Tales from the Wild Heart Critterarium
Albert Vetere Lannon
Copyright 2019 by Albert Vetere Lannon
Heart Ranch. That’s what my mate Kaitlin and I call the
desert acre-and-a-quarter west of Tucson we’ve lived on the
past 15 years. The area is called Picture Rocks because of the
ancient petroglyphs in the mountains on either side of the Avra
Valley. It’s a place where working-class and retired people who
could not afford to live in town found land to move mobile homes onto
in the 1970s. We live in a well-taken-care-of double-wide three
bedroom manufactured home set half-way back on the land. The front
half is pretty much open natural desert; the back half is fenced,
with huge mesquite trees, palo verde trees of varying sizes, and lots
of native and non- plants and flowers that Kaitlin tends to maintain
our little oasis.
an oasis it is, not just for Gus, our old dog, or the five desert
tortoises, and Blinkyn, the three-toed box turtle Kaitlin brought
from California, we’ve cared for, but also for over 20 species
of birds, including roadrunners, great horned and elf owls, Harris’s
and Cooper’s hawks, cardinals, Gambel’s quail, doves,
sparrows, Gila woodpeckers, ruby-throated and Anna’s
hummingbirds, and visitors you may never have heard of like
phainopeplas and pyrrhuloxias, along with cactus wrens and
crazy-eyed, whistling, curved-bill thrashers. With Saguaro National
Park on one side of our little community, State Trust land and the
Central Arizona Project canal on two sides, there are lots of
critters, wild and domestic, all around us.
the birds, we’ve counted seven species of lizards; five of
snakes, including visiting western diamondback rattlers; seven
species of mammals – not counting the mountain lion reported on
our road a few years back; three kinds of toads; and too many bugs to
count. Now I know insects have a short life span, but there is a
tiny white gnat that seems to come to say “hello” when I
sit in the shade out front to read.... And when I sit out there to
read the hummingbirds come to the feeder by the porch, knowing that
my presence will keep them safe from attack by that pesky Cooper’s
hawk who is so good at low-fly zig-zagging in pursuit of prey.
has always been a country girl, but I’ve always been a city
boy. When we got together, the transition was easy for her, and,
amazingly, for me as well. I’ve gone out TO nature all my
life, and now I got to live IN nature, and to learn so much and see
amazing things, to feel part f something larger than myself. Summers
are brutal, and we couldn’t do it without air conditioning, and
that reminds us to keep water dishes full for the resident and
visiting critters, and to make sure we have a supply of wild bird
seed at the ready.
of my great pleasures living here was sleeping outside on a patio
futon over half the year. Each night, sometimes when the moon rose,
sometimes purely at random, there would be a coyote jamboree. One
would lift its voice and in a moment dozens of others would join in
song. And when they quieted down there would be the gentle hooting
of great horned owls on the hunt. Cancer and chemotherapy have made
my nights too erratic to sleep outside now, and I miss that peace,
that connection with the natural world we live in. But, in our
retired years at Wild Heart Ranch I’ve witnessed some wonderful
things, like cottontail bunnies jumping straight up high in the air
as part of a courting ritual. Here are some of their stories:
Come To Mama:
There was an old bird nest in a big
tree next to our house and a cactus wren moved in to lay eggs and
raise her family. One of the babies fell out of the nest. It had
feathers and could hop around, but couldn’t yet fly. Mama Wren
was quite upset and vocal about it. Ignoring the myth that humans
can’t touch baby birds I easily caught the little wren and
placed it carefully back in the nest. Mama Wren watched me intently.
a week later Junior fell out of the nest again and was hopping around
while Mama fluttered frantically. I went to capture Junior, but he
was older and faster now and disappeared into some bushes before I
could catch him. (I’m assuming from his mischievousness it was
a him.) I couldn’t find him. Suddenly Mama Wren flew over and
perched on a branch right over her errant offspring and let out a
squawk to get my attention. I caught Junior and placed him back in
the nest while MamaWren watched quietly. And we call them
Snakes! A friend in town had neighbors
moving and had no place to put their large outdoor bird cage with a
pair of finches living in it. They ended up on our back patio and
the birds settled in. Soon there were eggs and then there were six
finches in the cage.
morning I came out and there were just two male finches in the cage.
