The Nature Writers of Texas

The best nature writing from the newspaper, magazine, blog and book authors of the Lone Star State . . .

Sunday, September 10, 2000

The Neighbors
Burr Williams, Midland Reporter Telegram, September 10, 2000, © 2003

The father moved in first. I noticed him one evening, standing on his porch, baleful and yellow-eyed. When I approached, he bowed thrice quickly, and then scurried into his home. A few mornings later, I noticed him running about on his lawn, dashing a few feet, quickly catching grasshoppers, and immediately stuffing them down his throat with his foot.

Within two weeks his wife arrived. She almost never came to the door. (I am sure she was arranging and decorating her new home.) The proud husband took to sitting atop a four-foot pole next to the hole. "He is not crepuscular, you told us he was crepuscular," scoffed several 5th graders. "Well, he goes in before noon," I explained, "He is worried about you guys bothering his home."

In mid-May a terrific rainstorm drenched the neighborhood. I waded around, assessing damage. Proud papa was crouched in the grass. Was he hurt? I stepped over the fence onto his property. He flew up at an angle, and in his talons was a mourning dove, as large as himself. Thud! Again he attempted to fly with his prey. Thud! I took a step in his direction. THUD! Papa dragged the dove hopping backwards, his wings flicking with each effort. When he reached his home, he bent over his prey, his eyes bright in the evening's last light, defiance written boldly in his posture.

By early June, his five children began sitting on the porch, their round heads visible more often than their dark juvenile plumage. If I approached the fence, Papa would chatter, and they would appear to slide into the hole like firemen down a pole. Mama became an alternate sentry, while papa flew after grasshoppers. When cicada nymphs crept from the ground, Papa waited. One morning, he carried twelve nymphs from under the oak tree within fifteen minutes. In his busyness he forgot to not worry about my presence.

I moved closer to his house. Whenever he lit with a new, prize the young crowded about him, bowing and chattering. The prize always went to the boldest, loudest, and most aggressive who was sometimes chased to the grass by a disappointed sibling. Mama glared at me from the pole.

In mid-June, a huge mowing machine mowed their yard. After it left I dreaded the result -- but I could find no bloody clumps of feathers. That evening all were out on the porch again, seeming somewhat shell-shocked. When I came the next day with a smaller mower, they all remained above ground. As I mowed further away, I looked back to see the entire family running about on the freshly mown grass, stopping, bending, and gulping grasshoppers injured by the mower.

A few evenings later, a light rainshower freshened the air and washed the dust off of the grass. Papa, Mama, and their five kids walked onto the grass, their eyes unblinking in the sparkling rain, each droplet highlighted by the low sun. The family bent parallel to the ground, opening their wings, and fluttering as if caught in a seizure, as the rain cascaded down. When one finally stood upright I swore I could see a smirk.

Every morning the young would run about on the grass, catching everything that moved at their speed. Do they catch lizards and horny toads? What happens when they catch a tarantula? Or when they catch a tarantula wasp? I saw the father fly in one morning with a small mouse, and by the way the young chattered and chased, he must have let it run free in their midst.

During the second full week of July, the young began to test their wings. I think they must have been watching and learning from the resident roadrunner. They ran and launched themselves, flapped a few times, then glided to the ground. Within a day, however, they managed curving flights, from the hole to some taller unmowed grass. After they returned to the porch, I approached. Instead of flying, they ducked into the hole. At the mouth of the hole was a torn piece of cloth, a half dozen cheerios and a number of small feathers, but no little chitin-packed pellets littering the mound. There were no animal droppings near the entrance either. (Supposedly, their kind scatter scat at the entrance to deter predators.) As I neared the hole, the sound of rattlesnakes halted me. Oh, yeah, the young make that noise!

A few minutes later, an uproar arose as three kingbirds began dive-bombing the re-emerged young. Papa and Mama hurried back from the Sibley Nature Center's pasture to chase the bullies away.

The neighbors were fun to watch and get to know. Do I have to tell you what they are? Naaah, I didn't think so!