Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Mouses in houses

There is an angry growl from Cleo, a hiss and a swat and both cats adjust their postures, move a few more inches apart, glance threateningly at each other, and then resume their hunched positions around the tiny space made where the bottom step of our stairway from the living room reaches into the kitchen.

They have been huddled around this space off and on all day. If there is a mouse hiding in there I am not sure why it didn’t make a run for it when the cats were napping on a pile of clothes in the bedroom. But there must be something under there because each time the cats appear they move cautiously around this spot, not making a sound, they are fluid and slow, except when Cleo is telling Chestnut to back off.

A few nights earlier the cats had staked out the top step of the stairway, the first step down from the living room. It is a spot they have sat often, staring at the wall. We know the mice are there, we can hear them sometimes scratching and rustling about amongst the insulation and the plastic vapour barrier and the wood.

We live in the forest. A riot of underbrush surrounds our home. Mice like it here. We have pulled down sections of our wooden walls in the past to reveal tunnels carved through the insulation, tiny highways of mouse trails. Once we pulled down a panel of wooden detailing near the ceiling of our living room, to reveal a lifetime supply of sunflower seeds, the plastic barrier stuffed to bursting. When we poked at it the black seeds rained down, clattering off the metal ladder we had used to reach the ceiling and pattering across the floor.

We have reclaimed our walls from the mice over the years and last summer when the cats ventured outside for the first time in nine years they caught multiple mice a day, reappearing by the front door a few times each hour yeowling in victory. They knocked back the population tremendously. But this one spot at the top of the stairs where the wall of the stairway and the ceiling of the entryway below create interesting nooks and crannies, difficult for us to reach, has continued to be some sort of fortress for the mice.

On cold winter nights we would hear them busily burrowing into the insulation and we would stand and stare at the ceiling of the entryway wondering how best to clear them out. Meanwhile the cats would lie at the top of the stairs to the living room and stare at the wall, probably wondering the same thing.

When Chestnut one evening somehow managed to stick his paw in a miniscule space created where the wall and riser meet and pulled out a mouse, Morgan decided to cut out a small section of that wall. The square space stayed open for a long time, with the wood cutout sitting off to the side and when not much had happened and it was clear we would need to demolish a lot more of the wall to get at anything living there, I set the wooden square back in place over the hole.

And then the other night, as the cats sat once again staring at that spot, I watched Cleo jam her paw in behind the wooden square, ram her nose in beside it, whiskers flat against her face, eyes closed in concentration, stretching and reaching with great determination until she too pulled out a mouse.

“Got it,” I imagined her saying as she scampered off down the stairs with the small, grey body in her mouth. Chestnut followed with great excitement, thumping anxiously down to the kitchen.

I am always torn about the mice. I do not want them living in my walls and I appreciate the ability of our cats to catch them, but I do not like how cruel they are. If they just killed the mice mercifully with one swat, I think I would be able to let it go, but they taunt the mice, play with them, injure them, draw out their deaths. So as I watched Cleo skip off with her prize, I sighed, gave it a second’s thought and then ran down the stairs after them.

The cats were looming over the little grey mouse where Cleo had dropped it, in a pile of papers that had fallen off a chair in the corner. It was still alive and clearly frightened, so I scooped up a cat in each arm as they both took desperate swats at the mouse, and shut them in the bathroom. I found a box and managed to relocate the mouse outside, which I realize completely defeats the purpose since it will probably find its way back in again.

And perhaps it did and perhaps that is the very mouse the cats have now cleverly cornered beneath the bottom step of our stairway.

They pace and they sit, they hunch and they stare. They move silently around the step, from one side to the other, looking into the space, listening, sometimes reaching in gingerly. They fight each other off and they wait patiently.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Resident robins

Cool air pushes in at the window, swirls across the floor almost visible in its sudden surge, riding currents created by a spring rain shower. The sky is heavy and dark through tangles of tree branches in the process of leafing out, the lively green hue of new leaves creates a filter for the light thudding down from the sky, lightening some of its weight making it oddly brighter amongst the trees.

Above the window, cranked out almost fully open, robins nest. It is their second nest of the season, their first was somewhere in the nearby woods, marked only by a single rounded piece of eggshell, a pale blue announcement on the forest floor amongst the brown, monotone fall leaves of last season.

I never found their first nest, and the second appeared quietly, without fanfare. I knew they were somewhere nearby, hopping about from tree to tree, dashing headlong across the ground outside our windows, standing at attention and marching with purpose after worms and bugs. But I could not pinpoint their nest until I opened that window one evening after the sun sank behind the distant woods and the air cooled enough to chase out the heat from the house after the first hot day of the year.

I grabbed the handle and cranked carelessly in the fading light of the day, eager to breathe in the fresh twilight air and was startled by a scrabbling from the shadows directly above the window, beneath the roof overhang. I had a split second to think perhaps it was a squirrel equally startled by the sudden flinging open of the window when a dark shape swooped down and away.

