Gimbling in the Wabe – A “Wild” Week in the City

by Sharon Browning


It’s been a pretty “wild” week in the city.

No, I’m not talking about civil unrest, political wrangling, professional sporting adulation, haute cultural stimulation or jaded, cynical urban ennui.

I’m talking critters.

Earlier this week, a bald eagle flew into the dog park that the Mighty Belle and I frequent during the week, and roosted in a tree there.  A flyover by an eagle or a hawk is not uncommon here in Minneapolis, even in the heart of the city, but having one of these magnificent birds actually land less than 20 feet away is not something you see every day.  Or even every year.

The majestic raptor sat for about 15 minutes, ignoring the squawks and occasional dive bombing feints by a handful of the local red-wing blackbirds who have claimed shore space along the lake across the street from the park as their territory.  But what I found just as amazing was the fearlessness of a couple of Baltimore orioles who undoubtedly had built a nest nearby.  These robin-sized birds, resplendent in their orange and black plumage, hopped from branch to branch deep in the tree, inches from the huge eagle, berating it with sharp voices and snapping beaks.  The stoic eagle seemed to give them no mind, but after minutes with no let up in the harassment, it spread its mighty wings and launched itself from its resting place, lazily gliding away over the treetops.

It’s not the first time I’ve stopped to watch charming avian behavior this week.  Last Saturday, Belle and I were Egretromping in another no-leash dog park just south of the city, this one a whopping 25 acres at the city’s edge, complete with wooded areas and a big pond/small lake that dogs are welcome to splash and swim in.  Across the pond a stately white egret was wading with its serpentine neck and long stick legs.  As Belle cavorted in the water with some doggy pals, I watched the egret slowly make its way along the farther shore, occasionally holding as still as a statue then suddenly stabbing the water with its long, sharp  beak.  Sometimes after doing this it would simply shake the water from its head, but a few times it flipped what I assumed was a small frog down its throat.  Success!  Before too long, though, it flew away with a languid flapping of wide wings.  Predators don’t seem to stay in one place for too long.

Belle and I encountered another critter that morning – a muskrat.  I didn’t notice it at first, but Belle sure did.  The poor thing was backed up against the perimeter chain link fence, its glossy brown furry body bunched up in a defensive posture, its teeth bared against the incursions of a curious dog that meant it no harm – not that it knew that.  Once I got close enough to investigate and saw that the little creature, about the size of a small cat, still had some fight to him, I called Belle off and watched him for a while.  I pitied the poor thing – he obviously had been cornered against the fence earlier, and probably was sick or injured; he had no means of escape and I imagined in the course of the morning a more rambunctious group of dogs would pass by and not be so kind to him.  I wished I had a pair of stout gloves on me so I could pick him up and pitch him over the fence to the relative safety of the meadow beyond the gate so he could die in peace, but I didn’t, so all we could do was walk away and wish that his death would come quick and easy.  Life is hard for creatures in the wild, even a wild as contained and controlled as an urban dog park.

Further around the pond we found the remains of a good sized turtle.  It had been dead for a while, the flesh of its distended head and legs desiccated but the shell gleamed agate-like in the morning sunshine.  It was on its back – whether it had flipped and been unable to right itself or had been cast up that way after succumbing was impossible to say, but even in death it held a regal beauty.  We left it and walked on.  Well, I walked on; Belle streaked through the trees and snuffed mightily in the undergrowth, enjoying the freedom of exploration without the constraints of a leash.  We came across emerald green lichen glistening in sun, and a fallen tree that’s insides looked like they had tumbled out and spilled next to the woodland path, soft golden cubes of inner bark more beautiful than a sculptor’s skilled hands could ever hope to achieve.  A dusky grey dove flew in and perched on a branch just above my head, cooing softly and adding its delicate wonder to the morning.

This truly is a wonderful time of year, this early spring.  The mornings are cool and fresh, the air light and free of annoying bugs that will appear far too soon as the days get warmer.  The squirrels are active and abundant, much to Belle’s delight – she loves to chase squirrels!  And this year, we’ve already seen an explosion in neighborhood bunnies.  Probably a harbinger of nature out of balance (unlike previous years, we’ve had multiple sightings in our own backyard; we think a family is living under our porch), it still brings a thrill to walk into the backyard and startle a few furry beasties in the thickening grass.  Oftentimes the rabbit – or even rabbits – will freeze in the typical “if I don’t move, they won’t see me” behavior until Belle ambles too close, and then they are off like a shot.

