead insects than live ones and so few spiders that it feels like a famine of the sort.

A common whitetail (Plathemis lydia) resting on parched earth (20080712_09363)

Dragonflies and damselflies, at least the few that can be found, spend too much time on dead plants and parched earth, some landing never to move again, most in fact, and detritivores like millipedes and isopods have been no-shows this year, much like the fungi season last autumn and again this spring, complete no-shows, not even vain attempts to keep up appearances.

Ants venture out in the coolness of morning, but around dawn is the only time to see them since it’s too hot most of the day and night, and I’ve seen only a few katydids and grasshoppers, something that really put the halt on the digger wasps who built nests only to abandon them due to lack of food for their young.

A male house sparrow (Passer domesticus) perched in the shade of a bush (20081020_13873)

Though some might find it kin to karma, house sparrow numbers have declined, the flock that’s lived around my home for decades having diminished until it’s just a whisper, no more than a quarter its normal size for as long as I’ve lived here, and like them most birds are suffering, both young and old, both native and not so native, because when the bottom of the food chain suffers like this, the effects ripple along the links making sure everyone suffers.

Armadillos have been brazen and apparent, seen almost every morning before the sun grows too high and the day too hot, and their signs outside my patio have become almost desperate, each morning revealing more digging and destruction as they hunt for anything edible, sometimes digging deep and sometimes digging gaping holes and sometimes digging trails to follow the ants who won’t venture topside except when absolutely necessary.

A purple martin (Progne subis) chick hiding in the grass after leaving the nest early to escape the heat (2009_06_29_025000)

Three great purple martin roosts form a triangle around the metroplex, their enormous sizes making them oft watched radar regulars at the National Weather Service, but this year the numbers are down, way down, with most nests failing because young were too hot, too hungry, too thirsty, too weak, many abandoning the nest houses to escape the heat, only to be exposed to direct sun and predators without parents to help them.  I can’t count the number of unready young who fledged before becoming fledglings.

House finches, mockingbirds and mourning doves nested in the tree outside my patio, and all three species failed to fledge young, the mourning doves having tried twice before giving up, and I felt surprise seeing the mockingbirds bringing mostly fruit to the one hatchling they had who only lived a few days and spent most of that time crying loudly as though the same old berries weren’t cutting it and the few insects offered were just a painful tease.

Bats and common nighthawks vanished almost as quickly as they appeared this year, what with the nights empty and lights left lonely for the insect dancers who once upon a time filled their luminance with endless performances, but not this year, and so dawns and dusks are empty of the night flyers who have never been absent as long as I can remember, and the lights long for the moths and beetles and other bright lives who once filled the void with shining lines traced on dark backgrounds.

So now the whole state is in pain, climatologists saying the need here is more than 15 inches of rain just to get to a comfortable place, and saying it’s not going to get better any time soon, and the Forest Service saying all of Texas is a tinderbox ready to burst into flame, and farmers in the same area having long ago given up hope for crops of cotton and wheat and such, and ranchers culling herds because there’s not enough water and not enough grass and hay costs too much since it has to be shipped into the state since none of the Texas hay crops grew into anything more than fodder for wildfires.

Secretly like everyone else in the state, residents wish for an energetic hurricane season with multiple strikes on the Lone Star State, drenching rains being the primary need with other considerations becoming less than secondary, but like the storm seasons of last autumn and this spring, hurricane season is looking less promising for Texas, and the drought goes on and surpasses the Dust Bowl in severity and blows away other drought records like they were so much childish scribbling, and the heat goes on and begins a serious effort to challenge the heat wave of 1980, the heat wave to end all heat waves for the 40+ years I’ve lived here, and all the while we miss the rain, and relief from the heat, and the normalcy of nature, all of which now seem so far removed and so imaginary as to be from another world.

As we head into the season for migrations, both butterflies and birds alike, I worry what these creatures will find when they reach this place, for even now the hour is late, and there is no chance for recovery before they begin passing through, and what they’ll find here is a growing desolation, dry and parched land with no plants and no insects and no relief from unrelenting heat.  This place has become the kind of miserable that’s felt from the lowest to the highest, from the least to the most, and we’re all suffering, and waiting for change, and watching the sky, the forecasts, the prognostications, and wondering how bad it can really get since no one’s willing to say it can’t get any worse, because we know it can, and it has, and there’s no reason to think it won’t if that’s to be the way of things.

— — — — — — — — — —


  1. Fox squirrel (a.k.a. eastern fox squirrel, stump-eared squirrel, raccoon squirrel or monkey-faced squirrel; Sciurus niger)
  2. Black and yellow mud dauber (a.k.a. mud wasp; Sceliphron caementarium)
  3. Common whitetail (Plathemis lydia)
  4. House sparrow (Passer domesticus)
  5. Purple martin (Progne subis)