Raccoon Redux

A raccoon is caught in flagrante delicto

One of them almost got in the other night.

This time I heard it coming, though, and although it was a close call, I was able to ward it off. Years ago, some kind of commando got in undetected, and once entrenched it was difficult to dislodge. This time, however, the attempted break-in was under the window where I sleep, and it woke me up. At about one in the morning, I heard a scraping sound. Listening more closely, there was a heavy, irregular grunt. Someone was trying to break in to the crawlspace under the house.

I had to fight to keep my pulse under control as I recalled the episode years ago, when another raccoon had managed to rip open one of the gratings. It had set up a nice little encampment under one of the bathrooms, and apparently enjoyed scratching its back on the underside of the tub, all the while issuing little cries of bliss. This interfered with my sleep, and eventually I decided I had to chase the thing out from under there.

This proved quite difficult to do. Seeking advice at Hassel’s Hardware, I was told to throw an ammonia-soaked rag into the nest. Raccoons don’t like the smell of ammonia and, although they can rip open steel gratings, they can’t figure out how to get rid of the rag. And so they leave, at least in theory.

On the strength of this, I bought a can of ammonia from Hassel, soaked a rag in it, and crawled down through the trap door leading to the space under the house. This was a dark place full of cobwebs and mud, and I didn’t like being there at all. It was unfortunate that the trap door where I crouched was located at the far end from the suspected raccoon nest, but I was unwilling to venture any further. Do your best, I thought to myself, somewhat ineffectually, and I balled up the rag in my fist and threw it as far as I could. This turned out to be about four feet, and it had no discernible effect on the raccoon population. However, I did ruin a shirt by getting ammonia on the sleeve.

After this foray into chemical warfare, I tried talking the kid next door into crawling under there with a broomstick, but he wanted too much money. Finally, I managed to get rid of the thing by applying the principles of physics: I left the trap door propped open, allowing free raccoon transit. Even with only one raccoon, the partial pressure of raccoons under the house had to be higher than the partial pressure of raccoons in the rest of the world (although not while it was sleeping, as its kinetic energy would then be zero).  By allowing the system to equilibrate, I knew that the little beggar would have to come out sooner or later (Dalton’s Law of Raccoons). After a few nights, the dogs next door alerted me that my tenant had gone out to forage, and I ran out to shut the door. The broken grating had been replaced by then, and so territorial integrity was finally restored.

Thinking back on that unfortunate episode, I realized that the present alarm had to be taken seriously. As much as I wanted to roll over and go back to sleep, I couldn’t allow this animal to break in and establish an outpost under my house. It was cold and I was warm in bed, but all good men must come to the defense of the premises (when threatened). I couldn’t just go back to sleep.

I got up and staggered down the hall in my underwear.

Somehow, I managed to find a flashlight and stepped through the patio doors out onto the back deck. I swept the yard with the beam, seeing nothing along the back wall. Then, near the shrubs, the bright glint of two eyes stared back at me. An animal with a striped tail stood motionless in the middle of the lawn, insolently sizing me up.

Unarmed men, this is a good time to point out, are not at their best confronting wild animals while clad only in their boxers. As the raccoon considered what to do, I tried to hold my ground. But I kept imagining razor-like teeth and claws, while thoughts of rabies also vied for my attention. Eventually, I said “Go away,” as forcefully as I could. I may have added, “please”. And the raccoon must have been impressed, because it turned around and disappeared into the darkness near the fence. After a while, I went back to bed.

It took a while for my heartbeat to slow down again, but finally I managed to get to sleep. Not for long, though. In a short while, the scratching resumed, as distinct as before.

Cursing, I returned to the patio door with my flashlight. This time, I caught sight of the animal slinking around the corner of the house. It was hiding in a narrow pathway bounded by high shrubs and leading to a latched gate, biding its time and hoping I’d go away. I was hesitant to corner it in this dead end, especially in my underwear, and so I needed an alternate plan. I decided to come around from the other side of the gate and try to flush it back out into the yard, hoping it would run away. I ran inside and put on a pair of pants. Then, feeling decidedly bolder, I grabbed a broomstick from the garage and headed around to the gateway.

