(The Green Trash Can)
The Grackle -- a foot-long, black bird with a long tail -- says something upsetting is going on.
Grounge, grounge, grounge, grounge, grounge...
First Hollyhock peeps from the den hole and then Ivy and Persimmon appear there, too. Their mother, Mistletoe, forages on the ground nearby. Understanding the grounge calls as the bird's danger signal, she rises onto her haunches and looks around. When the calls continue she rushes up the Hackberry's trunk to the big horizontal branch above the den, pauses, and looks around.
Inside the young Box Elder tree growing up through the Privet hedge below the squirrels' den tree, the mother Grackle calls from a limb beside her nest. Though the Box Elder is short, bushy and filled with deep shadows, Mistletoe can see that the nest is loosely constructed of straw and situated in a fork of the tree's trunk about ten feet off the ground.
Now the mother Grackle's ever-louder, ever-more-urgent distress call draws seven other Grackles into the scene. Landing in the Sycamore's lower branches, they see what's going on inside the Box Elder below: Something down there slithers toward the Grackle's nest! Now the seven new birds call, too, but instead of grounge, grounge, grounge, they cry with loud, angry-sounding check! sounds.
As the unwelcome, shadowy thing in the Privet hedge keeps climbing toward the nest, two of the new Grackles sail down near it and flit from branch to branch all around it. Drawn by the commotion, a Robin comes and perches six feet above and to one side of the nest. However, it remains silent and makes no effort to get closer. Moments later a Kingbird swoops in, perches ten feet above the nest, opposite the Robin, and neither does it move or make a sound. Peace Hill's entire bird community seems interested in what's happening here!
Neither can Mistletoe unglue her eyes from the drama taking place right below her family's den. For a better view she scrambles onto the big horizontal branch where, nervously flicking her healed but odd-looking tail, she keeps watching and watching...
Yes, the slithering thing is long, slender, blackish with light-colored speckles, and covered with glistening scales. And how relentlessly this shadow-creature inches upwards, second by second drawing nearer and nearer the Grackle-mother's nest...
Draping one loop of itself on a certain branch and then pushing its head higher, then draping another loop on the next higher branch, then pushing its head higher still, then another loop on another, higher branch... the Black Rat-snake expertly and irresistibly ascends toward the nest of straw.
Aww, aww aww!
Two Blue Jays glide in from nowhere. Frantically they scream their alarms and with outrage flit around the terrible visitor. However, even this doesn't prevent the serpent from sticking its stiff head six inches above the Grackle's nest.
With black, unblinking eyes, for a long time it stares silently into the Grackle's nest. Then, very slowly it bends its head downward into the nest's cavity, and soon the rest of the body follows. All the creatures watch as the snake's body coils around and around inside the nest. Is the nest empty, with the snake only entering for a rest? Or, right now is the snake squeezing in its coils a helpless Grackle nestling? Only the snake and the mother Grackle know that for sure.
Once the Black Rat-snake's whole body lies coiled inside the nest, almost immediately the Blue Jays and Grackles grow silent and end their flitting about. They perch briefly and look at one another as if to say, "There's nothing else we can do... " and then they all fly away, the mother with them. The Kingbird then also leaves. Only the Robin remains. Like a statue it perches staring down into the little Box Elder's shadows. Long it sits, neither it nor the snake moving at all. Then, finally, the Robin, too, flies away, leaving only Mistletoe, Hollyhock, Ivy, and Persimmon watching.
Now it's certain. In Mistletoe for days the urge has grown to find her family a new home. The three nestlings have grown so that now the den is cramped. Also, day and night, tiny, blood-sucking fleas crawl beneath the squirrels' fur, leaving sore, itching spots, and the warming weather only makes them worse. Yes, even before this snake moved into the neighborhood, there were reasons to move, and now...
The following morning, one nestling at a time, Mistletoe carries her nestlings to a new home. While being carried, each infant squirrel instinctively wraps its legs and tail around Mistletoe's neck, holding on.
The new home, just up Peace Hill from the Alexanders' house, is a leaf nest placed in the fork of a Black Walnut's trunk about thirty feet off the ground. Though the nest was built by another squirrel last year, it was put together so soundly that Mistletoe only needed to patch it up a little. From below, the nest looks like nothing but a messy heap of leaves and twigs. However, to Mistletoe and her young, it feels like a summer cottage with a fresh view, fresh air and no fleas and no snakes! Here's how such leaf nests are built:
First, where a tree-branch forks, a sturdy, stage-like platform is woven of leafy twigs. This platform's surface is then firmed and leveled out by piling upon it odds and ends of grass, moss, tree bark and leaves. Finally, atop this platform, green leaves are woven among small twigs to form a domed roof. The "room" beneath this covering is about sixteen inches wide and twelve inches deep.
Hollyhock, Ivy, and Persimmon just can't get enough of their new view. They can see the picnic area atop Peace Hill where humans sometimes eat sandwiches, throw Frisbees, and sunbathe. On the one-lane street passing beneath their tree's limbs, humans come walking, bicycling, and jogging.
Maybe the most fascinating fixture of their new neighborhood, however, stands at the street's edge exactly beneath the old Black Walnut. It's a green trashcan. In the middle of the day, humans park their cars beside the can while they eat, talk and laugh, and loud music pours through the car's open windows. Yes, to these three young squirrels, nothing could be more spellbinding than the world of the green trash-can.
A human's arm emerges from a car window and something is dropped into the can. And this something, instead of falling lightly like the usual Styrofoam or paper, plummets and plops! The car's engine starts and the vehicle moves away, leaving our squirrel in an exquisite state of curiosity. Down the Black Walnut's trunk she scrambles, right up to the green trash-can's base.
Mistletoe leaps high enough for her head and front legs to make it over the can's rim. She swings around her bottom half high enough for one toe of her right paw to catch on the rim, but then she misjudges how hard she needs to push herself upward and promptly plunges herself head-first into the can's interior.
Of course, suddenly finding herself squirming and thrashing inside an unstable, shifting, crackling heap of white napkins, Styrofoam cups and hamburger cartons, our high-strung squirrel freaks out. She writhes and wriggles even harder, and thus she sinks only deeper and deeper into this weird miscellany of items smelling intensely of mustard, ketchup, onion rings, and hamburgers.
Finally Mistletoe stops fighting. Suspended in the can's dark quietness, gradually she calms down. In fact, gradually Mistletoe's anxiety transforms into curiosity.
Six inches before Mistletoe's snout, half wrapped in cellophane, lies a partially eaten Twinkie. Sniffing this object's oily sweetness, our hungry squirrel's odd-looking tail involuntarily flicks with satisfaction. Greedily the takes it with her mouth, half walks and half swims across the shifting trash's surface, pulls herself over the can's rim onto the street, and scurries back up the Black Walnut's trunk.
Only when she's safely on her favorite perch with the crumbly creation firmly between her front paws does she take her first bite. Instantly the Twinkie breaks in two and its sticky goo oozes onto her whiskers. She gulps down what she can and then with her paws tries to wipe away the greasy cream. However, the goo only spreads onto her paws and sticks messily to her face.
In the end, our squirrel smears Twinkie crumbs and goo all over herself. For most of the afternoon she perches in the Black Walnut licking herself clean, from time to time gazing downward, contemplating the delicious mysteries of the green trash-can.
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