Monday, December 28, 2009

The Food Chain

Four and twenty songbirds baked in a pie. When the pie was opened, the birds began to sing. Makes sense to me. Have you ever heard blackbirds "sing"?

The Food Chain

Last year I planted an herb garden, just a small plot. In the fall I mulched it heavily with leaves. Winter was harsh. I worried over which herbs would survive and which might winterkill. Spring arrived and the chives poked their heads like glory into the warming sunlight. Chives are tough. And grow fast. I was harvesting chives while the mint, sage, oregano, parsley and thyme were still in baby stage. I re-planted tender sweet basil. It must be an annual in this country. I watered and weeded faithfully. I added a rosemary bush. My herb patch was looking good.

Grasshoppers are such little things. The variety that came to my house looked like adolescent punk-hoppers, kind of cute with body jewelry and fake tattoos. These definitely were not the giant WWII bombers of the insect world. They bopped in one morning, a well disciplined cloud, and landed in my yard. The teeny buggers danced in formation, pincer jaws wide open, over to my herb garden and proceeded to decimate it with a million bites, one herb at a time. They chomped my English thyme down to bare-naked stalks. They attacked my French oregano before infiltrating the parsley. Clippers in hand, I rushed to rescue what was left of my sweet basil while the hoppers sweetened their breath on the spearmint. They despised the chives. Found sage barely tolerable but ate it anyway. Rosemary, fortunately, repulsed them. They sampled flowers and devoured their favorites. My yard was a banquet table.

From the first retreat of winter a wealth of birds, fat, healthy birds, took up residence in my yard. Robins and finches and sparrows and doves, vireos and warblers and larks and grackles. I didn’t feed them. Correction: I didn’t fill bird feeders with avian snack foods. I didn’t have to. First my strawberries disappeared. The plundering birds left me six puny berries. Then they went fishing. Long, juicy earthworms lurked beneath layers of mulch in my yard. Bird heaven. I found it especially fun to watch a robin grasp an earthworm, pull with all its might, half the worm anchored in the ground, until finally the worm lets go with a plop. The robin lands on its sitter, fat wriggly worm dangling from its beak. That show was worth the admission ticket of a few strawberries. When the currants began to ripen, I checked them daily, hovered around them, waited until the optimum day for harvest, and went, berry bucket in hand, only to find every bush stripped. I pictured four-and-twenty song birds, baked in a pie. Next year I will net my berry bushes.

Meanwhile, back at the grasshoppers’ buffet, a multiplication of birds flew in. Storm troopers. These newcomers joined the already fruit-fattened yard birds in a round ‘em up, smorgasbord feast of crunchy critters. For several days birds of all sizes and shapes and colors scurried along the ground, gobbling up hoppers. The birds were too fat to fly. They lounged around and picked their beaks and gossiped, then waddled back for dessert.

For several months before the grasshopper invasion, two colossal cats had hung out in my yard. Every morning they patrolled beneath my cabin, keeping mice and shrews and snakes away. These were not feral cats. They belonged to someone in the neighborhood. They were well-fed, well-groomed kings of their castles. I have not seen a mouse since they began standing watch. They stalked birds and butterflies and bees but without success. I figured those cats were walking the beat, keeping the birds safe.

That all changed when the overweight songbirds, sated with hoppers, could barely lift off the ground. My patrol cats, feathers fluttering from their mouths, called for reinforcements. Enter the feline SWAT team. I have no idea where they came from, but eight humongous cats swaggered into my yard, pounced on the birds which ate the grasshoppers which ate my herbs. My backyard bird population returned to normal.

Not so the cats. Every morning the full regiment of cats musters in my yard. This morning they brought along new recruits, three cute gangly trainee kittens. They patrolled the cabin for mice, the yard for birds, and basked beneath the lilies in the sun. In the evening the cats pranced, tails aloft, back to their respective homes for kibbles and cream. But they will be back tomorrow. The good news is that my basil and oregano have sprouted new leaves, so I’ll harvest a second cutting. Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme are making a comeback like the promise of new love. The grasshoppers are gone. The wary birds perch in the trees. It seems the cats take seriously their day job as guard-cats. But I don’t need thirteen cats hanging around my two-cat yard.

Sondra Ashton
Havre Daily News: Home Again
December 10, 2009

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