But there was a 2-1/2-foot common king snake in the nest with four
bulges in his belly. Oh well, that’s the way of the wild,
critters eating critters, so nothing to get upset about. I removed
the king snake – they are usually gentle if not frightened –
gave him a lecture and turned him loose in a back corner of our land.
saw the king snake several times over the summer, once swallowing a
round-tailed ground squirrel, or out hunting. King snakes eat
rodents, birds, lizards, and other snakes, include rattlers. Meanwhile
our two remaining finches were lonely, so we bought two
females to set up housekeeping. Lovebirds.
morning I came out and our king snake was on the edge of the patio
heading straight for the finch cage. I picked him up and repeated
The Lecture and set him loose again. When I returned to the patio
there was his mate climbing up the finch cage. Didn’t know
about her! I grabbed her, gave her The Lecture, and turned her loose
back with her mate.
few weeks later someone got into the cage, ate two finches, and got
back out. Oh well, it’s the way nature balances. But the next
summer a baby king snake, about eight inches long and the spitting
image of Dad, was prowling around, looking for bugs to eat. I saw it
again the next summer, growing and healthy. The finches went to a
Critters Cry Too: One morning Kaitlin and I were about to
town on errands and found a female great horned owl with a shattered
wing sitting on a box next to our swamp cooler. Unable to fly, we
had no idea how she got over five-foot chain link fences to reach
that spot. We got her into a box pretty easily, made some calls and
located a nearby rehab facility, and drove her there. Errands could
owl had been shot, the vet said, and the wing could not be saved. She
estimated from the maggots that it happened about three days
before. We gave the raptor water before the vet amputated the wing
and cleaned up the wound. It was against the law for us to keep her
(we had this empty big bird cage!) and the vet hoped she would end up
in an educational institution and not be euthanized.
evening a great horned owl, likely her mate, sat on the branch of a
dead tree outside the fence overlooking the spot where we found the
wounded raptor. He was hooting gently. Crying for his lost love. It was
the saddest sound I’ve ever heard.
Toads in a Hole: When the summer
monsoon storms hit and Wild
Heart gets drenched, an amazing thing happens. Dozens of toads –
Couch’s spadefoots, Mexican greens, maybe others – dig up
out of their self-imposed tombs and begin croaking madly, looking for
love. They join the big Sonoran Desert toads who hide in holes
year-round in a summer mating frenzy.
night two spadefoots were calling each other, one from our little
fish pond to the other outside the fence in a puddle. By morning the
puddle-jumper had made it to the pond, the male’s arms around
the female, clusters of fertilized eggs floating in the pond (and
being nibbled at by the two goldfish). Monsoon rains are very hit
and miss, in small but intense storm cells, and puddles dry up
quickly in summer’s heat.
Night One, the eggs are extruded and fertilized. Night Two the
tadpoles hatch. By Night Four or Five, as the puddles shrink away,
the tadpoles do a rapid metamorphosis into fingernail size toads,
often still with tails. Using the digging spur on their hind legs,
they dig down into the moist ground to wait for the next storm. While
doing that they eat a lot of bugs, including mosquitoes, and
anything that eats mosquitoes is our friend!
Sonoran Desert toad, formerly known as the Colorado River toad, is
different. It’s big and will eat lizards, small rodents and
birds, as well as insects. All toads are capable of releasing toxic
venom through their skin and dogs have died fighting with the big
amphibians. If a dog has held a toad in its mouth that mouth needs
to be hosed out quickly. And any toad handling requires a good
Leapin’ Lizards: Spring brings a
hatching of baby lizards
– desert whiptails, desert spiny lizards, and the oh-so-cute
little zebra-tailed lizards. Night-prowling geckos show up later. Many
lizards avoid being eaten by losing their tails, which will
wriggle and keep the predator’s attention while the lizard gets
away. The zebra-tails seem to make a big display out of waving that
black-and-white striped tail, and to watch a hatchling in action is
to redefine the word “cute.” The regal horned lizard –
think of a pancake with thorns – doesn’t lose its tail. Facing
predators like roadrunners it squirts drops of blood from the
corners of its eyes, hoping to startle the hunter long enough for the
reptile to get away.
is a lizard in Southeast Asia called the Flying Lizard. It doesn’t
really fly but can extend its ribs to stretch folds of skin on its
sides so it can glide for a good distance. I was watching a 14-inch
desert iguana climbing up a creosote bush. The foliage thinned out,
the lizard lost its balance and fell. It extended its legs out,
stretching the skin to form a bit of a parachute to cushion its fall.
