A Whole New Vista in the Back Yard


As I was puttering around the kitchen one morning last week, putting breakfast dishes in the dishwasher and wiping up crumbs up from the table, I noticed a fluttering of dark wings.

I raised my head and looked at our patio through the floor-to-ceiling windows we installed when we remodeled our house last year. The window framed a large flock of birds as they darted into the branches of the large red maple, which adds a magnificent swath of color to our backyard in the fall but looks barren and forlorn in winter.

At first, I thought the grackles had returned. I have never liked these birds.

They aren't as offensive and noisy as crows, but they bother me nonetheless. I guess I don't like the contrast between their bright yellow beaks and their mottled black and brown feathers. I also resent the fact that these ugly little things have quite a swagger when they walk. I always think they are trespassing when they land in my yard.

But last Tuesday morning, I saw a bunch of feathered creatures that are more than welcome to pass time in my yard. As they alighted on the the maple's leafless branches, it was easy to see their distinctive burnt orange breasts.

They were robins.

As some of them pecked at holes in the branches, others peered down on the ground to check if the mysterious threat had passed. In an instant, they all returned to the ground and immediately began to poke at the flower bed, scattering bits and pieces of mulch and dried leaves as they nibbled on bugs and grubs.

I carefully tiptoed to the window to get a better look at these harbingers of spring. They were too preoccupied with their eating to notice me. I quickly tried to count the birds. I was up to 42, when they took off for the tree branches again.

In the decade that we have lived in our house, I had never seen such a large group of robins all at once. At most, I have seen three or four poking and prodding the grass and vegetable garden for worms.

Even though all of outdoors was enveloped by a gray foggy drizzle, the sight of these birds brightened my morning. In the past six months, our new windows have given us a whole new perspective on our yard.

We always knew that a wild hare had settled in the tangle of evergreens and lilacs in the far corner of the backyard. He, or maybe she, would occasionally come out of hiding and nibble on the clover that has overrun our grass. My daughters even named it Little Bunny Fou Fou after the rhyme about the bunny that stamps out the field mice.

Since we don't see Little Bunny Fou Fou on a regular basis, we now worry about it.

Despite its placid appearance, our neighborhood is a dangerous place for a rabbit. Several cats make our yard a regular stop on their peregrinations around our block. In addition, a family of raccoons has settled into the hollow trunk of an 80-year-old silver maple in our front yard. I am sure they would love to feast on rabbit.

Whenever we have a sighting of the bunny, my family takes comfort that this defenseless creature has survived another day in a hostile world.

About three weeks ago, we were startled to discover that two rabbits had settled in our yard. We were eating breakfast when one hopped by. We all smiled that our bunny was still alive. A couple of seconds later, another light brown rabbit lazily hopped across the grass.

We got up from the table and walked over to the dinning room and looked out the windows that face the side yard. Under the wild cherry tree, the first rabbit was nibbling on some vegetation. He kept a wary eye on the other rabbit, who also was eating away.

Since my neighbor puts out copious amounts of bird feed and corn throughout the year, we have always supported a large population of squirrels. As a practice, we only pay attention to them when they are chasing each other up and down the trees or leaping from one branch to another.

About the middle of December, a petite gray critter came hopping by the back window. He climbed up the back step and peered into the house. He stayed around long enough for us to get a good look. He was a squirrel who had lost his big bushy tail and was left with a little tuft of fur at the base of his back. My daughters named him Stubby and made up stories about how the other squirrels made fun of him.

Seeing these creatures going about their business is one of the small delights of my day. Several days ago, I had an even bigger delight.

The squirrels were scurrying around on the back lawn and acting more frenetic than usual. Instead of darting up the red maple, they ran for cover under bushes. I looked up just as a large hawk descended on the back walk.

I called for my wife and daughters. As they came rushing into the kitchen, the hawk flapped his large wings and took off. I lost sight of him as he passed my barren black walnut tree.

It has occurred to me that this wonderful display of nature had always been in my back yard, but I had never known it. The old wall of the house with its tiny windows obstructed our view.

Sometimes, it really helps to knock out a wall and install some large windows. You can really get a much better picture of all sorts of excitement right outside your back door.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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