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"Birds have wings; they're free. They can fly where they want,  
when they want. They have the kind of mobility may people envy."  
~ Roger Tory Peterson, American naturalist and author of the
famous series of field guides named after him

Count me among those envious souls. One of the recurring themes in my dreams is flying like a bird.

In this entry I have two fun critter stories to share with you from "spring break" at our house in Virginia.


Because our house is surrounded by hardwood forests we see a lot of wildlife here -- deer, fox, wild turkeys, hummingbirds, song birds, owls, buzzards, squirrels, groundhogs, chipmunks, moles, voles, mice, turtles, lizards, snakes, butterflies, bees, wasps, a variety of other insects, and probably some other mammals and reptiles I've either forgotten to mention or haven't seen.

It's a busy place, even when we're gone traveling. Jim and I may not consider it "home," but all these critters do.

This is one of the Tom turkeys with his tail fanned out in a mating ritual across the road where our neighbors have been clearing out some trees and brush:

I took that picture through a window in our house from about 250 feet away; it isn't real clear but you get the idea.

Although we saw several adult male and female turkeys strutting around our woods we didn't see any turkey babies this spring. We had the good luck to observe some other avian babies, however.


The day we got back to the house we noticed even more song bird activity on the deck outside our family room than usual.

Two pretty gray and yellow songbirds kept flying back and forth to one of the corners of the deck after perching on the deck railing, edge of the roof, or in nearby trees in the yard where they could see the house and watch for predators.

Here's one of the adult birds:

What kind of bird am I?  A Carolina wren, perhaps?

We were so preoccupied with unpacking the camper and getting organized that it was several days before we realized what they were up to.

Jim was the first to notice a nest they'd built behind an outdoor light fixture on one side of the sliding glass doors from the family room to the deck:

That's the first time in eight years, since we've owned the house, that birds have built a nest there!

Although there were a couple of downsides -- some inconvenience and a lot of bird poop on the walls and deck -- the entertainment we got for five weeks was worth it.


A couple days after spotting the nest we got curious enough to peer inside when the parents were temporarily gone.

Oh, my! There were five little eggs inside, each less than an inch long!!!

Clutch of five  (4-8-12)

We don't know how long they were there before we found them.

I did some research on baby songbirds. From what I read an average time for the babies to hatch is two to three weeks, with a similar amount of time before they are strong enough to fly.

Mama and Papa Bird got used to Cody being on the deck but they flew out of the nest every time Jim or I opened the sliding glass door or ascended the stairs from the ground level. We tried to limit the number of times we did that, which was inconvenient for us but we knew it was important for the Mom and Dad to keep those eggs warm.


Within a couple weeks of spotting the eggs Jim noticed a broken egg shell on the deck below the nest. We hoped that meant the babies were hatching but we were also concerned that perhaps an egg had fallen out and the embryo eaten by a predator.

We got the step stool out again and peered inside the nest.

Oh, my! No eggs -- there was now a pile of little fuzzy baby birds inside!!!


We watched a flurry of activity for the next two weeks as the parents brought food to the young 'uns.

It was so interesting to watch the pile of fluff rise higher and higher in the nest, until we could see the top one or two babies while we stood on the deck without a step stool.

I was hoping the babies were rotating positions so all of them got to be on top part of the time! The ones at the top of the heap might have been cooler at night but at least they'd get fed. I don't know if the parents stayed there at night after the babies hatched or not.


I didn't want to freak out the parents or babies by getting too close too often but it was fascinating to see the fluff turn into feathers and the little yellow beaks get bigger and bigger day by day.


As time went on we wondered if we'd see the babies fly before we left on our summer trip.

They were getting so big that the nest was crowded. I don't know where the parents were sleeping; by this time there certainly wasn't room in that nest for seven birds:

Above and below: 4-27-12

The morning of May 1st I went out to take a picture of the birds. As the camera got closer to the nest I was startled when one of the babies flew out -- and kept going to the trees on the other side of the camper!


A second one followed in a few seconds. It made it into the trees, too.

Then a third one flew out -- and fluttered to the floor of the deck about three feet from where Cody was lying.

Oh, no! It clearly wasn't ready for prime time yet.

I'm so cute but I'm not quite ready to fly over the camper and into the trees yet.  (5-1-12)

I ushered Cody inside the house before he got too curious, then told Jim what happened.

We decided we should leave the baby bird on the deck and see if it would fly off or if one of the parents would somehow rescue it.

I took one more picture of the nest, where only one baby bird was still visible from below:

That left one bird unaccounted for. I don't know if another one was hidden in the nest underneath the one I could see or if it had already flown out.

I watched the baby bird on the deck for several minutes as it skittered about six feet to the corner under its nest, then I went into another room to get ready to go hiking. Jim kept a watchful eye on the baby bird.


When I came back out a few minutes later Jim told me the little bird had hopped down half of the open wooden deck steps. We both feared it would either fall several feet or get eaten or stepped on if it got down to the grass.

I went down the steps below it, gently scooped it up in my hand, and put it back in the nest. I don't know if that was the right thing to do but it didn't peck at my hand or fly right out again.

While Cody and I were gone hiking Jim was working outside. He saw one of the babies in the back yard near the camper and another one on the driveway next to the flower bed.  He left them alone. We hoped a turtle, snake, gopher, or some other critter didn't eat them.