On the ground, unfazed, it continued its quest for greens to munch
on. Who knew?
Bee Cool! Our next door neighbor came
over in a panic one
spring day. They had pretty much removed all the plant life from
their property and now hundreds, maybe thousands, of bugs were
emerging from tiny holes in the ground. We went over to see what was
up, and it was an explosion of solitary bees, tiny things that grow
from eggs to larvae to pupae in holes in the ground until spring
calls them out as full-grown bees. Only the females have a weak
sting, and only use it if roughhoused.
have several kinds of bees living at Wild Heart, including the big
black fearsome-looking carpenter bee, which doesn’t sting, and
honey bees from a neighbor’s hives coming over for a drink from
the water dishes we put out. They’ve never been a problem,
even when some started a hive in some empty boxes in our carport. Our
beekeeper neighbor, Joseph, simply uncovered the hive and within
a day or so they had all gone home.
are, however, “killer bees” in the area. Once, on an
archaeology project, a bee got tangled in my shirt sleeve and stung
me. I reflexively slapped it, and within a minute or two the entire
hive roared overhead. It sounded like a truck about to run me over,
but fortunately, they did not drop down or I would have been in deep
doo-doo. I like the Wild Heart bees better; we get along
Turf War! About six a.m. one morning
there was a godawful
screeching coming from the big mesquite tree we call Grandfather just
west of our house. I went to investigate. Two Harris’s hawks
were loudly berating a great horned owl who just blinked and ignored
them. Both raptors share the same hunting ground, the owls by night
and the hawks by day. This owl, for whatever reason (maybe a nap?)
had decided to stay past sun-up, and the hawks were really mad! But
gosh knows, there are plenty of ground squirrels, pack rats, doves
and lizards for all of them.
hawks are the only raptors that hunt in packs, with the alpha female
always taking the highest perch. A family of five lived one road
south of us and hunted our space for a good while, then moved on. The
owls, which seem to hunt in pairs, are still around. They’re
Shake, Rattle and Roll: There are
rattlesnakes in the
mostly out hunting at dusk when the summer temperatures moderate.
Generally, if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother
you. We’ve seen two species at Wild Heart, a little sidewinder
living in a rodent hole by our dirt road, and the larger western
diamondback. The sidewinder was a bit out of its normal range, and
we had to move it off the road several times to keep it from getting
showed up in cool resting places, like our tortoise burrows,
reminding us to never put your hands or feet where you can’t
see. Or to sit on a rock or log without checking around it.
Occasionally one prowled at night – probably more than
occasionally, but we were never aware of them. One night, however,
Gus went nuts on the patio, barking like crazy. A three-foot western
diamondback was faced off with the dog, rattling furiously and
looking very unhappy. It looked scared and wanting to get away. We
brought Gus inside and I set out to move the snake.
please understand, I have been a snake person, a “herper”
in today’s parlance. I collected and kept snakes as a teenager
in New York’s Lower East Side, spent a summer volunteering at
the Staten Island Zoo reptile house, and worked for a year-and-a-half
at the Bronx Zoo reptile house until tests showed me highly allergic
to horse serum-based anti-venom. The “cure” might kill
me faster than the bite! But I knew how to handle rattlers and had
moved several over the years in Picture Rocks. Right? Right!
older now, slower now, and the snake was heat-charged and scared. I
approached it with trash-grabber tongs and tried to grab it near the
head. It twisted out of the tongs and rushed past me, went right
over my foot, to back up under the patio stairs and rattle furiously. I
decided this was beyond my current pay grade and we called the
Picture Rocks Fire Department, which has a handy snake-removal
service. They caught the diamondback with long metal tongs, boxed
it, and took it out to the desert to release. We thanked them
profusely and I resolved to not try that ever again. I was lucky
this time, and might not be the next. And there will be a next.
