Walking in my Longfellow neighborhood just after dusk last summer, I saw a flash of movement out of the corner of my eye. I turned to see two beady eyes shining out at me from a creature frozen in its horizontal climb across a cyclone fence.
What is that, I wondered. My husband Peter recognized it – “A ‘possum!”
We’d never seen an opossum neighbor. He looked pretty sneaky. Was he dangerous? A quick Google search told us that Virginia opossum have found their way to the Twin Cities, but not to worry. They avoid people and don’t attack unless cornered. They don’t carry diseases people need to worry about so we’re free to enjoy – or at least be intrigued by – this surprise meeting with another member of the animal kingdom that calls this city home.
That encounter reminded me how truly blessed we are in this metropolis of 3.9 million people to still be able to see wildlife among us.
A previous roommate, from Cali, Colombia, marveled at the sight and sounds of wildlife in our yard. “There are no animals in the city where I’m from. Not even songbirds,” she told us as we sat in the garden surrounded by twitters and tweets.
Even our abundant gray squirrels delighted her. They delight me, too. This spring my husband lay in a hammock under our serviceberry tree and watched a squirrel hang upside down by its hind feet so it could use both hands to stuff berries into its mouth. When I look out the window of my basement office, I often see one of these little fellows staring in at me.
Tiny birds raised a ruckus in the Virginia Creeper that covers the sides of our stucco house this spring. When the big snowstorm surprised the newly arriving birds, we saw dozens and dozens of them eating the creeper berries from the vine. It turns out this berry is a good emergency winter food, as are the rosehips left on the native roses in my wild boulevard garden.
Two months later and the birds are having a field day with sour cherries and serviceberries. What do goldfinches absolutely love? Beet greens! Hardly a day goes by in June when a flock of them don’t rise up out of the raised garden bed when I open the back door. Birds or beets, which do I love best?
Our yard includes a small water feature – a little pond and waterfall to nurture wildlife and bring music to the garden. On a hot summer day, Peter watched a crow standing on one of the stones, water running over its feet, waiting for an afternoon snack. A wasp nest hung under one of the low rocks, just above the water. As a wasp flew up, the crow caught it in its beak and gobbled it down.
Crows are a constant source of amusement. We’ve seen them sledding down snowy roofs, falling over the edge and then opening their wings to fly up again. Peter believes he saw three crows hunting a rabbit together. One standing watch at the end of the block and when a car came down the road, it would caw and the two at the other end of the block would swoop down to chase a rabbit into the street.
Of course, by the river gorge we see some of the big birds of prey – eagles, peregrine falcons by the Ford Ave. Bridge, and hawks along Snelling Ave. My friend, the chicken-mom, sends her dog out to protect the girls from becoming a meal for a hawk that spends its days watching her yard from a nearby electrical tower, waiting for a moment of canine inattentiveness.
It’s always a delight to come upon a gang of turkeys out for a morning walk in the park south of Minnehaha Falls. (Did you know a group of turkeys is called a “rafter”?)
Last week I opened the front door to a visiting couchsurfer and found him sitting on the front sidewalk opposite a cottontail rabbit, an all-too-frequent garden visitor. Maybe this was one of the seven tiny bunnies we found hiding in the strawberry patch this spring.
We’ve often seen white-tailed jackrabbits lopping down the alley. (It did have a white tail!)
Driving down 45th Ave., near 34th St. two years ago we saw a family grouping of racoons – a very large parent and two teenagers – walking along the boulevard at night. They froze in the glare of our headlights. They’ve visited our garbage can in the past and we’ve been expecting them to sample (or destroy) our grapes, but so far no interest.
I’ve heard stories of red fox and coyotes, but never seen them myself.
Abuzz with Activity
We’ve turned a portion of our back yard into a wild rain garden and a sumac forest. We don’t grow grass here. The area includes tall native plants, bare dirt with no mulch, logs, and rocks. After we let this 20% revert to wild, we began to see some new creatures.
What are those circles in the leaves of the rose plants? It looks like a little kid came through here with a hole punch, but its actually leaf-cutter bees. I’ve lived in this house for 24 years and never saw them until I removed the grass.
And who was shaving the fuzz off plant leaves in the flower garden? I never caught the culprit, but likely it was a carder bee collecting fuzz to line their nest.
Bees need water, too. We thought a bird bath would do the trick but we found a number of dead bees in it and realized it was too deep. Now we leave rocks of different sizes in the bottom of the bird bath. No more dead bees.
Oh yeah, we needed an exit strategy for the pond as well. We found a dead bird in it. The sides were too slippery for it to escape. Now we leave a dead branch in the water along the edge so an animal can climb out.
The Dropmore honeysuckle vine clinging to the garage trellis is the place to be in early summer as bumblebees push their big round bodies into the long slender flower tubes, buzzzzzzz pollinating. I invited a group of 4th and 5th graders from a local school over to take photos of this bee activity. Put a camera (with a zoom feature) between a kid and a bee and curiosity overcomes fear.
The kids and I walked to a neighbor’s house to visit his Joe Pyeweed. Two dozen monarch butterflies rose up in unison. Butterflies have the power to fill normally sullen children with awe.
This summer a woman stopped at my garden gate to yell at me for planting Culvers Root, a native plant with a three-pronged flower stalk that is attractive to bees of many sizes. She accused me of endangering children. I told her the bees already lived here. I’m not introducing someone new.
No one complained about the milkweed that migrated from the rain garden to the front boulevard. I’ve seen pedestrians stop to breath in the scent of the milkweed flowers, remembering it from their childhoods. The children who live down the street take the pods and break them open, shaking the downy-white fluff and seeds all around them as they walk from my yard to their own.
One guest at National Night Out did comment that we seem to be hosting an orgy. What’s up with those milkweed bugs?
What else attracts a crowd? Oregano! Bees love it. But I also saw one of the strangest, and scariest insect visitors I hope to ever see in my life. It was at least 1.5” long, gun-metal black, and menacing looking. Was this some kind of miniature military drone?
I looked it up on the University of Minnesota extension website. My best guess: a great black wasp. Non-aggressive, rarely stings. But I still don’t want to get up close and personal with this one.
It’s a Big World
I truly value seeing the diversity of life in my community – insects, dogs and cats, birds, and wildlife surprises (like the skunk that followed me all the way across the University of Minnesota St. Paul campus one evening). Life would be poorer without them.
How can we support diversity of life in our community, while respecting the need for wild animals to remain wild and independent? Coming next week, see my next blog post about the Longfellow neighborhood Certified Wildlife Habitat project.
Leslie MacKenzie is a Hennepin County master gardener who lives on a corner lot where everyone can see what she’s been doing in her yard. Sometimes she gets an award from Metro Blooms for having an outstanding yard. At other times, she gets ticketed by the city.