Hoping the neighbors would forgive me for the noise, I started banging the stick on the gate. After a bit, I peeked between the boards with the flashlight, and sure enough, the raccoon had fled to the far end. It was in the main yard again and near the fence. Summoning my courage, and hitching up my pants, I opened the gate and advanced down the walk, while making a racket with the broomstick against the wall of the house.

My light caught the raccoon for an instant as it ran along the top of the fence before jumping into the neighbor’s yard. The dogs must have been sleeping, I guess, because they remained quiet. Feeling a bit disappointed by this, I stood there listening for a while. No hint of raccoon. So, I went back inside, leaving the broomstick by the patio doors, just in case this wasn’t over. And again, I tried to go back to sleep.

This time my nap lasted all of an hour. At that point, an even more raucous rasping awakened me from under the window. Once again, I cursed and jumped into my pants. Grabbing flashlight and broomstick, I threw open the patio door and stepped outside. This time the raccoon had made enough noise to rouse the dogs, and they were barking furiously next door. I decided to add to the commotion by raking the broomstick on the metal patio chairs.

In the midst of this commotion I found the raccoon with my light, near the side of the house. It froze in the beam, clutching the end of a piece of metal grating it had half torn from the wall beneath the window. From the looks of things, it had just now succeeded in making the opening large enough for a raccoon to pass through. Dalton’s Law, I realized, now favored its ducking inside.

But Dalton’s Law is based on statistics, the probable motion of a population of raccoons. It further assumes that this motion will be random, and that the raccoons will be infinitely tiny point-raccoons. Here, however, was a single instance of a raccoon poised to move in a non-random manner. Statistically anomalous outcomes were imaginable. For a moment, the animal hesitated, and I wondered as I banged on the chair. Would it climb in through the hole and try to hide, or would it panic and flee the racket I was making together with the dogs?

Finally, the commotion proved too much for it, and the raccoon turned and vanished under the ceanothus and over the fence in the corner of the yard. They have a dog over there, too, but it’s a little froufrou thing with bows that wears a sweater whenever they walk it. It’s not the kind of dog that confronts a raccoon. Not without a pair of pants.

•••

The next morning, I was out in the back replacing the torn grating. In a way, I felt bad for the poor raccoon. It had put in a whole night’s worth of hard work pulling the screen out from its metal frame, cleverly working on the weakest part of the design, only to be thwarted at the last moment.

After a while, Frank came over and said hello. Frank is my neighbor and he’s even older than I am.

“Was that you out here last night with a flashlight?” he wanted to know. “I was watching TV and I saw a light movin’ out here.” Frank is a good neighbor and a vigilant insomniac. He has a sharp eye for burglars, but not for raccoons. He might be a bit hard of hearing, as well, because he didn’t mention the banging.

“I was gonna call the cops, but I figured a burglar wouldn’t be using a flashlight,” he added.

The use of felines to repel raccoons is recounted here.

The Sea Lion

The sea lion didn’t like seagulls or photographers. It just wanted to eat fish.

The sea lion couldn’t believe his good fortune. There was a run of salmon here, just off the end of the pier. They were running so shallow he could just reach down and pick them out of the current, he didn’t even have to dive. Surrounded by the constant squawking of scavenging gulls, he was enjoying a satisfying meal.

He reached down again and grabbed another fish, jaws clenching it tightly just behind the gills. Dragging it to the surface, he shook the fish back and forth with fierce movements of his head, breaking it into pieces that flew off in all directions. Seagulls swept in for the fragments. They were careful to avoid the raging sea lion.

Sea lion feeding on salmon
Click to enlarge
Sea lion feeding on salmon

“Damn gulls,” thought the sea lion. He didn’t like the birds, resented them for eating half his kill. Parasites. They were noisy, and their fluttering wings made him nervous. In order to calm himself, he grabbed another salmon and ripped it to shreds.

