True Tales from the Wild Heart Critterarium

Albert Vetere Lannon

© Copyright 2019 by Albert Vetere Lannon

Photo of a king snake.

Wild 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.

And 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.

Besides 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.

Kait 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.

One 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:

1. Come To Mama: There was an old bird nest in a big palo verde 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.

About 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 birdbrains!

2. For Gosh Snakes! A friend in town had neighbors who were 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.

One 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.

We 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.

One 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.

A 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 good cause.

3. Critters Cry Too: One morning Kaitlin and I were about to go 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 wait.

The 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.

That 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.

4. 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.

One 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.

So 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!

The 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 hand-scrubbing afterward.

5. 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.

There 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?

6. 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.

We 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.

There 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 bee-utifully.

7. 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.

Harris’s 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 a hoot.

8. Shake, Rattle and Roll: There are rattlesnakes in the desert, 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 run over.

Diamondbacks 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.

Now 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!

I’m 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.

9. 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.

So 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.

While 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!

10. Coyote Buffet...and Unintended Consequences: When we first came to Picture Rocks it seemed we were welcomed by a resident pair 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.

Last 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.

I 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.

Once 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.

This 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. I 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.

And, 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 d.e.a.d.

I 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.

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