We had a kerfuffle break out amidst the yard residents during the last twenty-four hours.

An unusually aggressive gray squirrel arrived yesterday mid-morning, dividing its time between ordinary hoovering up of seeds and rather aggressively attacking any other birds or squirrels that came near the spilled seed under the feeders. Squirrels often chase birds away from the spilled seed, but it’s not really a big deal. This squirrel, however, was unusually aggressive.

Then it escalated, jumping on top of one of the cottontails when it came near the (plentiful) seed under the feeder, scratching and biting the bunny furiously. Uh, oh. The bunny (most likely Tad) was injured, badly enough that it left a trail of blood drops as it fled. We never saw a squirrel do that before. Mr. Squirrel spent the rest of the afternoon and again this morning chasing all the ground-feeding birds and squirrels away from the feeders. It was even running up into the bushes and chasing the birds out of the bushes.

Young Grumps (the dominant bunny) showed up mid-afternoon today to take her place under her favorite bush.

Mr. Squirrel decided that he couldn’t allow that, and zoomed across the yard to roar into her from behind, the way he did the other bunny yesterday.

Big. Mistake.

Young Grumps isn’t her momma’s daughter and the dominant bunny for nothin’. She met him just as he took his flying leap at her, jumping up and kicking back, basting him squarely with her hind paws. The squirrel was knocked backwards, tumbling head over heels. She whipped around, ears flattened and dived into Mr. Squirrel. He took off and barely beat her — running for his life — escaping up into the bush. She sat on the ground right under him until the squirrel got up enough courage to leap out of the bush and flee the yard at top speed.

He hasn’t been back.

The yard is back to normal, full of ordinary squirrels and birds and bunnies.

Just … wow

What snazzy markings on this female red-headed woodpecker

Off and on today I watched red-bellied woodpeckers fly back and forth to our suet feeder, and marveled at how glorious they look against the sparkling snow. They are such large birds compared to most other birds that come to our feeders, and so beautifully colored with the scarlet markings on their heads, handsome black and white checkered feathers, and rosy colored tummies.

As horribly cold as it’s been, and snowy, I wouldn’t want to live in a place where I couldn’t see these birds framed against the snow and red branches of our native dogwoods. When I see them like this, my reaction is just … wow.

The Bunny Hop

Young Grumps imitating a loaf of bread.

One of my friends asked a while back how we tell our cottontail rabbits apart, as they all look the same.

They do?

I guess we’ve been watching the cottontail crews for so long that I’ve forgotten that to most people they do all look the same.

Cottontails only come in one color, a sort of grayish brown. Technically their color is called “agouti,” which is quite different than “brown” in regards to the genetics behind coat color that are “under the hood” so to speak. If you pluck out (good luck with that!) a single hair from a cottontail’s flank and examine it, you’ll see that the hair isn’t brown at all. Instead, it’s made up of alternating bands of color which are from various amounts of yellow and black pigment. But to pretty much everyone but rabbit fanciers and coat color genetics hobbyists like me, cottontail bunnies are all grayish-brown. There are some pretty distinct differences you can see between rabbits if you look closely at patterning that does show up in their fur. The shape and size of head and ears differ from one cottontail to the next, too, as does their body size and shape. But those are all subtle distinctions. Unless you’ve spent a lot of time watching them, a cottontail bunny looks like a bunny looks like a bunny.

We often distinguish our cottontails by watching their behaviors, instead of by how they look. Usually a rabbit will have at least one distinct behavior that sets it aside from the other bunnies.

Young Grumps is a great example of that. She hates snow. As in “get this stuff away from me!” hates snow. Being a fairly assertive rabbit (as rabbits go), it makes for some pretty captivating shows to watch how she deals with it when it’s snowing, or after a deep snowfall.

She hates having snowflakes settle on her ears. When we’re having a heavy snowfall (like today), she jumps up in the air every so often and vigorously shakes her head, ears twitching, until her ears are free of snow.

She also hops higher on every fourth or fifth leap, when traversing the yard, and shakes her front paws midair.

Young Grumps standing tippy paws to avoid that yucky snow.

To avoid sitting in the snow as she eats, she’ll sometimes stand “tippy paws” on her hind feet, so that her tummy and butt are raised well above that nasty snow.

Young Grump thumping the snow flat.

Her most distinctive behavior, however, occurs when she uses her hind legs to tromp down any spot where she intends to spend a bit of time. She almost stands upright on her front paws as she brings down both of those big ol’ rabbit hind feet, thumping the snow down as she does. It’s best described as an angry bunny dance, the inverse of everything sweet you ever imagined in a bunny hop. In bunny speak, it’s pretty clear what she’s saying: “Take that, and that and that you $*%#^ snow!”

It’s hilarious to watch, and I’ve never seen another rabbit do it!

The End of an Era: Rachel Louetta Skiles Davinich

Rachel Louetta Skiles Davinich

Happy Birthday, Mom!