I followed the shape with my eyes to where it perched on a branch not too far away and in the fading light I could see it was one of the robins. “Oops, sorry little robin,” I said quietly to the room and backed away from the window, hoping I did not disrupt their home too much that they would not return.

A few days later I circled around the house outdoors to pinpoint their nesting place two stories up. I tiptoed into their zone so as not to upset them and craned my neck to see a tangle of grass and leaves overhanging a tiny ledge where it perched, snugged up against the wall of the house. And then I turned and tiptoed away.

The window has stayed open since then and I have seen the robins swooping away and back again, flashing rust orange past the top of the window, and I listen for the sounds of baby birds. Robins have nested in our woods every year. They have nested on different parts of our house. We have watched them command their little plot of land with military precision, including one year when the male fought his reflection relentlessly in one window of our home before finding a less crowded place to nest further off in the woods, but I have yet to see babies learning to fly.

So as the cool air swirls in with the pattering rain and the forest begins to fill up with green, I watch as one of the robins preens on a crooked tree branch outside the window. He ruffles his feathers in the warm rain, his rusty chest brilliantly orange, his beak a striking yellow against the dull of the day and I wonder if the other robin is sitting just above me in her nest, sheltered from the rain by the overhang of the flat roof and if in that nest she is sitting with a little clutch of tiny blue eggs.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Joys of almost spring

When snow still covered the field in ragged patches we picked our way across it and over the folded bleached grasses, using the white hardened crust for pathways. Sometimes we broke through, the surface cracking in large fault lines, weakening beneath the hot sun even as the colder air struggled to keep these floating islands intact.

Our feet crunched over the white as we circled the field, crossed it, made our way to open water where channels rushed beneath ice sheets and emerged into small ponds made by divots in the earth and by beavers, where the water gathered and melted the ice from beneath so the white turned to cool blue.

We crossed the channels where they narrowed, where the ice was thickest and the snow still lay on top as though everything beneath was solid even though we could hear the water moving below our feet, trickling or rushing.

Murdoch headed into the tree line, quickly disappearing in the shadows, lost amongst the tangle of branches as the land sharply inclined at the base of the treed mountain. Molly and I followed the channel of water while I looked for animal tracks and Molly ran circles around me looking for a stick or chunks of ice that I might throw for her.

And then we were following Murdoch’s tracks because he hadn’t returned. His prints looped up into the trees and then down again in the near distance. They tracked down to the water, leapt across the open channel and seemed to go off in the opposite direction than I had thought.

Molly and I jumped the channel and followed the open water that rushed over roots and old walls of beaver-chewed sticks, until it swirled into a quiet bend and then disappeared beneath a shelf of ice. I stopped to look at the ice sculptures hanging from low branches that trailed in the water, shaped like white clouds hovering above the water’s surface, shined up in spots from having melted in the sun and frozen again in the cold air.

Murdoch’s tracks crossed the frozen-over channel just beyond the open water where I knelt. Molly pranced across the channel into the trees and then swung around and pranced back across the channel with her long, fluid strides. Each time she strode over the ice I heard a small crack and shift and I made a mental note to find a sturdier place to cross further downstream.

But then Molly swung around again and charged once more across the channel towards the trees and the ice let go beneath her, a crack and a splash and dinner-plate-sized rafts of ice floated around Molly as she scrabbled at the far bank.

The water was not deep. Molly went in up to her waist with her front legs clinging to the opposite shore but she is not a water dog and I thought, ‘she must hate this.’

“Molly,” I said calmly as she flailed about and tried in vain to haul herself up on the far shore. “Come over here, this side is easier,” as if she could understand. But she did turn, first trying to grab the ice still intact across the narrow channel and then throwing herself at the bank where I knelt reaching for her, her eyes wide and wild. The bank on my side was not so steep and she managed to get a hold of the snow. I grabbed her collar and helped haul her out as she scrambled over the edge.

“Oh Molly, it’s so cold!” I said as she ran in looping circles, her back half soaked through, her woolen-like fur swirled into tufts. “Did you see that?!” she seemed to say, skipping over the snow, ready to tell her tale of great adventure now that the harrowing bits were behind her.

I wanted to head home with her, worried about the cold even though she didn’t seem terribly put out now that she was back on dry land, but Murdoch was still missing. So, we crossed the channel down stream, both of us jumping over the divot in the snow that indicated water flowing beneath and walked back to the spot Molly went in, where Murdoch’s paw prints disappeared into the cool shadow of the woods.

We found him at the end of his winding trail in a spot where something had killed and eaten most of a deer. The snow was pink in a large area beneath the trees and there was the skull and partial spine, and Murdoch gobbling up a chunk of flesh and fur.

“Nice,” I said and then using my exasperated voice I got him to follow us out of the woods, jaw clamped tight around his find, eyes glancing suspiciously left and right.

I walked back across the blinding white of the field, managing to stay on top of the frozen patch of snow and I contemplated how I was going to get that thing from Murdoch while the dogs trotted nearby, one soaked and bedraggled looking from the waist down and the other with a rotting pelt stuffed in his mouth.