Close to the pier there were dangers you had to look out for, he knew. Fishermen with their hooks in the water. Boatmen blindly running you down. He took a cautious look around. Up on the pier, he noticed a man running excitedly toward him. A photographer, he thought to himself. Another stupid photographer. The man’s large, telephoto zoom lens was extended to its maximum, so excited was he to see a sea lion eating fish.

Sea Lion feeding - shakes fish violently
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Fish is shaken violently and broken into pieces

The sea lion didn’t like photographers. They were annoying, voyeuristic pests. Like the birds, they were freeloaders, although he didn’t really understand what sort of thrill this guy got  from watching him eat. There were restaurants down the pier with outdoor seating. Why didn’t he go bother the people eating there? But the sea lion consoled himself with the thought that, unlike the gulls, photographers don’t steal your fish.

Which didn’t mean that they weren’t a nuisance, the sea lion considered. Photographers made him nervous: they pointed lenses at him, produced an obnoxious clicking sound, and made him feel conspicuous with their constant gawking. Cursing, the sea lion shook another fish to pieces, making sure to splash enough water around to prevent the guy from getting a decent picture.

Sea Lion Feeding - carries fish fragment in mouth
Click to enlarge

The photographer was right up at the edge of the pier now, pointing his telephoto and clicking fervently. Maybe he’ll fall in, thought the sea lion. He turned his back on the man to frustrate him, denying him a facial shot. Then, grabbing another passing fish, he let the fragments fly in the photographer’s direction. The swooping birds will block his view, the sea lion thought to himself. The bastard’ll spend hours in Photoshop trying to get rid of them all.

Glancing back at the pier, he saw that the guy had gotten down on one knee and was leaning against a pylon to steady his camera. “What a dweeb,” thought the sea lion. “I hope he gets bird shit on his pants.” Then, he dove down beneath the surface for a few moments to see if the man would go away.

Sea Lion Feeding - Fish is shaken violently and broken into pieces
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Flying fish fragments attract birds and other scavengers

But when he surfaced, the photographer was still there. He was standing up now, stamping his feet because it was cold on the pier. But as soon as he saw the sea lion, he raised the camera and pointed it at him. In the still morning air the animal could hear the irritating, repeated clicking of the shutter.

Infuriated, he slapped at the water with his tail, hiding from the camera behind the splashed cascade. Then he dove again, abruptly cutting down through the schooling salmon.

Sea Lion Feeding
Click to enlarge

Startled, the fish dispersed. In an instant they were gone. The birds, sensing immediately that the opportunity had passed, began drifting away toward the shallows.

The photographer was the last to realize that something had changed. But after a while he, too, turned around and walked back toward the foot of the pier.

Sea Lion Feeding
Click to enlarge

I, Grebe

As part of my naturalist training at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve I was asked to write a paper about one of our local marine birds.

Professor Evans, I want to apologize. I simply couldn’t find the time to do a report on grebes, with all the research and writing and everything, so I just went down to the harbor and looked around until I found a bird. In exchange for half an order of fried clams from Princeton Seafood, I got the damn thing to tell me about itself. I just transcribed what it had to say. I hope it’s okay.

I am a grebe.

That is to say, I am a member of the order Podicipediformes, from the Podicipedidae family. Our family includes 22 species in a half dozen genuses, but if you see one of us on the Coastside, chances are it’s a Western Grebe, like me.

My ancestors appeared in the fossil record 25 mya, during the late oligocene. We diverged, at that time, from our cousins, the flamingos. We know this from studies of our DNA and anatomy, which have shown that we have genes in common with flamingos and share eleven morphological traits. Birds cannot count to eleven, though, so I am unable to tell you what those traits are. But we grebes are not proud of the flamingo branch of the family. The Podicipedidae would never be burlesqued as pink lawn statuary. And then there are those ugly flamingo feet. More about feet later.