By the end of the afternoon all the babies were gone from the nest. We crossed our fingers that all were alive and well and their parents knew where they were.

All gone except the nest and the bird poop   (5-1-12)

Jim decided that was a good time to remove the nest and spray down the walls, soffit, and deck with water. Seven birds left a lot of poop in their wake!

We assumed since the babies were all gone, the nest would remain empty.


What happened next was interesting and once again shows how little we know about birds.

A couple days after the baby birds flew the coop we noticed the parents were back. They appeared  confused and distressed. They kept flying up to the light fixture where the nest had been and began to build another nest! I don't know if they thought something awful had happened to their babies*** or if they normally have more than one clutch each spring. Maybe the parents just wanted the nest for themselves.

I would have thought that we and Cody had traumatized them enough in the last five weeks that they wouldn't consider building another nest in the same location.

*** I read that birds will often lay replacement eggs if predators get any of the first ones they lay. One bird that was studied laid something like 70 eggs before she finally quit! The folks doing the experiment kept taking the eggs she'd laid. Poor bird.


Since we were leaving soon we didn't want a bunch of new bird poop all over the deck and house for the rest of the summer. Jim's solution was to remove the entire light fixture from the wall so they can't build another nest there.

The birds were even more confused when the whole light was gone!!

Where'd my light and nest go???

Jim left the identical light fixture on the other side of the sliding doors. In the last few days before we left the birds never showed any interest in it, probably because it wasn't in as protected a location as the one in the corner of the deck.

It'll be interesting to see if they build a nest on that other light fixture while we're gone this summer. Jim may regret not removing that light, too.

After the babies flew off I missed having them around. Normally we put a hummingbird feeder in that corner and watch those amazing creatures when we're at the house in the spring and fall. We didn't put it up this time, fearing a turf war with the songbirds.

As territorial as some hummingbirds are, that might not have been pretty.

I never did determine with certainty what kind of birds these are. If you know, please tell us. The closest I could find when I looked at several websites with dozens of photos of songbirds that live in this area is the Carolina wren.


The neighbor who mows our lawn when we're gone told us last fall that he saw a gopher run under the front porch several times when he was there. We were so busy with other things then that we really didn't investigate before leaving for our winter trip to the Southwest.

When we got back to the house at the beginning of April Bob again mentioned the gopher(s).

This time it was really obvious where they'd been tunneling in the front yard -- their tunnels and holes are much larger than those made by moles, which also love our yard -- so we did some research about how to eradicate them. We read about the structural damage they could do to our house, which concerned us more than the damage they might be doing to the green stuff we call a "lawn" out front.

But once again we got busy and kind of forgot about the gophers.

There is a window near my computer desk that gives me a nice view of the front walkway and little neighborhood road that goes past our house. One of Cody's beds is under that window.

One day three weeks after we'd been at the house Cody was sleeping on that bed when he let out a little growl. I looked out the window, figuring a UPS truck was nearby (for some reason he always growls at UPS trucks but not FedEx or other types of business trucks).

Here's what I saw instead:

A fluffy, well-fed groundhog sitting above a hole under the front walkway!

Even though I already knew we didn't really want any groundhogs living so close to our house I admired the handsome critter for several minutes as it sat watching the house (it could sense my movements taking pictures through the blinds), then slowly walked through the perennial bed along the walkway as it found some morsels to eat.

I called Jim into the room. As he watched the groundhog perched on the walkway again, stared at the window, and then ambled off:

Actually seeing one of the varmints gave Jim the incentive he needed to try to discourage it and its family/friends from living so close to our house.

One of the more humane methods he read about is to put urine in or near their holes.

We're out in the country but our front yard and porch are too close to the roadway for Jim to even consider what you may be thinking!

So for about two weeks he pressed Cody into service several times a day, letting him pee next to the gopher holes in the front yard and near the porch. Cody thought that was a fun game since he'd never been allowed to pee in those places before. (He also got to dig up moles in the yard for the first time this spring. Then Jim, um, disposed of them. We decided it was easier to fill in the holes Cody dug than to mash down all the mole hills. Cody's quite adept at finding moles by scent or sound or both.)

Jim filled in most of the gopher holes and kept an eye on them to see if they were used again. He used a more lethal mixture of bleach and ammonia in the hole under the porch, since that's where the critters could do some serious damage to the foundation of the house.

We didn't see any more groundhogs or groundhog activity near the house before we left. Hopefully that bunch won't be back any time soon.


Jim played a funny prank on me about a week after seeing the real groundhog.

I didn't see what he'd done until several hours later when, frustrated that I didn't notice his prank yet, he came into the study and said, "Well, doggone. There's another groundhog!" (or something to that effect) and pointed out the window.

I looked out and started laughing within about two seconds!

Jim had perched Cody's stuffed hedgehog grunty-toy (it grunts, not squeaks) right where the groundhog had been sitting above one of its holes the one and only time I spotted it!

The toy hedgehog was about the same size and color as the real thing, a great practical joke.

See what I have to put up with sometimes??  (I love it.)

Next entrymore "spring break" fun -- photos from some of our hikes and bike rides in the Roanoke area

Happy trails,

"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody the ultra Lab

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2012 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil