For years I worked out of a basement apartment in Chicago, with a window view of the sidewalk outside. I saw the knees of people walking by, along with a glimpse of the occasional squirrel, pigeon, or rat. When I moved to Colorado, the view out my basement office improved dramatically.
On the very first day, inquisitive foxes stopped by to check out the two-legged newcomers, with a boldness that astonished me. I later heard that a resident down the canyon had raised foxes for their fur, but then yielded to the pleas of his teenage daughter, who begged him to release her “pets.” These domesticated foxes and their descendants lacked a normal fear of humans. On summer days when my wife and I ate outdoors, a red fox would climb the steps to our deck, curl up and take a nap a few feet away. My neighbor once encountered a gray fox that promptly grabbed the toe of his shoe and, like a puppy at play, shook the man’s foot back and forth.
I hung a large bird feeder from the deck and soon attracted more than thirty different species of birds. Some of them, I learned, you can train to eat from your hand. Place an old glove nearby with sunflower seeds in the palm. After the birds become accustomed to eating from the glove, slip it on your hand. Before long they’ll eat the seeds from your gloved hand. Final step: remove the glove, and they’ll eat seeds directly from your bare hand.
One handsome little bird, a flycatcher, proved so fearless that it would land on my toe or my knee and serenade me as I sat outside in a patio chair. Soon I learned the real story: she had a nest just above where I was sitting, and what I took as friendliness was actually her way of warning me away from her hatchlings. I moved my chair to give her peace.
A birdbath attracted deer, who would take long drinks between trips to the salad bar—our landscaping. One cold morning two fawns, regular visitors, jumped back in alarm as they raised their heads to drink and saw their own reflections on the ice. That spurred me to go online and shop for a birdbath with a built-in heater, encouraging even more wildlife guests.
Together, the bird bath and bird feeder supported an entire ecosystem. I spent many hours devising ways to keep squirrels and chipmunks from emptying the feeder. An elaborate cable-and-pulley system suspended from two trees did the trick, and the mammals had to content themselves with overflow on the ground. Foxes found this a convenient arrangement, hiding behind rocks to plan assaults on the ground-feeders. I watched a wily female fox catch two squirrels and a chipmunk in one morning; more often, the squirrels made it to a tree, where from a safe perch they furiously scolded their attackers.
It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and nature usually follows this rule: Big animals eat little animals. With two notable exceptions, small animals live in a constant state of anxiety, twitching their ears at the slightest sound and whirling around to look for enemies. The exceptions: porcupines and skunks, both of whom have built-in deterrence systems that cause even large predators to give them a wide birth.
The largest visitors, black bears, swagger around and do whatever they please. Before I rigged up the pulley system, our bird feeder hung from an iron bar as thick as a tire iron. I watched a hungry bear reach out and bend the bar like a toothpick, knocking the feeder to the ground. He then sauntered down the steps, lay down, and snarfed up the spilled birdseed. Thirsty, he grabbed a sprinkler hose, examined it carefully, then bit through to get to the water inside. I snapped photos through a plate glass window, which he fake-charged until I retreated to another room. Bears, immune to fear, almost always get their way.
Several times I’ve seen a bobcat stop by, a lovely feline the size of a large dog, though with a cat-like face. Nothing can prepare you for the sight of a creature wearing a coat of such exquisite design wandering through your front yard. And last year I had my closest encounter with the king of the Rockies, the mountain lion.
One night, a neighbor spotted a fresh deer kill in a gully beside our house. The next day it had been dragged through the snow even closer, a mere eight feet from a sliding-glass door. My wife and I turned on the porch light that evening to illuminate a scene that set our hearts racing. Not one, but four mountain lions had circled the deer carcass. Two cubs waited patiently as the large adult male ripped meat from the deer with his powerful jaws. The female kept an eye on us on the other side of the glass. Every time we whispered, her ears twitched and she turned to stare.
Living in a natural environment, I have a sense of creatureliness that I never experienced in the city. On mountain hikes I feel small and appropriately vulnerable, subject to such dangers as avalanches, rock slides, and lightning storms. At home I feel a guest among species that occupied this space long before humans arrived.
Though nature has its cruel side, it can also show a touch of whimsy. My town hosts one of the largest elk herds in the country. Elk are big, dumb animals that stand around eating grass all day—except for a few weeks in September when the males joust with their huge racks of antlers to win the right to mate with forty or fifty cows. Most years a bull elk steers his entire trophy harem though my yard, and they clean up any of our landscaping that the deer may have overlooked.
Adolescent elk act like teenagers anywhere. I’ve seen young elk pick through construction sites in search of sections of PVC pipe they can toss around with their growing antlers. Once on a golf course I watched a prankster remove the first-green flagstick with his mouth and charge his companions, holding the stick like a lance between his teeth. The seven-point bull was so impressed that he made the youngster drop the flag so he could give it a try.
Just this week I saw two mallard ducks negotiate a slalom course, careening around boulders as a white-water creek swept them downstream. Then, to my amazement, they flew back and repeated the course, apparently for no other reason but the sheer joy of it.
Three fox kits entertained themselves by stealing objects from our yard—a tennis ball, a garden glove—and playing a vulpine version of keep-away. The most cunning of the three learned to trigger a deer-deterrent water spray by dashing in front of the motion sensor, at once scaring and soaking her two siblings.
In a dark mood, naturalist John Muir observed about the fossil record that “it is a great comfort…that vast multitudes of creatures, great and small and infinite in number, lived and had a good time in God’s love before man was created.” Fortunately, in some corners of the world, including Colorado, vast multitudes of creatures still live and have a good time in God’s love. The least we can do is make room for them—for our sakes as well as theirs.
Subscribe to Philip Yancey’s blog here: