Where life is hard, there's plenty of it to see.
The other day, looking out back, we spotted two young mule deer at play. They scampered across our field of vision, heedless of the precarious footing, stopped hard and reversed course. The clatter of their hooves against the rock-strewn scarp echoed over our gasps of delight at this impromptu show.
Most mornings, if we're up and at 'em early enough, I spot a cottontail or two out back while I'm making coffee in the kitchen. By then the quail have already started their calling, which always somehow sounds aggrieved, as if someone just twisted their topknots. And of course there are the ravens, swooping audibly over the screen room, and the occasional buzzards and roadrunners (dining on packrats, one hopes). Plenty of lizards out there, too — and sometimes in here, when the cat pounces on one that's wandered into the screen room — along with the occasional snake and even a toad in the pond.
Every few weeks the coyotes wake us up at night with their singing. Several times we've spotted a skunk outside our garage door, just in time to not let it in. We've seen a fox once, and fox scat more often than that, and there was the coatimundi that left its dusty print on the hot-tub cover. We didn't see the actual critter, but the fish formerly in the pond sure did.
Judging by the photos readers keep sending in for our "Life in a State of Nature" feature in the Tumbleweeds section, we're hardly alone in enjoying a constant parade of wildlife. Our desert Southwest is one big open-air zoo, and you never know what you might see if you keep your eyes open.
Readers sometimes joke that this column is a chronicle of "what I saw in my backyard," though to be fair I've covered plenty of other important topics in recent months, such as my beard and the oddly limited palette of automobile colors. If I do occasionally opine about the critters out there, though, it's probably because I saw so little wildlife growing up (outside of the Great Plains Zoo, that is).
This seems strange in retrospect, because it's not as though I grew up in Manhattan or someplace else utterly urban. Sioux Falls, SD, at the time was smaller than Las Cruces is now, a modest city surrounded by corn fields and the Big Sioux River. Moreover, we were virtual pioneers, homesteading on what was then the extreme edge of the city. (My old neighborhood is now considered "central" Sioux Falls, and the dirt road where my dad taught me to drive is the city's busiest intersection.) When my parents built a house there, several lots on our block were still undeveloped and the lot behind us was wooded and overgrown.
My friends and I could walk to the banks of the river (such as it was when not flooding), in that innocent era when parents apparently didn't worry about drowning, kidnapping or what a 10-year-old boy on the loose with a fistful of firecrackers might be up to. I suppose we saw birds and maybe frogs when we weren't busy blowing tin cans sky-high or decapitating plastic army men. But I don't remember if so.
Instead, my non-zoo experience of wildlife was limited to the songbirds and squirrels that visited our backyard, which my dad set about filling with trees with the sort of determination that General Sherman applied to the Confederacy. My mom kept a bird feeder on the balcony in winter, which attracted the usual suspects — juncos and such — and which proved immune to all efforts at squirrel-proofing.
But no deer scampered across our increasingly tree-filled backyard, much less more exotic fauna. There must have been jackrabbits somewhere — namesake of South Dakota State University's sports teams — but the only ones I saw were corpses tossed on the basketball court by rival fans. I hardly recall even a humble cottontail, but maybe I just wasn't paying attention (playing superheroes takes a pretty serious mental focus). Surely there were coyotes, too, not only those playing on the University of South Dakota sports teams named for them, but I never saw one.
South Dakota is famous for its pheasants, but most of the pheasants I saw were on a dinner plate under a nice cream sauce. Students of my parents (both college English teachers) would share their hunting prizes every pheasant season, no doubt hoping to boost their grades.
Even after we were married and moved away for various jobs — St. Paul, Tuscaloosa, Dubuque, Pittsburgh — the wildlife we saw was nothing that would inspire a visit from Marlin Perkins and the old "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" TV show. ("While Jim evades the crushing power of that anaconda, this important message from Mutual of Omaha can help you avoid crushing problems when the unexpected happens...")
When yet another job took us to Milwaukee, in fact, I was so moved by the sight of a family of deer crossing the sunset-lit park I sometimes drove through on the way home that I wrote about it. (Clearly, sowing the seeds for today's Continental Divide column!)
Weirdly, we didn't really encounter much urban wildlife until we moved to Cincinnati, to a big, turn-of-the-century house smack in the heart of the city. There we had raccoons in the attic and once spotted a woodchuck in our neighbor's backyard. Rather than chucking wood, this woodchuck was busy confiscating a big sheet of plastic the neighbor had left out back — presumably for some woodchuck home-improvement project.
Our Cincinnati experiences prepared us a little for the critter parade of living in Silver City, but the sheer profusion and variety of wildlife still leave us speechless sometimes. What's most amazing, though, is that we're enjoying wildlife in unprecedented (to us, that is) numbers in the most inhospitable-seeming place we've ever lived.
After all, it's famously dry here (putting the Desert in Desert Exposure). The ground looks more like airport tarmac than anything that could support life. Rather than the welcoming, power-line-endangering trees of my dad's backyard, we have mostly stubby, barely leafed trees that Midwesterners would call "shrubs." Half the plant life in which critters might seek shelter is studded with spikes of some sort. As my visiting sister-in-law once put it, "Don't you have any plants here that won't hurt you?"
And yet somehow the furry and feathered creatures thrive — at least, enough to make frequent appearances where we can spot them.
They come and go, of course, presumably with the changing local ecosystem and micro-climate. Just the other day we were recalling the jackrabbits we used to get — towering over the humble cottontails they'd forage beside — and wondering why they don't visit anymore. In years past, too, the quail would be so thick on the ground in the evenings that you could imagine walking on them without ever touching terra firma. Now we have a quail family or two, but not the hordes.
Deer, on the other hand, were late to the party in our backyard. But in recent years we've seen them pretty regularly, and can count on them to clean up the fallen leaves and fruit from our peach, apple and pear trees.
We'll get to know a roadrunner pretty well, to listen for its distinctive clacking call, and then it moves on. Some years the hummingbirds buzz in the backyard like the sound of a dying hard drive, along with the annual oriole arrival, while other summers we see only a few. We've spied baby squirrels, as tiny as toys, nibbling the flowers and foliage just outside my wife's office window. Then they grow up, I guess, and strike out on their own in other backyards, where the mother squirrel nags them about when they're going to make her a grandma.
Life goes on, and we appreciate how lucky we are to see so much of it — particularly given our lack of wildlife experiences growing up. Even as I type this, the quail are complaining about whatever it is that aggravates them so, and my wife is calling me to come see the big lizard out her window. If I watch long and hard enough, maybe the mule deer young'uns will come back to play.
Our "wild kingdom" has many lessons to teach, I think — and not just about the need to buy insurance.
When he can tear himself away from the window,
David A. Fryxell edits Desert Exposure.