When I moved to Montclair, following the migration route of many an upper-west-sider, the last thing I expected to find was nature. Lots of nice parks, sure, and some squirrels and bunnies, but nothing particularly substantive. Nothing like the family of deer that is currently living under our trampoline in the back yard.
Actually, this is the second family of deer to camp out in our yard. In the spring of last year, a mother and her baby took up residence under the trampoline. They would sleep there most of the day, periodically getting up and grazing on our lawn or bushes, and then wander off at dusk. They were not there every day, and sometimes three or four days would go by without them. But they always came back.
Then, in the fall, about three weeks went by with no deer sightings. I confess to ambivalent feelings. On the one hand, the kids loved the deer, loved having such big, beautiful, gentle creatures so close. Truth be told, so did I. I was a city girl, born and bred, and the deer are lovely, an unexpected joy. On the other hand, they ate our plants, stripping bushes of all their foliage and even eating flowers. We had just finished a brutal house renovation that had decimated the landscaping, and as a result had had to put in all new hedges. The deer made short work of them. Also, I worried about deer ticks, and it became part of our routine to check for ticks after playing outside, and always to wear socks even in summer.
Just when we thought the deer had moved on for good, a mother with two babies came cruising for real estate in the back yard. At first, she shunned the trampoline, favoring the less exposed, more overgrown hedgerow. But after a few weeks, I noticed that sometimes she would sleep under the trampoline where the last mother had.
Perhaps it was the same mother, with a new baby. But the two babies were roughly the same size, and seemed to be the same age. And neither had the spots that fawns are supposed to have. They seemed, to my untrained eye, to be yearlings, not newborns. So, we decided that it was a second family.
These days, there is a lot of deer drama in the back yard, and we are constantly learning new things about our animal neighbors. The mother is very attentive, keeping a watchful eye on her children. We’ve discovered that one of the babies is a boy; it has little bumps that have just started to sprout on its forehead, and of late it has been getting inappropriately randy with its mom and sister. We can see the bumps where the antlers will grow because they have grown so bold with us that they come right up to the house to eat the bushes. Just last week they were so close that, had I opened the window, I could have touched them. They saw me there, but were undeterred in their foraging. Even when I venture outside, they allow me to come within ten feet before becoming nervous and fleeing. They camouflage perfectly in the shadow of the trampoline; sometimes the only thing to betray their presence is the flick of a white tail, or the small movement caused by their near-constant cud-chewing. It is disconcerting to think myself alone in the backyard, only to find that the deer are on the other side of a tree, big ears and eyes turned toward me, alert for danger.
One day two months ago there was a huge stag with a full brace of antlers hanging out in the back yard. The mom was sitting watchfully and one of the babies was eating its favorite bush next to the house. Suddenly, the stag charged the baby, chasing it over the fence. For the rest of the afternoon, the stag strutted in front of the mother; the babies made themselves scarce. I wondered if that was it, if the kids had been pushed out of the nest, but a few days later, the mom was back with two babies in tow, as usual. I guess the stag had gotten what he came for and moved on. There will probably be new babies in the spring, and I worry that our ever-decreasing volume of foliage will be insufficient to feed the mother’s growing family.
Luckily for the deer, we live quite close to three parks—Brookdale, Yantacaw, and Tuers—and they can forage there when the pickings get too slim here. I assume that it is this proximity that makes our yard so appealing; there is even a narrow strip of forested, overgrown land running between our property and our neighbors’ that leads directly into Yantacaw. Our trampoline is set back in this area, surrounded on three sides by bushes and trees. It is a tiny oasis of woodland amongst the neat lawns and manicured hedges.
The location near the parks and the lot itself are the reasons we bought our house. That, and the fact that it stayed on the market for long enough that we didn’t have to get into a bidding war for it. It was a ranch-style house in a town of gorgeous old Victorians and Tudors, characterless and not renovated since the fifties. It also had a small in-ground pool, which we considered a liability: we had a baby, there was no pool cover at the time, and we wouldn’t be able to afford to pay someone else to do pool care, which meant a lot of extra work for my husband. But the house sat on a lot-and-a-half of varied terrain, with a blooming rock garden, tons of perennials, hundreds of spring tulips, hyacinths, irises and daffodils, and a shaded area with old-growth trees where we put the trampoline. You could see the neighbors’ houses, but they were at a nice distance and the property had almost a secluded feel which, after the crowding of New York, was refreshing.
From the start, we were shocked at how much nature managed to find a foothold in a suburban neighborhood.
The birds were to be expected. We have jewel-like cardinals that nest in our hedgerow and stay year-round, their bright red a gift against the white snow of winter. We have blue jays, rosy-headed house finches, yellow orioles, black-capped chickadees and a flamboyantly crested woodpecker. The birds fly right up to the window feeder and have gotten so tame that they don’t mind us breakfasting a mere five feet away. I dislike the pigeons and chase them away, though my son tells me that they are “rock doves” not pigeons. “Rats with wings,” I reply, having seen my fill of them in the city. We also frequently see the eagles that nest in the area, and owls.
We have become experts at identifying birds, rushing to our Audubon Society’s Field Guide to North American Birds, which we keep in the kitchen next to the binoculars.