Mother and Child: Javelinas are not wild pigs; they are
classified as peccaries, but the male is quite boar-like, with tusks,
and they all have sharp cloven hooves to carry their 40-60 pound
bodies around. Javelinas, usually in small herds, are not the
brightest kids on the block and if frightened, are as likely to run
at you than away from you. And never get between a mother and her
baby! We don’t usually see them in my neighborhood because of
the large number of large and loud dogs our neighbors keep.
it was a surprise when Kaitlin went out to tend the flowers in front
of the house one morning and found a dug-up nest that only a javelina
could make. We looked around and finally spotted them – a
mother and a little nursing baby. We were careful not to scare them
while we tried to figure out what to do. We feared that if left on
the loose some neighbor might shoot them, and we came up with a plan
to direct them between fences to a vacant acre behind Wild Heart that
would lead to State Trust land where they would not be bothered.
setting the passageway up I came across them in the shade under an
oleander bush. The baby was nursing and Mom looked at me from behind
a fence, maybe ten feet away, without fear or anger. Not to
anthropomorphize too much, but it was almost like she knew we were a
safe haven. They moved on before I could get my plan into operation,
and we’ve never seen them again. Those javelina babies are
really cute...but then they grow up!
Coyote Buffet...and Unintended Consequences: When
to Picture Rocks it seemed we were welcomed by a
of Northern cardinals who had offspring. Kaitlin, who likes to name
things, called them Claudio and Carlotta, and they and their
offspring were regulars at the bird feeders, and singing in the trees
when we sat on the porch for veranda time. They were like family.
winter’s rains made for a lush spring, with a good wildflower
bloom along the roadways. That, in turn, meant an explosion of
round-tailed ground squirrels. Which is okay, except that when the
plants dry up the rodents often burrow under the house and chew on
electrical wiring. So I decided to do a little population control.
There were not enough owls, hawks, snakes or other predators to keep
things right-sized. I didn’t want to use poison as that would
pollute the ecosystem far beyond the immediate targets.
tried gas bombs in their burrows. Some may have worked, but many
were just kicked out. So I bought some old-fashioned rat traps,
baited them with peanut butter, and set them out near rodent
encampments. And caught a fair number the first days. I wrapped the
bodies in a plastic bag and buried it deep (so I thought) out front,
only to find it dug up in the morning, the plastic torn and the
ground squirrels gone. Wandering neighbor dogs, I assumed.
I found a large bull snake trying to eat a dead ground squirrel but
unable to get around the trap, so I helped it out. But the next day
I found about half the dozen traps upside down, sprung and empty, and
some traps even missing. A clue was a rodent tail next to a sprung
trap, so I carefully searched the front half of Wild Heart...and
found a new coyote den dug out under a sprawling staghorn cholla
cactus patch. I had inadvertently set up a coyote buffet! And that
was okay with me.
winter there was even more rain, more wildflowers, more plants, and
more round-tailed ground squirrels, so I set out the remaining traps.
And then we had some veranda time and Claudio (or Claudio the third
or fourth) sat in a nearby tree singing his heart out. In the
morning I checked the traps, and...there was Claudio.
had killed Claudio! I held his body and sobbed as I don’t ever
remember crying before. Kait held me, then buried the bird next to
three of our cats, Sirah, Ramón and Spyboy, who had passed on
years before. She suggested I write a poem for Claudio and bury it
in his grave, and I did.
almost miraculously, two days later sitting, still depressed, on the
veranda, a new male cardinal landed on Claudio’s singing spot
and trilled at us. My heart lifted and I knew that was the end of
traps, and that when I hear about “unintended consequences”
or “collateral damage” from our wars around the globe on
the news, those are just multi-syllabic euphemisms for innocents now
cannot bring Claudio back from the grave, but I can keep the bird
feeders and water dishes filled and run off stray cats that come
prowling, and I can work for peace at our borders and in our wider
world beyond Wild Heart Ranch. And I do.
of the message
won't know where to send it.)
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