“Chirp”! Along with the chirp there was a flutter of movement by my feet as I approached my front door. I looked down and saw a female house finch
scurry off to the other end of the front porch. She didn’t fly off but sat watching me out of one eye as I entered the house. I wondered if she was hurt or just seeking shelter from the next of a perpetual string of March snowstorms?
The answer became clear later that night when I took some recyclables to the garage. On my return to the house, I saw her huddled under the bottom row of siding in the corner of the porch. This was not a healthy bird. She hung out on the porch for a couple days. She didn’t appear to be injured so I assumed she must be sick and weak. It was just a little house finch, a semi-invasive species originally from the American Southwest that quickly populated the Eastern United States when caged birds were released into the wild. They are very common and even problematic at times (as is any invasive) but I still felt sorry for the little feathery lump on my porch. I knew if I tried to do anything to help I would just frighten her off. I also knew if she were sick she was going to die anyway. The best thing I could think of was to pile some leaves and grass in the corners of the porch to hopefully give the little creature a place to keep warm.
The finch hung out in my man-made bird nests for two more days. Early one morning on my way to start the garage heater prior to a session on my bike trainer, I found her little body laying next to a pile of grass and uneaten seed. I knew this was inevitable but still felt a little sad.
The finch reminded me of another day. I practically grew up in a canoe paddling the myriad of creeks and ponds behind our house. I could paddle for miles looking for turtles, frogs, and wildlife. I still return often in the fall to hunt ducks and deer. I go other times of the year to go birding, and just to enjoy the wildlife, solitude, and to reminisce about home.
One evening a few years ago I really needed to see my watery, childhood domain. There had been significant rainfall, and I knew there would be plenty of water to paddle wherever I wanted. I had driven down to southern New Jersey after work and set off in our old canoe quietly paddling along. As I prepared to turn toward home, a few ducks took flight quacking and squawking.
A night heron, annoyed by this invasion into his evening roost, croaked and flew off into the evening sky. I thought about how many times I had paddled these waters. Hundreds? Thousands? Instantly, I was transported to a winter day many years ago when I was just finishing tending and setting my muskrat traps using this same canoe. I remember turning toward home, my face red from the cold and finger tips chilled from being in the long rubber trapper’s gloves. As I pulled the canoe from the water to stow it for the night, I wondered what Mom was making for dinner? As I left the wooded alleyway where we kept the canoe, I would be greeted by the warm glow from the windows and a heavenly aroma of some earthy creation when I entered through the back door. Mom never thought of herself as a good cook but she really was and I always looked forward to her meals.
A small movement in the water snapped me from my reverie and back to the present. Tiny ripples emanated from a small, furry form floating on the surface of the water. The evening was perfectly still as there was no wind. The ripples weren’t caused by a fish or turtle investigating the body. The little nondescript rodent was still barely alive. It was clear there was not much life left, but the tiny animal struggled to keep it’s head above water. I paddled over and gently scooped it on to my paddle. I eased it closer to check things out.
I didn’t really recognize the species. It could have been a large vole or something similar but even as I settled the paddle on my lap, it put it’s head down, took a few last breaths and expired. I had pulled it out of the water at the very end. I studied the tiny form for a moment but dumping it back in the water didn’t seem right. It was a land creature and land is where it belonged. I placed the tiny body on the seat next to me and after paddling to the bank, nestled it under some dry grass. It would be, no doubt, found and eaten by something because that is the way of things but it somehow seemed more kind to leave it in a dry place.
There are few days that go by that I don’t see birds and animals. I always enjoy the liveliness and activity of the bird feeder or seeing the occasional groundhog along the road on my daily commute but never think much about individual animals except for those I have crossed paths with personally. I often wonder how that tiny rodent came to be in the water and what it’s days were like before that? Now I have the same thoughts about the porch bird. It almost made it through the harsh winter. How did it find the end right before the promise of spring? Did it die of old age? I wonder if it is the same finch that would settle into the wreath on our front door to roost each night at Christmas?
I have spent countless hours in a deer stand completely engrossed in the activities of a field mouse as it gathers seed and makes ready for winter. More than once I have climbed down from my predator perch and sprinkled the remnants of a granola bar outside the secret entrance to the den just to climb back up and watch the discovery. Typically, the mouse has an agenda. Peak out of the hole to check for safety, scurry along under leaves and sticks to the food source (usually seeds of some kind), and grab as much as possible before scrabbling back to the safety of the hole in the ground. The sudden appearance of my gift is often humorous. It is easy to get a bit anthropomorphic, but when the mouse stops and does a double take at granola on a trail it has used a hundred times today alone, one wonders if they thank some sort of rodent deity for this mana.
But I know better. Mother Nature is a cruel mistress. Life comes from death. Despite some Youtube videos to the contrary, only humans are truly capable of compassion and sympathy, both desirable traits which, along with empathy, we could all use a little more of.