Just this morning, when Belle and I were walking in the “back 40” of our local dog park, we heard a disturbance in the woods beyond the fence.  The sounds were indistinct but indicative of a struggle, almost like voices grunting in conflict.  Drawing closer, we found two good sized raccoons in a fierce territorial battle in a tree not more than 15 feet away; as we watched (well, I watched – Belle barked and pranced excitedly) they crashed out of the tree and onto the ground, rolling in the leaves and grasping for purchase, coming up biting.  This was not an amorous struggle!  They paid us no mind, perhaps realizing that we were safely out of the way beyond the fence, but not wanting to tempt fate – or animalistic aggression – I moved away, calling for Belle to follow, which she did after running along the fence for a few more seconds.  Whatever dispute the raccoons were having, it seemed to be over quickly.  No one else who wandered back that way mentioned any kind of disturbance.

raccoonEvery time I think of urban ‘coons, I remember the spring night a few years ago when I was sitting on my porch late, unable to sleep, and became aware of a tiny raccoon cub that was wandering along the edge of the street, calling out for its mother.  It was so small, it couldn’t get back up over the curb, not for want of trying!  It scrabbled along down the far side of the street, trying and failing to get back to the safety of the grass.  Not wanting the little critter to be hit by a car – we live on a pretty busy street, and it was only a matter of time before one would pass by, even this late – I walked across the street intending to move it to the boulevard.  But once it saw me walking towards it, the bitty thing must of thought of me as its savior, for it made a beeline for me, squeaking plaintively.

Despite it being so little, I didn’t want to handle bitsy thing – this was a wild creature, after all!  Perhaps it was ill or injured!  I might just make matters worse!  But it was so tiny and so innocent.  I couldn’t let it just flail about in this big, cruel world.  So I thought I would pick it up and bring it home, put it in a large plastic tub we had on our porch, take it to the DNR in the morning.  They would know what to do with it.  They would do whatever needed to be done.

I reached down and gathered the little ball of fluff into my arms.  As soon as I picked it up, it grabbed on to me as best it could, its cries turning into babyish grunts of relief.  It’s tiny head burrowed into the crook of my elbow, and its tiny claws – which were still soft and harmless – grasped tightly on to my arm.  Such a precious, precious thing!

But as I walked back across the street towards my house with the baby raccoon nestling in my arm, I heard a deep throated hiss coming from the bushes by my neighbor’s house.  My steps faltered – even in my urban naiveté, I knew this sound.  This was a dangerous sound, the sound of warning, the sound of a mother who didn’t know and didn’t care if I was trying to help, who only knew that I had her baby.

I took another few steps and the hissing came again, followed by a deep growl.  Now I could see the mother at the corner of my neighbor’s house, her eyes illuminated by the street light.  She was flanked by two other babies, and puffed up as big as she could make herself.  She was formidable as she stared right at me.  Despite my fear, my heart swelled at the ferocity of a mother’s love.  “Here you go, mama,” I whispered, and gently tossed the raccoon cub in her direction.

The baby landed softly in the grass and immediately dashed over to its family.  Instantly I was forgotten as the raccoon mama turned away from me, cooing at her errant baby, fussing and snuffling at it.  Then as suddenly as they had appeared, they all melted into the night, although the gentle trilling of the mama coon lingered in the dark.

I sat on my porch a while longer after that, ears straining to hear sounds that were no longer there, still feeling the soft scratching of those tiny claws on my skin, the nuzzling of the little head into my elbow, the soft fur and the racing heart calming under my stroking fingers.  It had been a magical few moments, made even more wonderful by the best of all possible outcomes.  I had been a savior, but in helping one of the wild creatures that share my world, I was also blessed.  For a few moments in the dark of the night in the inner city, all was right with the world.

And when you watch a bunny “frozen” in your back yard, when you look to the sky and see a bald eagle gliding by, when you hear the blue jays calling in the evergreens and see the flash of a crimson cardinal, or simply hear the chirp of a common sparrow, even in the heart of the densest borough, when you realize you are just one small part of a larger whole, you realize what a wonderful world it truly is.  And how special it is to be part of it.

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