The bunnies were also to be expected, though we were delighted when we found their nest in our retaining wall one year, a litter of fluffballs curled tightly together. The two fat woodchucks have become a spring staple; they like to sun themselves on our neighbors’ statuary. They favor a five-foot flute-playing Pan, which seems oddly appropriate, given that he is a nature god. We also love the furtive chipmunks that move like lightening, tiny tails straight in the air, and steal the seeds the birds drop. Twice this summer I had to rescue them from drowning in the pool, dashing out in my p.j.’s and scooping them up with the net just in the nick of time. My daughter was outraged that, after panting and shivering for a few minutes, the chipmunk ran back to the safety of the woods with nary a thanks to me, its rescuer. She thought it should have been grateful enough to lose its fear of me. I had to explain that it was still a wild animal, and that even though it lived in such close proximity to us, it would never get used to us.
The coyote, which we’ve seen twice, was a surprise. It was shockingly large, and there was no mistaking it for a dog. Its eyes were feral, and even I did not want to pat it. At first I thought it was a wolf, but wolves travel in packs, and this was a solitary creature. It saw me and vanished in the blink of an eye, into the woods where the deer sleep.
The fox was also a surprise. When it first came, in mid-winter, napping under a tree in the backyard, I was beside myself with excitement. I called all my friends to announce its presence, and was baffled when they didn’t stop what they were doing immediately and come over to watch it sleep. Finally it occurred to me to warn the neighbors, who had children. No one was home but the teenage boy, who could barely contain himself and who stood with me at the kitchen window watching the fox for almost an hour. A kindred spirit, truly.
As it turns out, foxes must follow the same migration route every year, for this fox—I assume it was the same one—came back year after year to sun itself in the same spot, usually in January or February. It was smallish, and reddish, and bushy, and a bit mangy. It was very shy and if the kids were noisy, it would not stay. But when the kids were at school and the neighborhood was quiet, it would sit in companionable silence, perfectly aware of me watching it, and it wouldn’t leave even when it saw me moving about in the house. I liked to imagine that we had an understanding, that it knew that I welcomed it and was happy that my property could provide it with an afternoon’s respite from whatever its daily challenges were.
After the first few years, I found myself anticipating its visit, checking under the tree in the early afternoon, and every year it would come.
The children loved the fox. They brought photos of it to show their classmates, and my daughter did a report on red foxes for her second-grade class.
Like Tony Soprano, we also get geese and ducks in our swimming pool every year. They gather in Yantacaw Park, in the lake, but in the spring they like to visit, swimming in the one foot of water that sits on top of the pool cover. Having accumulated run-off all winter, the water is filthy, and the ducks and geese love it. They pop in for quick visits until we open the pool, at which point they abandon us for dirtier, more chemical-free waters.
This last spring, one lone goose moved in full time, napping on the side of the pool, swimming in the muddy shallow water, and pooping on the patio. I don’t know why he (or she?) was shunning the rest of the flock; perhaps they had all found partners and were nesting, while he was a juvenile--or perhaps he was just anti-social. But he moved in over spring break and stayed for about three months. He did not have the best of dispositions, and was wont to hiss if the children got too close, but he never attacked and even tolerated them playing in the backyard near to him. He would either ignore them or somewhat huffily move to the other side of the pool, though on several occasions he condescended to accept breadcrumbs from their hands.
It was over this goose that I first was forced to think about what it meant to share our space with wildlife.
One afternoon I was visited by a lady who was involved in trying to keep the goose population in Yantacaw Park from growing. She had heard from a neighbor of mine that there was a goose living on our property (I would imagine that the conversation involved the words “freaky animal lover” and was not complimentary about our tolerance of the local wildlife), and she wanted to know if it had a nest with eggs. If so, she wanted to “muddle” the eggs. As I learned, this entailed poking a hole in the egg so that the babies would not grow and hatch. She spoke about how difficult it was to maintain the park with all of the poop everywhere, and quoted statistics about how many times per hour they poop. She expressed polite incredulity that I was willing to endure having so much poop on my patio. Rather shame-faced, I explained that I had grown accustomed to scooping the goose poop, much as dog-owners do. The fact that it was a wild animal and not a pet seemed to me like a minor distinction, and a small price to pay. But I could tell that she was not at all on the same page.
I knew that there was no nest, as there had never been a mate—it was, as I said, an anti-social goose. So I let her poke around the bushes and promised to call her if I did find a nest.
But I would not have.
Sympathetic though I am to the desire to keep the park poop-free, or at least to minimize it, I am more sympathetic to the geese. More precisely, while I am not particularly fond of geese, which do tend to be bad-tempered and to poop a lot, I am sympathetic to the plight of animals everywhere, trying to find a way to survive as we take over more and more of their habitats.
As parents, we try to teach our children to respect the environment, to give back to the community, and to look out for the less fortunate. One of the hardest lessons is that self-interest is not always the best choice, and that we must balance, and often defer, what is best for ourselves with what is best for others--although our broken political system seems to have forgotten this. Each time I have been tempted to rush outside and chase the deer away from our plants, I remind myself that sometimes the best lessons can be found in our own back yards.
It is for that reason that I put up with the deer eating my garden. If they can find a way to survive in their fifty feet of suburban woods, who am I to deprive them of that? If they can find a way to live with us, should we not find a way to live with them? For me, it’s an ornamental hedgerow. For them, it’s dinner. I am happy that my property can provide them with a little sustenance, a little peace and quiet, in the midst of so many people. It seems the least I can do.