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Animals at the Cottage: Whole Worlds We Could Never Dream of

When I looked out of my bedroom window to see what was making that strange noise both the yard and the forest were impenetrably dark, though I could hear a light wind moving through the pines. Then the noise came again: a deep cough, a harsh hruff!, and an abrupt bark.

Had the deer caught bronchitis again or, even worse, tuberculosis?   They usually move as they graze, though, and this creature stood stock still.

“I saw him last week,” my daughter told me the next morning.  “It’s a big fox – probably a male.”

A week later, I heard something similar carrying on, father back in the forest this time.  It was a coyote-like call, but more melodic, and hauntingly solitary as the singer moved to a new spot, stopped and called; then to another for a further rendition of what must be the aria of the vixen, seeking her mate.

That’s all guesswork, of course – though I Googled the song of the female fox and it matched up  –  but what either of them were actually up to is probably a far more intricate bit of animal communication than we humans can ever fathom.

I have been reading a book by Ed Yong, Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us , that ventures into the mysterious worlds our fellow creatures inhabit, perceiving things from their existentially non-human perspective by means of a complicated array of senses we don’t have.  Just think of your family dog: “humans share the same basic machinery, but dogs just have more of everything; a more extensive olfactory epithelium, dozens of times more neurons in that epithelium, almost twice, and a relatively larger olfactory bulb.” When he

sits by the river with his nose ecstatically quivering, he is taking in whole worlds through scents we human beings cannot even begin to imagine. That is why you should humor your dog when he sniffs every tree, and especially a fire hydrant: to him, it is as rich with information as the Sunday New York Times!  So make a resolution to take him on a sniff Safari at least once a week- that’s is a walk on a long leash, where he gets to lead the way, and sniff anything he wants, as long as it takes to absorb all the information.


Then  there are our Wood Turtles.   We have seen them every year since 1998, crossing the road from the forest to the Betsie River and laying their eggs in the meadow between our cabin and the water. I wrote to Michigan’s beloved “critter guru,” Jim Harding, an instructor in Integrative Biology at Michigan State University before his 2020 retirement.

This beloved turtle rescuer replied that he is glad that Wood Turtles are still here and so frequently seen in the Betsie River habitat, as “they have declined greatly over the state in recent decades.”  I was surprised to learn that they are an endangered species “of greatest conservation need,” requiring clean flowing rivers near forested area, and pleased that our river’s protection under the Natural Wild and Scenic Rivers Act (1968) has spared them the loss of their favorite habitat.

Wood Turtles are between six and eight inches long, sporting shells patterned with pyramids.  They are said to be friendly and curious, which may be a human projection, but they do have some interesting habits.  Did you know that they stamp their feet and their shell on the earth to imitate rain falling so that a meal of worms will rise to the surface? In late June this year two of them crossed the road and headed in our direction, taking up temporary residence under our deck. They seemed to hang around to greet us in the morning before heading for the river.  And – what do you know? –  the female spent a whole day digging twelve separate holes in our clearing and laid eggs in each one of them.  Why so many separate nests, we wondered?  We got our answer that same afternoon when a raccoon turned up, but he went hungry.

Are Wood Turtle eggs scentless?  I hope so, as they are clearly in danger from animal predation as well as from habitat loss.   Keep tuned – they are scheduled to hatch on or about August 5!

Earlier in the summer, a Porcupine descended the tall pine he almost never comes down from to stand on our swimming stairs.  “What is he doing?” asked my grandson, but I had absolutely no answer.   It had an elegant set of quills – shaded from white ends to brown and beige- the kind that Native Americans fashion into components of their elegant embroidery.  I read that, if you don’t actually touch them, they won’t shoot quills at you – but what might be going on in their heads remains an utter mystery.

And may it be so.  We humans, who think we know so much, clearly don’t; these wild creatures we occasionally encounter remind us that there are other sensations and other worlds that, for all of our elegant philosophizing, we can never even dream of.

The Fox illustration is by Angela Harding, a British Printmaker whose book, Wild Light, has just been published. I have my copy and it is absolutely gorgeous.

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