This one begins like many of my “back in my day” stories except mine are more like, “back in Phoenix.” BUT, back in Phoenix, the main invasive fauna for me was the cockroach, which I battled in different varieties at different apartments. (Which was more disgusting, the giant flying reddish ones that flew directly for my head, or the smaller but strong army of black cockroaches that scurried along the ceiling at night or once, upon looking down, I found crawling between my toes as I tried to brush my teeth??) When I moved to Washington state, I was excited to find that there didn’t seem to be as many cockroaches here. HOWEVER.
There are many more rodents.
Now, it’s not that I never saw a rat in Phoenix. That’s ridiculous; I definitely did. I once saw a huge rat running in the gutter alongside my car while stopped at a light and thought, aww hey buddy. In Washington, I was delighted to find squirrels hopping through the grass in the backyard, along with an occasional bunny. Stellar’s jays in shocking blue and black. Robins with heavy gold chests. One never-ending summer evening, looking up at a pastel sky, I saw something skittering along one of the wires crisscrossing the backyard. I went for a second look, then ran away screaming, IT’S A RAT!!!! The neighbors definitely think I’m a calm person.
At some point, a few years ago, we heard the pitter-patter of little feet above our heads in the bedroom. Sometimes it was just a thump on the roof, a raccoon using our moss-covered roof as a slip-n-slide, maybe a rat landing from a nearby tree. Glad we could be a way station in their little lives. It’s easy to tell the relative body size and weight from the type of thud. Distressingly, after sundown, the thuds turned to lighter footfalls and skritches. Scampers, if you will. We reinforced the crawl space entrance, which seemed to be an access point. That held them off for a while.
I’m ashamed to admit that last summer, I got out of control with my feeding. Now, I know how people feel about feeding wildlife, all the damage it causes. I used to read Nextdoor posts before I deleted it. But…I started buying the squirrels unsalted peanuts. We became a popular patio, attracting not just squirrels but more jays. Well…my peanuts also attracted a rat who I named Ol’ One-Eye (guess why!!). I felt for him. I would maybe look the other way when he came through for a snack. Yes, his long tail flicking against the wood, impossibly shiny and pale, glimpses of it as he ran from pot to pot, grossed me out. But he was a creature. Then one day I watched as he held fighting rounds just outside the back window with various squirrels, jumping into the air and doing flips to defend his stash of nuts. I took a video of ratfight but I’m too embarrassed to share it. I also noticed, in the background of this fight, several tiny mice rappelling down the side of the house. That was the end of my peanut buffet.
This is all to say that sometimes we still get a few squirrels peeking in the back windows, hanging from the pillars to peer directly at the kitchen table, and I try to look away, but sometime this winter, I met Wobbles.
Wobbles caught my eye because he seemed to list to the side, like a little squirrel boat taking on rough seas. He holds himself differently. While eating, he gradually loses his footing but rarely drops his bite, leaning and hopping until he regains his balance. He seems to get around alright though he’s smaller than the other squirrels, maybe also younger. He’s more brown than gray now, and thin. He backs up against the railing or a flower pot so that he won’t fall completely over as he eats a bit of leftover bread I’ve tossed to him. I watch with hope and despair as he flings himself into a nearby tree or hangs with one arm from the railing. Careful! I say to him.
He uses his surroundings to his advantage, leaning on statuaries of animals larger than himself, his tail curled over his head into a little fur umbrella. He’s become skittish, which I think is a good thing, that he’s keeping his distance from humans, even me, and only comes close to grab a bit of food and then runs to hide under the patio table to eat. I worry. I worry when I don’t see him for days, but also tell myself it’s good, that he’s off doing squirrel stuff, eating the wild things he should and not my carb-heavy offerings. It’s good, then, when I don’t see him. But I miss him when he’s not around.
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