Tuesday, May 31, 2005

There's b'ars in them thar hills!

We saw our first bear of the year Wednesday night. Or, to be more accurate, I did. And to be even more accurate, it was really Thursday in-the-wee-hours morning.

Todd was still sleeping in the spare bedroom because of his shoulder surgery. Simba was manfully trying and failing to take his place, a small furry ball occupying the corner of the bed. At about 3am I heard the THWAANNNGGGG sound that can only mean one thing: something's messing with our feeders.

We keep a series of bird feeders hanging from an incredibly strong cable strung between our house and a tree. During the warm months of the year, the only feeders that we leave out at night are the short ones. We hang the long tube feeders out in the mornings and bring them in at night, when bears are liable to meander through the yard. If you've ever seen what a bear can do to a feeder, you know why we go to that trouble.

Our state has only black bears, for which I am grateful. They are smaller and far less aggressive than their Western cousins the grizzlies (brown bears) and their Northern cousins the polar bears. But that's not to say they're creatures you want to provoke. Even a small bear can outrun, outwrestle, and outdo an unarmed man. And they have fearsome teeth and claws. They're amazingly strong. Arnold Schwarzenegger might stand a chance. Nobody in my circle of friends would. That said, it's been decades since anyone has been killed by a black bear. They really are "more scared of you than you are of them," as my mother said of so many different critters as I was growing up.

Now, just because I heard a THWAANNNGGGG doesn't mean there's a b'ar out thar. Racoons have been known to climb what we call "the bird feeder tree" and attempt to possum their way out to where the feeders are. Yup, hanging on with all four feet, they "walk" the line upside down until they can reach a feeder, then release their front feet, scoot over some more, and hang upside down using those cute, dexterous little front paws to reach into the feeder and feed their upside-down cute little faces. They can empty a feeder faster'n a tornado.

But wait, you say, that doesn't sound like anything that would make a THWAANNNGGGG sound, does it?

My observant reader, you are so right. No, what makes the THWAANNNGGGG sound is the soda cans that we strung on the tree end of the cable to prevent rodentious creatures like the racoon and his partners in crime, the squirrels, from eating all the seeds intended for our feathery pals. So now anyone who wants to walk on the cable, either upside down or right side up, has to figure out how to get past those fat swirling cans. They inevitably are dumped off, and in the process create a great crashing THWAANNNGGGG sound. Imagine a smug smile on my face. Very smug, indeed.

(Please don't bother to feel sorry for the rodents. I have neighbors who keep bird feeders and who haven't gone to these lengths to protect them. Nobody's going hungry around here.)

( ... except me when I'm on a diet.)

So, back to the night in question. It's 3am, and I hear The Sound. (You thought I was going to say "THWAANNNGGGG" again. Fooled ya.) It wakes me from a decent sleep, so that I have to play it back in my head before I actually realize what woke me. I'm out of bed in a flash. It's really dark outside because it's been rainy and cloudy for far too many days, but I can just make out a large black shadow moving under the feeders. It's way too big for a raccoon. I wheel the window open, clap my hands, and shout, "SCRAM!" Not eloquent, I know, but please consider both the circumstances and the audience. It's not a time for Shakespearean rage. Plain ordinary rage will do.

"So much for Todd's blissful sleep," I think to myself as I thunder down the stairs to flip on the big halogen light in the back yard. At this point, I'm not sure if the bear has managed to reach high enough to grab one of the short feeders, or if he thwanged by climbing the tree and swiping at the cable, so if he's still hanging around I'm planning to watch him to see what he does. But there's no sign of him. (See, I told you ordinary rage was all that was called for.) I watch for a few minutes, switch off the halogen light to spare Todd's stunned eyeballs, and turn on an ordinary porch light so I can see the bear if he comes back. Todd hasn't said anything from his bedroom, so I assume he's gone back to sleep. I go up the stairs more quietly than I came down.

You might be wondering about the dog's behavior during all this. And well you might. He's still a fur ball on the bed. I stare at him in amazement. This is the dog who barks at the slightest unknown sound outside.

Ah, me. I settle back into bed. My jangled nerves begin to subside. I'm about to drift off when --- you guessed it ---- THWAANNNGGGG!!

This time I jump up and just watch. To my surprise, it's a very small bear out there. Not a cub, but not much more than that. Maybe a yearling? I revise the bear's gender in my head. There's quite a size difference between the males and the females. I'm guessing this to be a female yearling, her first spring away from Mom.

As I watch her, I realize our feeders are in absolutely no danger from her. She's standing on her hind legs, and they're still so far over her head she doesn't bother raising her arms toward them. She drops back onto all fours, licks some seeds from the ground, makes to go up the tree but changes her mind, and heads back toward the house. In fact, toward the deck, and I remember the cute little tray feeder that's attached by suction cups to our dining room window. Can't let her get wind of that! I rap on the window sharply, and encourage Simba to bark. No need, she runs off. I still haven't heard a word out of that dog. Not a wuff, not an arf, not a grr. Useless!

The rest of the night passes without incident. In the morning, I ask Todd if he saw the bear and he tells me he slept right through the whole thing! But later that day, our little she-bear came back in broad daylight. When I saw that she couldn't reach the bottom of the tube feeders, either, I went to the best window in the spare bedroom and shot about a dozen pictures of her before she headed for the deck. Then Todd scared her off just by walking over where she could see him in the back door.

Later, while I was away, she came back again. This time she wasn't scared off until Todd was basically nose-to-nose with her at the dining room window and knocked on it. She's learning that we're not that scary. She's a smart bear. This is what happens when bears get acclimated to being around people. It's not good for her. Someone's going to scare her off with live ammunition some day, and that will be the end of her.

There are those who believe that heaven won't have any animals. I just don't believe that. It's hard for me to conceive of a place being all that wonderful if there are no animals there. So, if she doesn't make it through life without having a run-in with the wrong end of a shotgun, I have hope that we'll see her again in heaven.

In the meantime, we'll have the pictures to remember her by.

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