Birds and Beasts

Every two months I receive my copy of the magazine, “Poets and Writers.” Sometimes I do not read every page/article. Often, I read only those of immediate relevance to me and my work. I always read the regular page that offers prompts for poets, writers of fiction and writers of nonfiction. The prompts intend to stimulate and inspire writers to write about the topic presented.

A recent prompt for writers of nonfiction is a suggestion to write about a pattern or routine observed in nature that applies to one’s own everyday habits.

At my desk, through the double sliding doors that open onto the patio, I watch what I call my zoo. The creatures I’ve watched for several years now are families of squirrels and rabbits and flocks of hummingbirds. Each group has its own distinct characteristics and persistent behaviors—behaviors that both astonish me and remind me of my own traits and habits.

The squirrels, rabbits and quail occupy the spaces under two adjacent and similarly trimmed bushes. Most of the year, virtually every time I lift my eyes from my work one or another group is out there, putting on a show designed, at least, to entertain me. I know they’re just going about their lives, as am I, working at my desk.

One of the two bushes serves as the incubator and bedroom of the “children,” as I call them. The other bush is occupied by the parents, who actually spend most of their time caring for their children. The squirrels, rabbits and quail share both bushes—children to my left and parents to the right.

In the spring, the parents arrive. For days, courting activities occupy most of their time. Next they make ready the children’s incubator. After gestation, the babies are born there, the quail first, followed by the rabbits and squirrels. For nearly a month, procuring food and feeding the children takes virtually every moment for the parents.

When the children are old enough, much activity is devoted to preparing them for their adult lives and activities. They go on expeditions to explore the nearby territory. I cannot see all of that territory, or what the parents do/say to tell the children what is done in each area. And still a great amount of time is focused on food, especially for the children.

Adolescent activities are especially delightful to watch. A pair of squirrels uses the entire area I can see as playground and gymnasium. They sit up and spar like boxers, push each other around, and run away to be chased and tagged by their partner. The rabbits hop and race all over the yard, each daring the other to overtake them.

When the time is right, the children simply disappear. The squirrel and rabbit parents clean their areas under the bushes. Before they do that, the quail parents spend several days obviously mourning the absence of their children before they clean up their space. The squirrels and rabbits have only one set of children, each season. The quail have at least one more brood of chicks before the end of summer.

I cannot hear what, if anything, the squirrels and rabbits say to each other, but I hear whole conversations by the quail. Their vocabulary ranges from the “What,” of courtship, and the “Who” of parenthood, to an accusatory “Where” when both Mom and Dad are each sure the other has misplaced the children who have actually left home to begin their lives as adults.

This spring, I observed new, never before seen by me, squirrel activities. Suddenly one afternoon, I espied what I thought was a dead squirrel, sprawled next to the incubator bush. I planned, when I came to a stopping point in my work, to call the maintenance department to come remove the body. But next time I looked out, the “dead” squirrel was nowhere in sight. After that, for more than a month, even during intense feeding activity, the squirrel appeared in mid-afternoon, tidied his couch, and lay down for a nap of about 20 minutes.

Usually, the napping squirrel disappeared when he was wide awake. But one day, to my astonishment and delight, he arose after his nap and bathed himself. Like a bathing cat, he licked all the parts he could reach. Then he licked his paw and used it to wash his face and head, including behind his ears. When he finished, he rejoined his mate in the task of feeding the children. I saw that only once, but—because all other behaviors occurred routinely—I am sure it happens regularly.

For the first time, sometime after their children had flown the coop and they themselves had departed, I observed the quail parents’ return with a group of nearly full-grown quail (I’m sure one of their broods). For three consecutive days, they all returned to the area. The parents herded the adolescents into the space under the incubator bush. They actually pushed one or two strays to go in. I’m sure they were telling the children that space was where they should raise their own families. One day, they also led the children on a tour of the adult bedroom.

The squirrels and rabbits have all disappeared, now. I don’t know where they go, but I’m sure, like human snowbirds from northern states, they must have winter hideaways somewhere.


Like the inhabitants of my zoo, I am a creature of habit. Some observers equate my behaviors to similarity to those (others) among us who are defined as being on the Autistic Spectrum or sufferers of the Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder. I do not disagree with that allusion. After all, my behaviors and routines have not changed very much, if at all, since I can remember having them.

For example, I cannot begin a day, a writing session, or preparation of a meal without first tidying up my surround. Indeed, for most of such activities, I tidy up both before and after they’re accomplished.

Tidying up, what squirrels and rabbits do at the beginning and end of the season, is often for me easier than it is for most folks. I have a place for everything, and everything must, when not in use, be in its assigned place. When something not currently in use is somewhere out of place, I experience the same kind and amount of discomfort as one does when their shoes are on the wrong feet. In my old age, I’ve been able to relinquish some of this compulsion. Now, the result of tidying up is frequently a matter of making neat stacks of papers or lining up things on desk or kitchen counters, rather than returning each item to its assigned place.

All my life, I’ve also practiced a number of equally non-varying routines. Like tidying up, certain regular activities must be performed as routines. Morning preparations for the day have a certain order that I am unable to violate easily. Teeth first, washing face next, and so it goes. Evening preparations for the night also have a certain order. I’ve not come to these routines in a random manner. They are based on efficiency. It doesn’t pay to wash my face before I brush my teeth. Toothpaste cannot be trained to not dribble down my chin; if I’ve washed my face first, I will have to do it again. Likewise, there’s no point in parting my dry hair; that, too will have to be done again after I’ve washed it. As I’ve grown older, I tend to forget rationale and routine for many activities. I get pretty annoyed with myself for absentmindedness, for forgetting the routine and the reasons for it.

As for feeding and otherwise parenting children (and being a housewife), I can only say that meals were served regularly, by the clock. Laundry, cleaning, and grocery shopping were done on certain days. Each child had essentially the same bedroom décor and furnishings. (Each had their own basic color scheme.) When the children had all flown the coop and I was working at a regular, nine-to-five job, regularity was replaced by the pressures of time and necessity, but it took several years for me not to feel that same shoes-on-the-wrong-feet discomfort.

I’ll mention only in passing the whole issue of which sock and shoe to put on in what order. When I was in second grade, for days I was late for school. I was most definitely not dallying. I thought about and practiced all possible permutations of the order for socks and shoes, in order to determine how to save time. James Galbraith would have been proud of me and my careful research. Galbraith was the author of “Cheaper by the Dozen” and other books about his seminal investigations that led to time/motion efficiency theories and practices. My own early work pre-dated my knowledge of his efforts. (Contact me if you want to know the result of my socks-and-shoes research!)

There’s more, but you must by now see that there’s plenty of evidence to support the idea that living life with a certain amount of regularity and routine makes really good sense. I believe need for and a certain amount of practiced routine is innate. There’s a reason animals build nests before their offspring are delivered. Tidying up has a practical effect for efficiency. Children must be fed, for growth at least. Maybe the order of putting on and tying socks and shoes doesn’t really matter, but the idea of efficient application of task and time taken is basically sound.

There are those who manage to survive until old age brings forgetfulness as a routine practice. Animals persist in training their young to follow specific routines for almost all situations they will encounter. It’s possible to consider those humans who live life as a series of random events in a chaotic surround were never trained. On the other hand, I “trained” three children to live as though their lives depended on routines, but only one of them has evolved to a form of tidy and regular life.

Thus continues the battle between believers of heredity and believers of environment as paramount in how we behave. I’m not convinced, either way, but I’m convinced that I was born the way I am. And there I rest my case.


At the beginning of this blog, I mentioned hummingbirds. That’s another blog.


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