Living in the middle of Atlanta, one doesn’t expect many genuine wildlife encounters. I’ve had a few–I almost put my hand on an opossum one night on the deck. It was so dark that I didn’t see it resting on the railing. One morning, an opossum ambled across the front walk right past my wife as if he owned the place. He strode by leisurely, no panic or running; it would not have been at all shocking had he said good morning.
Of course, there are squirrels. There are only a few now, but once, when there were two 60+ feet tall pecan trees on either side of the house, we lived in a squirrel colony. And they made that fact known. I was not allowed to grow anything on the deck. Within a few days of planting something, the squirrels would dig it up. The most in-your-face thing they ever did was ruin my chives.
I had a set of chive plants in a decorative container with a ceramic tile nameplate, and one day a squirrel climbed in and proceeded to wallow among the plants on its back. Legs and arms at compass points, it furiously rubbed away at my plants. It didn’t eat them or dig them up, just used them to scratch its back, as if to make a point. When I, standing at the kitchen door, yelled at the squirrel, it had the nerve to look me in the eye and NOT run. It was only when I yanked open the door that it ran, leaving my chives squashed and mangled. After that summer, I gave up on ever growing anything on the deck. That was five or six years ago. The balance of power moved back in my favor when the new neighbors arrived—a Barred Owl, a Broad-winged Hawk, and a Red-tailed hawk.
The owl was first. We began to hear its hooting at night, usually around 10 PM. Initially, the hooting simply heralded the deepening night. But one night, on the roof of the house next door, there was a sudden outburst of terrified screeches and flapping wings, a brief dragging sound, then silence. Owl 1; squirrel 0.
I finally saw the owl two winters ago. It was raining heavily one night, and the power went out. I went out front to see if the power was out on the entire street. Hearing a noise, I looked up, and there, sitting on a power line was our owl!!! It stared at me for a few seconds, then gracefully took off. Wonderful! (I thanked her for helping with the squirrels.)
I’ve only seen the Broad-winged Hawk twice, even though it built a nest in the sweet gum tree next door. One time it was sitting quietly on a branch. The other time was a scene from a nature documentary. We have a mulberry tree in back where squirrels and bluebirds hang out all summer. On this eventful day, the hawk spotted the squirrel on the ground and went after it. The squirrel quickly jumped on the trunk of the mulberry tree and started to run up the tree. I thought the hawk would call it a day—not a chance. The squirrel ran up the trunk while going around it in a screw pattern. The hawk, not giving up, flapping and hovering, followed the squirrel up the trunk while moving laterally and vertically at the same time—matching the squirrel’s screw pattern. It was a fascinating life-or-death game. I had no idea hawks could fly in like that. I knew they could dive fast but never considered them to be agile flyers. The squirrel won, though.
The Red-tailed Hawk showed up last. It was much larger than the Broad-winged hawk, about 24 inches tall. It built a nest midway up my neighbor’s pecan tree, maybe 40 feet from our bedroom window. One day the hawk set up a surveillance post on our deck. It sat there for about half an hour, patiently surveying the backyard. I watched him closely and even tapped gently on the kitchen window to get his attention. He looked at me through the window for about 30 seconds before deciding I wasn’t a threat. After watching him for about 10 minutes, I noticed he was looking intensely at the hosta garden. I moved to the breakfast room where I could see the hostas, but never saw anything unusual. By this time, I had put my phone down to lean closer to the window for a better view of the hostas. Suddenly, the hawk flapped its wings once and sailed quietly directly into the large blue angel hosta. Immediately, there was a flurry of activity and shrill screeches, then silence again. The blue angel hosta grows to be about three and a half feet high and six to seven feet across, so I could not see what was in its talons. But, now feeling sorry for the squirrels, I looked away, and when I looked back, the hawk was gone.
Both pecan trees are gone now. The last pecan tree, the one with the hawk’s nest, was removed three years ago to build a new house. We had already cut down our pecan tree because it was encroaching on our home’s foundation. Now, only a few squirrels and chipmunks remain–a reasonable number–and I haven’t seen an opossum in 10 years. I occasionally hear the owl and cannot remember the last time I saw either hawk.
Backyards are mundane places for doing usual things—grilling or having a cold one or growing a few herbs or tomatoes. Apparently, the owls and hawks don’t know this about yards. Because I live in the middle of the city, and they have allowed me to witness some not so mundane things.