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Flight Lines: The yin and yang of meeting with nature

I can see it now: Gorth steps out of his cave to stretch and take out the garbage when, “splat,” a pterodactyl flies over and leaves its mark on a brand new wheel he had just carved from a piece of wood.

OK, I realize that pterodactyls and humans never coexisted in the same paleontological age, but the point is still valid. That is, humans have long interacted with nature and those interactions aren’t always pleasant, even in the highly controlled urban landscapes most of us occupy today.

My generation grew up with a somewhat sanitized version of nature in our heads. Less and less of us lived on farms where daily encounters with animals were the norm. Replacing that real-world experience were things like the weekly dose of Walt Disney and its cutesy, cuddly depictions of all manner of critters getting along with people.

Then we grew up and found out it’s not quite like that.

We become bewildered and frustrated trying to deal with the incursion of ground squirrels into our lawn, the wasp nest under the front step, or the deer that browse on that new shrub we just put in.

Birds of varying species are among the more frequent sources of such negative affairs. There is the once threatened but now ubiquitous giant race of Canada geese that occupy all those places we like to, the ones with the well-manicured green lawns like golf courses and city parks. Raise your hand if you haven’t encountered one in such places. I didn’t think so.

How about barn swallows? Indeed, those sleek looking forked-tailed fliers have a habit some homeowners find offensive. They love to build their mud nests under the eaves of homes where the daily debris from the bird family inevitably ends up on the driveway, step or patio.

Within the past week, I heard two separate complaints from bird encounters. One is a pool owner who was curious to know whether common grackles were more numerous this summer. It seems the medium-sized black birds have been treating his pool as a sort of target range when it comes to doing their bathroom chores, something not exactly welcome when stepping into a pool on a hot day.

The other friend told me of being regularly awakened at her apartment lately by singing birds. While this is not necessarily unusual this time of year, the hour of the day this is occurring is a little strange: roughly 2:30 a.m.

Northern mockingbirds have a well-known and widespread habit of loudly singing all night, but that’s a species very rare here. Instead, I believe she is hearing European starlings maintaining their steady squeaky chorus stimulated, no doubt, by the bright artificial lighting found throughout the city.

Some years ago, I had one of those human-versus-bird encounters that remains fresh in my mind for the scare it gave me. I was jogging during lunch hour along the Red River in downtown Fargo when out of the corner of my eye loomed a large dark flying figure approaching rather fast. Had I not ducked I swear the wild turkey would have struck me. I had likely neared a nest and this particular parent sought to protect it with vigor. The bird lunged at me several more times in the course of about a minute before giving up and retreating.

Whether invited or not, human confrontations with birds and critters in the out of doors occur all the time, just like they did in ages past. Some are pleasant like the twin white-tailed deer fawns that allowed me to pet them a couple of weeks ago while slowly walking through some woods. Some not so pleasant, like the sharp-shinned hawk that unashamedly hunts the birds at your bird feeder.

It’s how we deal with these interactions that is important. I would only suggest that nature is not a sanitized fairy tale; it never has been. It’s gritty, it’s grimy, and it’s mean sometimes. We just need to accept it for what it is and continue to admire it for its dynamism and the enrichment it brings to our lives.