Friday, April 11, 2008

Harlequin's Lust

Our Own Backyard Wild Kingdom

Becoming a huntress has changed how I see everything - right down to the scenes that play out just outside our kitchen window.

Boyfriend and I were hanging out in the house after work today when he noticed there was a cat tucked neatly under the wheelbarrow in our back yard. Before we converted our newest kittie, Giblet, to an indoor cat, it used to be one of her favorite places to hide too.

I ran to the window to see who our visitor was and quickly realized it was Giblet's sister, a great huntress we dubbed Harlequin because of the cool pattern on her face - she's a jet black cat with a white diamond nose, a white mustache and chin and white tuxedo front. We hadn't seen Harlequin much over the winter, so I was happy to see her there.

And she was happy to be there. For her, the wheelbarrow is strategically placed in the center of a triangle formed by a sugar pea trellis, the barrel composter and the corner of our shed. And that triangle happens to be the key hunting ground of a pair of phoebes nesting in the eaves of the shed.

The phoebes are an important part of our little backyard ecosystem - they eat the insects that might otherwise harm Boyfriend's fabulous garden. And they crap a lot, so we get free natural fertilizer from them.

Watching them is fun too, because they do crazy aerobatics to snatch insects out of midair.

They're normally very alert birds, particularly when they have young nearby. I've sat and watched one squawk like she was laying an ostrich egg at the mere presence of a scrub jay. But today, one of the phoebe parents was blithely flying around from trellis to composter to eaves, snapping up insects, feeding her chick and flying back to her post without ever noticing the dark danger that lurked beneath the wheelbarrow. In fact, several times, that bird landed right on the wheelbarrow handle, so close to that cat that it took my breath away.

By this time I was sitting on the kitchen counter, snapping what photos I could through the kitchen window (which, I noticed, could probably use cleaning more often). Boyfriend stood behind me apprehensively. We love the neighborhood cats, but we love the phoebes too.

Our bond with them began last summer, when we watched the phoebes tend to chicks in these very same eaves. One day, before the babes had left the nest, the mercury climbed to 108 degrees, and after that we didn't hear anymore chick noises. We were heartbroken.
A day later, I visited Boyfriend while he was tending the garden, and there on the ground not 6 feet in front of me was a ruffled little baby phoebe, all beak and no wings. "He's alive!" I shouted. We named him Louie and did what we could to get him up high where the cats might not notice him so quickly. We checked on him frequently - as did his parents - and in a few days he took his first flight. We beamed.

So, yeah, we love the phoebes, and we didn't really want to see Harlequin get this little guy today, even though we'd been equally proud to watch her grow up last summer and take out big squawky scrub jays all by herself.

As the phoebe flitted around this evening, we watched Harlequin's eyes follow the bird. I know how you feel, I know how you feel! I thought. How many times over the past two winters had I watched and waited patiently as ducks had circled, and circled and circled, never coming close enough to my blind for me to take a shot?

The phoebe landed again on a wheelbarrow handle. Up and away ... and then back to the handle again. This bird was begging to be catfood.
Fortunately for the phoebe, though, a sparrow dropped in right about then, right on the grass just feet in front of Harlequin. Would this be the huntress' chance? The bird was so close, easily in Harlequin's reach.

And now I could root for the cat. The phoebes are our friends, part of the permanent cast of our backyard, characters whose antics never bore us. But the sparrow? No bond whatsoever. Godspeed, Harlequin!

Harlequin was ready, her body pressed low into the grass, her eyes fixed intensely on the sparrow.
But it was not to be. The bird took off before Harlequin could launch.

Click to enlarge.

The drama over, Boyfriend headed out the back door to move a water hose. Harlequin, who's not nearly as friendly as she was last summer, bolted from her hiding place, slinking off through the garden toward the nearest hole in the fence.

The phoebe was safe. The sparrow was safe. The huntress had failed.

It was an interesting little microdrama, partly because I'm acutely aware of how hunting has changed my perceptions of the natural world around me. What once was invisible to me now commands my attention.

But even more interesting to me is how it's caused me to bond with animals in ways that seem contradictory. How can you be a killer of animals and a fond admirer of them - their defender, even - at the same time? How can I love my cats so much, and still be willing to slaughter their mammal and fowl kindred?

I was at a loss to explain this. Until a few days ago, that is. A book had arrived in the mail, "Woman the Hunter" by Mary Zeiss Stange, and just a couple chapters in, there it was: a lightning bolt.
But that will have to be the subject of another post. It's getting late, and my kitten is waiting expectantly for me to hit the sack so she can curl up against my chest, her paws stretched across my arms, purring ever so slightly whenever I shift.

© Holly A. Heyser 2008


Othmar Vohringer said...

Great article and photos. I too find that as a hunter I observe the little dramas in the back yard closer than perhaps the average person would do. Crows chasing squirrels, the hawk gliding in circles high in the sky, then like a torpedo dive toward the ground to catch a mouse or rabbit. Observing nature is what made me a better hunter by learning from the predators.

The Hunter's Wife said...

Holly, I loved the story and beautiful photos. I'm not sure I could've have watched it all play out. I probably would've chased the cat away.

NorCal Cazadora said...

That's the funny thing - I love the cat, and I love the birds. Cats eat birds, just like people eat meat. Some animals we save, some we sacrifice for our dinnertables.

In truth, Boyfriend was poised, ready to interrupt if it looked like the phoebe were in danger. We're terribly attached to anything raising babies in our yard.

But as a hunter, I really wanted to see if Harlequin would succeed, too.

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook said...

Great story, Grrrl! And yes, I would have stopped Harlequin from molesting our phoebes...

Garrett said...


By the by, I keep trying to see you at the CSUS paper when I am on the campus but you're never there. Avoiding me is so totally rude. ;)

NorCal Cazadora said...

Garrett, consider perhaps that YOU'RE on campus the wrong days. Here's a link to my office hours 'n' stuff. Generally, I hold court Tuesdays and Thursdays 1:30-6 p.m. You'll just have to take a number. Unless you bring baklava.

Blessed said...

I've watched the same scenario play out in our backyard - of course the hunter in my backyard was a dog - Our Brittany Spaniel used to catch the black birds that live in our bamboo patch and kill them - she left a lot of them as an offering at the back door, I didn't appreciate that....