Today, January 9, 2014, would have been my mom’s 93rd birthday. We lost Mom to a stroke in October of 2013, so she didn’t quite make it to 93.

Mom was a member of the Greatest Generation, and our country is the richer for having had her and all of her generation and all they did.

Mom was born in Parkesburg, PA, and lived in Pennsylvania until her family moved to Maryland when she was a young teen. Unusually, for a woman of her generation, after high school graduation she went on to earn a degree in nursing from the University of Maryland.

The attack on Pearl Harbor came when she was taking her final classes for her degree. She and her classmates volunteered for military service, and served in the U.S. Army’s 42nd General Hospital.

 University of Maryland 1942 Nursing School Graduating Class aboard the USS West Point.

Her graduation photo was actually taken on the USS West Point (a naval troop transport ship)! Mom is in the first row, second from the left.

In WWII she was stationed in New Zealand, the Philippine Islands and Australia, and for a short time on a troop ship taking care of the injured as they were transported to the United States. Near the end of the war she served in an Army hospital in the United States. She resigned her commission after WWII upon marrying a handsome young naval officer she had met in Australia–my dad.

Mom raised five children, of which I was her “caboose child.” I’m sure at times she would have gladly fled back to active service to get some relative peace and quiet, with as rowdy a bunch as we were …

She taught me so much, and I was blessed as an adult to have wonderful regular conversations with her right up until her death.

I was looking through some old photos of Mom today, and found one of my favorites, from when she was stationed in Brisbane, Australia:

 Rachel Skiles WWII Brisbane Australia

Makes me smile.

Happy Birthday, Mom! I hope it’s been a great day!

Feeder Frenzy

No, not it’s not birds … it’s bunnies.

With the severe weather and deep snow cover, dropped seed from our bird feeders becomes a dependable source of good high energy food cottontails seek out. Most winters we only have one to two bunnies that consider our yard their “home” territory and that come regularly to harvest this bounty. Unusually, this year we have four: Young Grumps, Buns, Bouncer and Thadeus — Tad for short, as he’s just a little tad of a bunny.

Eastern cottontails are not the same critters as pet bunnies. Although they look quite similar, pet bunnies and cottontail bunnies are totally different species. When you look “under the hood,” you discover just how different: cottontails have 21 pairs of chromosomes, while domestic rabbits have 22. The two species have different habits and behaviors, and don’t interbreed.

Pet bunnies are descendants of rabbits that originally lived in Europe. They are happiest living in communities called warrens, seeking out each other’s company, and live in communal underground burrows they dig.

Cottontail bunnies, in contrast, only tolerate each other (to varying degrees). A cottontail will dig a small scrape into the ground, or snow, which it doesn’t share with other cottontails. Their life is mostly solitary, and above ground. When they do come into common areas (like under our feeders), they observe a bunny hierarchy that’s definitely a pecking order.

Young Grumps is the dominant rabbit. She feeds first, and the others move out of her way when she gives them a “bunny stare” that says “move!” Bouncer and Buns are, oddly for cottontails, buddies. They hang out together, usually as close as about three or four feet apart. Tad, a late-comer, is a bit smaller than the other bunnies, and keeps a respectful distance from the other three, fleeing from the others in any altercation.

With our extreme cold, and deep snow, our cottontails tolerate each other in closer proximity than they do other times of the year, even at the common “mess halls” (aka feeders). They’ll get as close as three or four feet apart without any apparent problem. Here’s a rather fuzzy photo (sorry–taken through a double pane window with drizzle outside!) of a typical pattern we see when the bunnies are in “winter formation.”

 Three cottontails--Young Grumps, Buns and Bouncer--lunching on sunflower seeds.

It isn’t a peaceful contented sharing — it’s more of a truce under extreme conditions. Woe to the less dominant bunny who pushes too close to a more dominant bunny! Then a chase ensues, with the dominant cottontail driving the other from the seed.

Less dominant cottontails usually flee, but not always. Then, like I watched happen yesterday, an elaborate dance ensues. Bouncer, (bottom right in the photo) who has a bit of an attitude, encroached beyond Young Grumps’ acceptable sharing zone. Young Grumps (bottom left) jumped in the air, sometimes jumping right over Bouncer, while kicking out with the hind legs. At this point Bouncer fled, with Young Grumps in pursuit. Buns (upper left) had already split, back when the altercation began. YG chased Bouncer across the entire yard before turning back. YG then hopped back under the feeder and finished lunch. Bouncer and Buns stayed away until Young Grumps hopped off to settle back in an established scrape, and digest in peace.

I’ve seen fights that become extreme, at times, where two cottontails get into a boxing scuffle, standing on their hind paws and sparring with each other until one finally turns and retreats, usually with the winner in pursuit. It looks cute, but it’s serious business if you’re a cottontail.

Lunch over, the bunnies all retreated to their own usual spots, hunkered down under various bushes. In this cold, they don’t look like rabbits. With their fur fluffed out to insulate better, and their paws all tucked underneath, they look like round furry basketballs with ears!