DESCRIPTION

I am a 2 kg waterfowl with ducklike build, black and white markings, a yellow bill and bright red eyes. Some of my cousins, like the pied-billed grebes, have evolved thick bills that can be used to crush shellfish, but mine is long and sharp and is used to spear small fish. My lifespan is 3-4 years. I want to make every minute count.

The name Podicipedidae means “feet on ass”. It sounds better in Latin. But that’s what I have: big, beautiful, flat feet. They are well adapted for swimming, which is what I use them for, since I don’t walk on land very much and they don’t help at all when I fly. They don’t help that much when I walk, either, because they’re placed so far back under my belly that I keep falling over like a drunk.

You will notice that my toes are in the shape of rounded lobes, another helpful swimming adaptation. Because of this, people used to think we Grebes were related to the Loons. Nothing could be further from the truth. Loons are boring birds, they’re all from Canada, and they can’t build a proper floating nest. But it turns out that they evolved lobed feet independently of the grebes. It’s an example of convergent evolution. Of course, the Podicipedidae did it first and the loons just copied. Happily, grebes and loons are now classified separately, in the orders Podicipediformes and Gaviiformes.

In addition to my feet, you may wish to admire my feathers, which are beautiful and functional. So beautiful that you idiots used to hunt us to make hats with them. (They are quite tasty, too, and I often eat them while I am preening. I like to give some to the new hatchlings, as well. You can never get enough fiber.) We Grebes have unusual bottom plumage that sticks straight out from the skin, bending backward to form a dense covering that traps air under the body. By flexing the feathers we can adjust our buoyancy. We can even swim with our bodies submerged and just the head and neck exposed. I’d like to see a loon do that.

MATING AND MIGRATION

In the summer, I put on my fancy mating feathers and go out looking for girl grebes (grebe cruising). This usually involves an elaborate mating ritual during which my honey and I caress each other with pieces of seaweed held sensuously in our bills (grebe foreplay), after which we rear up and charge across open water together and then dive in (grebe synchronized nuptials). A loon would be too tired to mate after all that. A clutch of 3-4 eggs is then laid (grebe consequences) and must be incubated for 24 days.

Anyway, you guys won’t get to see any of  that, because we grebes don’t mate on the coast. I just crash on the beach out here during the winter months, and then I migrate home for the summer to mate. Who needs the fog, anyway? My real home is a mound of twigs floating in the middle of a fresh water lake near Livermore.  (We have a view of the trailer park.) It took us 3 days to build and it floats out on the water, so the eggs are away from predators, not like the dumpy loon nests on the shore. After the kids hatch, they ride around on our backs for a few days ’til they learn to fish for themselves. Then I can come back to the coast and chill.

So we grebes are short-term visitors from over the hill. Some of my fishing buddies fly in from Oregon or the Sierras. Here’s a map of the places grebes hang out. Not all of us winter near the ocean, by the way. Many older grebes enjoy their retirement year in Mexico’s warmer climate (snowgrebes).

grebe range map
South America demonstrates continental podicipedidopenia

FEEDING AND PREDATORS

Like other tourists, grebes come to the coast for the water sports and seafood. I enjoy paddling around the harbor, diving, and spearing anchovies with my beak, though occasionally I’ll take a break from that and eat a crustacean or some insects.

I am not pressured very much by predators when I am out here on the water. The local raptors get plenty of field mice on the farms. If one becomes interested in me I may dive underwater to escape it, sometimes with a dramatic splash. A grebe is most vulnerable to predation while it is still an egg.

But all is not completely well in Grebeland. Our population is thought to be in decline. This may be due to pesticides, fishing lines, boaters disturbing our nesting colonies. On the coast, we are vulnerable to oil spills and netting.  It’s not easy being grebe. So please do what you can to protect our habitat. Leave the french fries, not the wrapper.

And thank you for your interest in grebes.