Reflections on a Backyard Preserve in Another Place, in Another Time
By Karen Kish
I’m the one who describes herself as the “perpetually rusty high beginner” in birding circles. It’s a good one-liner, good self-defense, and – as it happens – also true. Thus, it is always intimidating to even ask questions, let alone state, or lord forbid write anything even remotely related to such a topic lest the more knowledgeable (and they are legion) groan as they read. I take heart when they misidentify some feathered fellow or the other, usually correcting themselves almost immediately. Or do they just do that out of generosity to encourage the rest of us?
Accounts of others’ trips to far-off places take me, somehow, back to the smallest of preserves, my own suburban yard in southern California atop a slight rise in ground one might call a hill. I’ll have to describe it to you a bit so you’ll understand. It’s a two-story house with a gable here and there set fairly close to the street. To your right as you face it is what I call the woods area, an atrium protecting the front door. The woods begin in the atrium with three birch trees, great water-suckers. To the left is a small area abutting a bank which separates us from the neighbor. There are pyracantha bushes, prickly bushes with berries attractive to birds, cape honeysuckle for hummingbirds and a small but feisty camphor tree whose berries I think intoxicate the already raucous mockingbirds at certain times of year.
The house is situated on a street that turns a clean 90 degrees, on the corner of the street, so that the lot, while shallow and narrow at the front, fans out in the back. The hill puts us a bit above the top of the street lights on the street below. To the far left is a stand of tall trees behind the neighbor’s house, mainly eucalyptus. The yard is ordered by a two and half-foot stone wall topped by another two and half-feet of premier bird-perching wrought iron fencing, behind which a wide bank of mostly cape honeysuckle slopes down to the street below. The wall to the left is largely hidden by the graceful drape of 14 xylosma bushes. Various flower beds and bushes border the requisite suburban lawn. Three tall slender liquidamber trees, two Canary Island pine trees and various domestic bushes bring the lawn back around to the “woods,” where we started.
In the middle of the backyard, the most shallow part of the yard is a square, flat gazebo with lattice work top. It is anchored by two jasmine vines that climb up the back two supports and flow up over the lattice top. There is a birdbath to the left of the gazebo in front of a small bottle palm, a Euryops bush and next to another palm, a small windmill palm.
So, there are many prime perching areas. I am the “water giver” and game warden on the small preserve. My assistant is a black cocker spaniel who appreciates flying things like birds, moths, and helicopters, being content to watch and study, and who has no use for cats.
Until rather recently, this area was rural and before that a stop on the Butterfield Stagecoach Line. When we first moved in, there were longhorn cattle grazing on the steep hills along the two-lane street a block from our house. Coyotes chortled and caroused in those hills during the early evening hours until about a year ago. I haven’t heard them since some strange popping sounds made me watch a man in a white pickup truck way up toward the top through my binoculars. It was still too far to see if he had a gun. The hills are supposed to be developed into housing and a golf range, but permit struggles have postponed the inevitable bulldozers. Every morning I worship those hills and remember that one day they will be cut and slashed in man’s image. But I am part of the problem. I sit on a cut and slashed hill. And what of the prairies before the farmer’s plowshare? And the woods and forests have been gone so long that we don’t find their absence unnatural.
Before I knew their name, killdeer ran and called after dark on the concrete street before the house. Before I knew what he was, I memorized his color and face markings of an American Kestrel as he stared into the bedroom window from the streetlight opposite. One once swooped down onto the patio in a mad hunting dash. I learned the roadrunners’ wooden block clackering from less than ten feet away as they strutted amongst the bushes and onto the patio, peering at me from around corners and atop the flat gazebo. The killdeer are long gone, the kestrels at a greater distance. I had thought the roadrunners long gone. I did see one within the last year, smashing snails on the sidewalk across the street in the middle of the day, when the commuter neighborhood is very quiet, driven I suspected from another “development” about a mile from here. Only once. Where do they go? Do they starve, slowly, quietly?
The California quails stayed even after our backyard side walls went up. The neighbors wanted the walls; I did not. At least the neighbor on the downhill side accepted the idea of the half wrought iron. I don’t know how long the quail had been frequenting the place. It took quite a bit of idle staring out of the kitchen window to notice the shadows beneath the larger bushes moving; to notice that a Euryops bush had developed about 24 avian feet. Had they always been there, or were they driven closer by inhospitable circumstances out elsewhere? They owned one corner flower bed where they regularly scratched out hollows. When the side walls went up, I noticed them even more, filing along the concrete walls, heading rocking in unison, readily diving down into the bushes on the far side at any alarm. They fed in the yard with a vigilant guard posted on the back wall. They brought their fuzzy chicks and herded them around the preserve, taught them how to dash across the concrete narrows between the large glass patio door and the gazebo. On bold days they lounged around the legs of the patio furniture. They brought the little fuzzy wind-up toys for two or three years. They too ventured out in the street in front and up on the snail filled bank in the quiet afternoons. I think they started to fade away when a cadre of cats arrived with the recently divorced daughter of a neighbor. It took a long time and a lot of guerrilla warfare to convince her cats (in a number more than the city ordinance allows), never her, that her pets were not my pets, that my yard was not her yard, my flower beds not their cat boxes, that birds should be at least as important as cats.
Barn owl, great-horned owl, bushtits, lesser goldfinches, even a Lawrence’s goldfinch … on and on. Most of the birds left. I left.
But, now so many years later, I remember them. I honor them. They gave me more than I gave them.
© Karen L. Kish