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COLUMN: Our strange dance with wildlife

By CHRIS BRYAN
June 21, 2012 · 12:27 PM
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If all goes well, a contractor will set to work next month at our house.

Our growing family has decided more living space is needed, so we’re adding a small addition, which means demolishing the slouching garage.

Yet nothing will happen until the baby chickadees are gone.

In February, I made the colossal blunder of nailing a birdhouse to the garage wall.

I doubted we’d get tenants; after all, ours is a neighbourhood of concrete, cars and few trees.

So it was a little intoxicating to see Ma and Pa Chickadee shack up there, stuffing twigs and moss through the little hole, or whatever they do.

And a few weeks ago as I picked some rosemary I heard some tiny little titters from the love shack. Later, we noted that Daddy bird had taken on a decidedly more serious, distracted look as he flew from coop to branch in his quest to replenish the family larder, the weight of a new family heavy on his wings.

I was told that once the chicks hatch it’s only a matter of a couple weeks before they’re off. But this crew must be the avian equivalent of the boomerang generation. Are they building a basement suite in that little wooden box?

It makes me wonder about our own addition plans; will I one day regret making the house more spacious as I pick up my 30-year-old’s dirty sock off the floor?

Meantime, I remind my wife that construction begins the first week of July.

She repeats her position: No hammers fly till the chicks do.

As human beings, we get a little funny when it comes to wildlife, and spring casts our strange dance in sharp relief.

This month we’ve seen a mother duck in New Westminster gathering her chicks in a planter outside an office building, where the little fuzzy guys swam in a cookie tin; a mother coyote in Burnaby raising pups beneath a school portable; a ribbon seal sunbathing on a slip by a cluster of floathomes near the Richmond-New Westminster border, 4,000 km from his Arctic home; and of course, there was the massive hunt for a 7.5-pound snakehead fish in a Central Park pond.

As humans, sometimes we respond with a gentle hand, sometimes with a clenched fist. We are the unpredictable ones. We install ramps in hopes that ducklings will get to the sidewalk and waddle to new digs, we partially board up a crawlspace to urge coyotes to move along. Out-of-town visitors are treated on a case-by-case basis. A portly seal is admired from afar until stage fright prompts it to flop back into the river. If it has creepy fangs and a reputation for attacking small pets, we’ll partially drain its pond and deploy armies of volunteers with nets to wipe it out.

I see this dynamic on my deck too, where we have two suet feeders for the birds. There’s even a hierarchy of affection among the birds. We love seeing the Northern Flicker, the yellow finch, the blue jay ... and of course the chickadee. We tolerate the starlings. But we tap on the window angrily when we see the crow. Because they’re bad? Ugly? Less needy?

Last week, two baby chickadees showed up at the feeders, perched on the railing, fur-puffed and awkward, beaks gaping as mom stuffed them silly.

Hope was in the air; were these our babies? I was told that once they’re out, they’re out, so I thought hallelujah!

But over at the garage birdhouse the tittering continued. Sigh.

Then, peering out the kitchen window Monday night we saw a new creature at the feeder.

Furry. Grey-brown.

Oh god. A rat.

So long, suet. Farewell, feeders. The nature love-in is apparently over.

How does this bode for the chickadees? We’ll see. The permit from City Hall arrives any day now...

• Chris Bryan is editor of the NewsLeader and once had a family of racoons living under his house.