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Invaders and Wild Neighbors
Illustration by Garrett Riggs.
I grew up in a bird sanctuary town on Florida’s Gulf Coast. All sorts of bird species lived there from the tiny hummingbirds and sandpipers to songbirds and the mighty birds of prey. Many other birds followed the pattern of the humans who simply wintered there. Human “Snowbirds” and Canada geese could be spotted arriving at about the same time each year.
My own family started out as Snowbirds before becoming transplants from the Midwest. My grandparents led the permanent migration in the mid-1960s.
They bought a modest concrete block home that was a mid-century modern classic with terrazzo floors, a low-slung roof, and simple clean lines. They even had the avocado recliners and a deep gold couch that would make Don Draper weep.
That utilitarian house could have been anywhere in America were it not for the sculpted seahorse on the front and the tall palm tree in the yard that practically screamed, “Hello! This is the subtropics!”
Henry was my grandmother's first neighbor in sunny Florida. Henry visited with her every day—always in the mornings and sometimes again in the evening if his day's fishing had not gone well.
Henry arrived at the back door every morning, and if he didn't find my grandmother on the porch, he would go from window to window, peeking in and looking for her.
If she was in the kitchen or living room and looked up to see Henry gazing in, my grandmother would laugh.
"Henry, you old fool, don't get your feathers all ruffled! I'm coming; I'm coming."
She and my grandfather were more amused than alarmed by Henry's attentions. He was a Great Blue Heron who could tell a soft touch as well as any of the human con-artists who prey upon old people in South Florida.
At a little over four feet tall, Henry almost came to her shoulder, but my grandmother wasn’t intimidated by this avian giant. She had grown up tending chickens on her father's farm, and she treated Henry like a giant Plymouth Rock chick she had been told not to name.
My grandmother secretly doted on Henry, saving kitchen scraps for him and chatting to him about her day as he followed her around while she did chores like hang the laundry or pick grapefruit from the tree in her back yard. Henry probably knew more about the goings-on of the American Legion Ladies Auxiliary than anyone else in Lemon Bay.
Henry was a faithful visitor until my grandmother passed away. The evening she died, Henry flew off over the tree line and never returned, his shadow melting in with silhouette of the trees that ringed the bay.
My family had other bird neighbors over the years, including a pair of Sand Hill Cranes that walked side by side through the neighborhood like all the other old couples on the street. But, none were as much a part of the family as Henry—at least, not until a bird found my widowed father one day.
My father’s bird-friend was a large Snowy Egret he called George. My father spent his last years in a house that faced one of the many canals that wound through the area. As a young man, he had been an avid sportsman and he spent decades boating, fishing, and shrimping along the Gulf Coast. By the time he had moved to the little house on the canal, he no longer fished; his mobility had diminished and he couldn’t trust his balance next to the water. Instead, he watched everything from his kitchen window or sometimes ventured onto the screened porch to watch the squirrels race around the live oak and the fish jump in the canal.
Maybe George sensed my father’s loneliness; Dad had been widowed for a few weeks when George first showed up in his back yard, marching up the stepping stone pathway to the back door on his spindly black legs.
George looked in at my father sitting at the kitchen counter pushing the food on his plate from one side to the other. My father waved at the bird. George stood there and eyed him until my father got up and brought his breakfast leftovers outside and offered them to George.
George ate anything my father didn’t put in the disposal or toss to the crabs in the canal.
Sometimes George brought along his friend, an ibis that never earned a name. The ibis followed George and stood timidly behind him while my father brought out food. George stood there, wings on what passes for hips on a wading bird, waiting impatiently for the old man, sometimes taking a piece of food out of my father’s hand before he could put it down. The Ibis with No Name waited for my father to go back inside and then would dart forward and grab a bite and fly off with it.
Florida’s development has pushed more people into the territory of the native wildlife. As humans build housing and businesses in areas that border the rivers and marshland, some of their neighbors can be pretty wild and some can be downright dangerous. Alligators and water snakes, including the poisonous water moccasin, don’t distinguish between a natural river and a fish pond someone puts in their back yard. It’s also not unusual to find an alligator in a swimming pool that hasn’t been properly enclosed.
Human habits also have a big impact on the wild neighbors.
While Henry, George, and the Ibis with No Name did bring comfort and a bright moment to the daily routines of my grandmother and father, their habit of feeding the birds isn’t one ecologists would encourage because feeding wild animals disrupts the ecosystem. Sharing food with the backyard inhabitants can make animals dependent on humans or introduces them to foods they would not normally eat that can wreak havoc with their systems.
In the worst case scenario, well-intentioned people feed animals that can’t distinguish between a meal and the meal ticket—in Florida, that is often an alligator. Alligators become dangerous nuisances when people feed them. Alligators that are fed by people no longer fear humans and will come close to human habitats looking for food. Pets and small children are about the same size as an alligator’s natural prey, and alligators that are used to people will try to make a meal out of them.
Alligators that are used to people will also attack adults. In 2003, Helena Couto was gardening when an 8-foot-3-inch gator grabbed her arm. With the help of neighbors, she managed to get away.
And sometimes, people wander into the alligator’s territory, something that is especially dangerous during mating season. In 2012, Kaleb Langdale was swimming with friends when an alligator latched onto him; Kaleb lost part of his arm, but did manage to get loose and back to shore safely.
One other problem we have in Florida is the introduction of invasive species (this includes plants, but I am concentrating on animals in this piece). We’ve made headlines recently for the Burmese Pythons that are taking up residence in the Everglades. If you think alligators in the pool are a problem, what about the 17-foot long snake who can make a snack of the alligator?
Not every invasive species is dangerous to humans (the wild parrots and parakeets around the state and the monkeys of Silver Springs are sort of delightful to spot), but all of them disrupt the ecosystem.
These animals get released into the environment in different ways. Sometimes, it is accidental, such as when a hurricane destroys the zoo or enclosure where they are kept. Sometimes, though, it is on purpose. People buy exotic animals and let them loose when the animals get too big or too dangerous to care for. Some, like the python, adapt well to life in Florida’s environment and they set up their own colonies.
If you’ve been tempted to buy an exotic pet or to feed the critters that hang around your neighborhood, try to ignore that urge. What may seem harmless to you may have much larger consequences than you would expect. We need to be more responsible with our environment, and taking care of our wild neighbors is one step to making the planet a little better for everything that lives on it. Enjoy watching them, but don’t meddle with the wild things in your neighborhood.
#Real #FloridaBirds #FloridaWildlife #WildBirds #FloridaEverglades #MemoriesOfAnimals #AnimalNostalgia #AnimalEssays
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