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Close encounters of the wild kind

During extra hours recently spent at home, I have turned my attention to working in the yard and the garden, wandering in the woods and simply sitting out under the stars.

Social distancing guidelines have imposed limitations on contacts with fellow human beings, but my outdoor experiences have provided opportunities to connect with my non-human neighbors. Some of those contacts have been fun, others a bit scary.

On the fun side, a pair of pileated woodpeckers have taken up residence in the woods just beyond the reach of my yard. I can hear them drum on trees and call to each other. Their voices remind me of monkeys and make it seem like I’m living in an untamed jungle.

The jungle image was reinforced in a slightly more menacing way the afternoon my husband watched a black snake make its way across our lawn and driveway. As it passed under my car, the snake disappeared. When my husband went to investigate, he found it happily coiled up on the engine block. I suppose it felt at home there among the automotive hoses. I’m glad to report that it apparently left on its own sometime after nightfall.

On another afternoon, I watched a crow chasing a hawk. I wondered what transgression had instigated the altercation. Had the hawk discovered the crow’s nest or had one attempted to steal lunch from the other? The experience served to remind me that my home’s natural setting conceals life-and-death struggles that routinely play out under my feet and over my head. The idyllic ambience I experience is just a superficial wrapping.

This was demonstrated again during an evening of star gazing. My husband and I sat outside admiring the march of constellations rising in the east. The night’s hush was broken by the eerie sound of coyotes in the distance. I suspect the ruckus alarmed rabbits and other small animals in the vicinity. I was certainly glad to have the four solid walls of my house nearby.

The wildest encounter was the morning a bear showed up for breakfast. I didn’t see the actual bear with my own eyes, but I observed unmistakable evidence. A pair of six-foot metal poles that previously held my birdfeeders aloft were bent to the ground. A suet feeder had been emptied and dismantled. A seed feeder was missing entirely. My husband eventually found it out in the woods. Large teeth marks bore witness to the fact that the visitor had certainly been a bear.

Additional confirmations were forthcoming. One neighbor told us something had gotten into her trash cans, which she kept tightly secured with bungee cords and stowed in a wooden enclosure. Her strategy to deter garbage invasions, initially deployed with a pesky raccoon in mind, was no match for a determined bear. The most incriminating evidence came from another neighbor who managed to catch a snapshot of the culprit, red-handed, sitting on its haunches, munching away at the contents of yet another disassembled birdfeeder.

My most dangerous wild encounter, however, was with a much smaller creature. One evening, I felt an itch on my back and mindlessly reached to scratch it. My fingernails scraped across a bump I didn’t recognize. I asked my husband to take a look. He discovered a tick, firmly embedded. Removing it proved challenging, but eventually he succeeded. We identified the villain as a lone star tick.

For the good news, that’s not a species associated with Lyme disease or Rocky Mountain spotted fever. On the other hand, it does come with risks for ehrlichiosis, southern tick-associated rash illness, and alpha-gal syndrome. I’m glad to say I haven’t developed symptoms indicative of any of these ailments, so I hope I emerged from the encounter without long-term consequences (other than a renewed commitment for following tick-prevention strategies).

Although some encounters with my animal neighbors have been entertaining and others frightening, they have all been instructive. They also serve to remind me that I decided to live in a house surrounded by woods. Among the wild things that live here, I am the interloper.

KAREN BELLENIR has been writing for The Farmville Herald since 2009. Her book, Happy to Be Here: A Transplant Takes Root in Farmville, Virginia features a compilation of her columns. It is available from PierPress.com. You can contact Karen at kbellenir@PierPress.com.