Backyard Wildlife Mysteries

  

Essay by
Jennifer Monroe Franson

 

September 2012

  
Transport Tribulations of the Very Small

I got up this morning to find that a party of ants had occupied the ledge of our Dutch door. This in itself is unusual, since ant incursions usually occur in the kitchen. A closer look revealed that one ant was struggling back to the nest with a small cat whisker — undoubtedly dropped by Zoe, for whom the ledge is a favorite resting place. I must admit that I was and am mystified by this; why a whisker? It's not edible, and I've never heard that ants line their nests with fiber the way birds do.

In addition to being an odd choice to start with, the whisker also seemed to present something of a logistical challenge. All went fairly smoothly on the flat surface of the ledge; the problems began at the door frame, where the ant trail transitioned from horizontal to vertical. Each time the ant tried to approach the door jamb to make the downward trek to the nest, the protruding whisker contacted the vertical surface first, keeping the ant at bay. To further complicate matters, the whisker carrier was now in the middle of a small but growing group of other ants also trying to hit the vertical trail. (To picture the situation in human terms, imagine Stan Laurel or Oliver Hardy trying to maneuver through a crowd carrying a 25-foot length of pipe: "Hey! Watch where you're going with that thing! No, don't turn around! Aaaaah!")

Unfortunately, a prolonged observation of this formic transport dilemma would have made me late for work. However, I did stay long enough to note that several colleagues finally joined the original ant and helped to wrestle the whisker over the edge of the door ledge on its way to its ultimate fate — whatever that might be.
  

Stalking the Evil Fly

Mention to anyone in San Diego that you have a problem with biting flies, and the standard reply is "Oh, yes; they come up out of the canyons." This piece of received wisdom seems to be universally accepted — our local version of the medieval idea that flies propagate spontaneously from rotting meat. I’m not so sure about this myself; is the peaceful-looking canyon abutting our street really a seething mass of bloodsuckers, an aerial Amazon swarming with biting flies instead of piranha? Maybe so; but I’m not going down there to find out.

To be honest, I’m less interested in where the flies come from than in where they go when twilight falls. During the hot days of August and early September, I spend considerable free time stalking and swatting the not-so-elusive Evil Fly — particularly the stable flies who make it their mission to torment our dogs. Prime swatting time, when the flies are most active and most plentiful, comes during the middle of the day — a problem on workdays. In the evening, my lawful prey has thinned out considerably; I may be able to bag 25 or even 30 flies, but nothing like the 100+ score I can rack up on a non-workday.

So where do biting flies go to roost when shadows start to lengthen? Their normal daytime hangouts — the bricks at the edge of the backyard walkway and the exterior walls of the house — are abandoned as twilight approaches. (This is particularly unfortunate as the flies are slower, more torpid, and therefore easier to swat during the cooler hours of morning and evening.) This mystery remains, at least for the moment, unsolved. If I ever do find out where they spend the hours of darkness, though, let all Evil Flies beware; armed with headlamp and swatter, I’ll slaughter them — well, like flies.
  

The Thing in the Basement

Like all of the best older buildings, the part of our house built in the 1940s is haunted by an Unseen Presence. This manifests itself most often in the small hours of the morning; we hear a series of dull scratching sounds, and we know that the Thing in the Basement is at its nocturnal business. Fortunately, we have good evidence (in the form of scat and messy nests sketchily put together from sticks and twigs) that the Thing is an animal, not a revenant. Yet there's still a mystery here.

The Thing has been in residence for years, but we've never caught a glimpse of it. Based on the size of its nest, it's significantly bigger than a rat. Given this, how does it get in and out of the basement unseen? And more to the point, how does it manage to do so without falling prey to the dogs — fierce hunters both, with many a skunk, possum and rat to their credit? There are no sources of food or water in the basement, so it must have to venture forth sometime, but — so far at least — the Thing has managed to move about both invisibly and with complete impunity from the Jaws of Death. It's another small mystery of the urban-ethereal interface.

  

© 2012 Jennifer Monroe Franson


  
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