Meeting Animals in our own Backyard

Hawk. Lizard. Mole. Human.

Because William Blake was right: Every living thing is holy.

A juvenile Cooper’s hawk on the author’s backyard birdbath.


One of my sons noticed it before the rest of us did: a hawk perched on the edge of the birdbath mounted to our deck rail, only a few feet from the back door. One great yellow claw gripped the edge of the shallow bowl; the other claw was curled up and tucked into the bird’s breast feathers as though for sleep. It was the middle of a bright Sunday afternoon, but the hawk had settled in for a stay. Its coloring — the brown streaking, the pale eyes — indicated a young Cooper’s hawk, not long out of the nest.

Food is abundant during these hot, dry days, but water is not, and many thirsty creatures make use of this birdbath. As we were marveling over the hawk, a young squirrel came around the edge of the nearest maple tree and leapt lightly onto the railing, heading over for a drink. It saw the hawk and stopped for moment to look it over. Then, unbelievably, the squirrel continued to make its way toward the birdbath. The three humans standing at the back door all gasped.

Cooper’s hawks belong to the genus Accipiter, avian predators capable of immense speed and built to navigate dense vegetation in pursuit of prey. My field guide, Pete Dunne’s “Birds of Prey,” calls the Cooper’s hawk “a slate-backed, torpedo-shaped cruise missile of a raptor.” These birds eat mostly other birds, and they can be the bane of backyard bird watchers because they often stake out feeders. It is terrible to watch what happens when a Cooper’s hawk kills a songbird — the explosion of feathers, the piteous cry.

At first the hawk remained in its resting position, but I wish you could have seen what happened to its eyes when it saw that squirrel. Its head turned; I swear I could see its pupils dilate.

The baby squirrel was very lucky that this was a baby hawk: A goofy, inexpert chase scene unfolded in the maple tree, with no harm come to the squirrel, but already there was a focused savagery in that young bird’s eyes that I have never seen before except in photos and film. A thrilling ferocity — fierce and urgent. Utterly, beautifully, inescapably wild.

On the other side of the house, a skink has taken up residence under the low ramp my husband built for his elderly father’s scooter chair. The ramp is covered with old roofing shingles, and last spring, when the skink was carrying eggs, she took to lying on those sun-warmed shingles and sprawling out like a teenager on a pool raft, or Superman in flight: arms extended past her head, legs stretched out behind her. The broadhead skink is the largest lizard native to the Southeast, reaching up to 13 inches in length. The skink who shares our front stoop is well past half that size.

Broadhead skinks are attentive mothers, and ours disappeared for a few weeks in early summer, presumably to lay her eggs and guard them till they’d safely hatched. I was afraid a feral cat had caught her, but she’s back now, and from time to time a very small striped skink with a blue tail will join her on the stoop. It may be one of her babies, though of course I can’t be sure.

The broadhead skink who lives under the author’s front stoop.

Broadhead skinks are often found in trees, but this one rarely leaves the shelter of our ramp except to hunt or to sun, and the spot she has picked out is rich in insects, so she needn’t range far. When she’s startled, she darts more quickly than you could possibly believe, but when she prowls, she moves in an undulation that mimics the gliding of a snake. I have watched delivery drivers jump back at the sight of her.

Really, it’s just one eye, for she always tilts her head sideways to look at me, exactly the way a songbird would. When I walk out front to feed the bluebirds, I always toss a few worms into the ground cover for the tiny, furtive house wrens, who, though fierce, can’t compete with an entire bluebird family. The wrens are quick, but the skink, waiting at the stoop at the exact right time of day, always helps herself to a worm or two before the wrens even realize I’ve come outside.

I haven’t actually seen a mole, but a mole lives here. Beyond the front stoop, its tunnels crisscross our yard, and walking there becomes an exercise in sinking. We once had a terrier mix named Betty who spent all autumn digging up mole runs. Every year she managed to make our yard look like someone had been conducting trench warfare there.

The Eastern Mole.

Our current terrier mix has never shown the first inclination to dig anywhere or to hunt anything, so the current mole remains unmolested. There are spots all over our yard where the mole has opened up a hole in the earth to push out the loose soil it has excavated in making its tunnels, or where its offspring have exited the tunnel in search of their own territories: As I learned from Marc Hamer’s wonderful memoir, “How to Catch a Mole,” hands down the most charming book I read last year, moles are combative, solitary creatures except during mating, and their youngsters don’t hang around.

Moles can wreck the appearance of a poisoned, sprinkler-watered lawn, but they have never done any harm to this scruffy, wildlife-friendly patch of ground. Many wildflower seeds require disturbed soil to germinate and take root, and molehills are a safe landing place for wildflower seeds carried on the wind. Meanwhile the mole is busy underground doing its useful work: aerating the soil and consuming vast quantities of worms, slugs and grubs — often eating its own body weight in a day. A resident mole is always better pest control than any exterminator, and so much lovelier than any field of poisoned grass.

How lucky I am to live in a home with windows. Against all odds — the encroachments of construction companies and lawn services and exterminators — these windows still open onto a world that stubbornly insists on remaining wild. I love the bluebirds, and I also love the fierce hawk who reminds me that the peace of the backyard is only a fiction. I love the lizard who looks so much like a snake, and I also love the snake who would eat her if it could.

And my friend the mole, oh how I love my old friend the mole. In these days that grow ever darker as fears gather and autumn comes on, I remember again and again how much we all share with this soft, solitary creature trundling through invisible tunnels in the dark, hungry and blind but working so hard to move forward all the same.

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