It was a typical request from a grandfather to a grandson: “Go put the rat snake on the bird feeder.”
What? That’s not your usual Thursday evening entertainment?
It all started when I got a text message from a friend. It was a picture of a large snake on the top of a fence with the text: “Yikes! What is it?” I considered responding, “Relax — it’s a fence. They’re common.”
I opted instead to call her and ask if it was currently there. She told me it was at her neighbor’s house, and I told her I would be right over.
I love this time of year, when all of the critters start coming out to bask in the glorious spring sunshine. And I often get calls from people asking me to come and retrieve said critters from their yards. As the son of a biologist, I grew up going to folks’ houses getting everything from snakes to possums to bats out of people’s homes, and I’m glad I’ve been able to continue the adventures as an adult.
When I arrived I found the snake perched neatly on a fence, enjoying the finally warm weather. It was a handsome rat snake, and it showed its gratitude at my rescue attempt by biting me twice.
We decided we would relocate the snake, lest it become road kill or decide to devour the dove eggs that were nearby in a tree.
So we took it to my parents’ house, where we have released many critters over the years, setting them free in a decent expanse of woods that would let them (a) not be run over by cars and (b) be able to go and do the things animals do.
Prior to setting the snake free, my son and nephew had to take some time to hold the snake and point out that it did not, in fact, bite either of them. And then my dad served up the bird feeder edict.
We had been watching the bird feeders from my parents’ deck that evening as we do most nights. There is an amazing array of winged friends that come to feed on seeds, dried worms and suet. That night, there were rose-breasted grosbeaks, which were a first for me. There were also the usual helping of cardinals, wrens, thrashers and such.
When my dad told my son to put the snake on the feeder, there was a fairly united sense of, “WHAT!?!!?”
The concerns were aplenty: It would run the birds off. It would keep any new birds from coming in. It would — and this was the big one — snag a bird in mid-air and teach the kids a gruesome lesson on the meaning of life.
My dad was unimpressed with the arguments against placing the snake on the feeder. My son once went trick or treating as his Grampa for Halloween, so you can guess which side of the argument he fell. As we quickly learned, when issues of biology are at hand, trust the biologist with nearly six decades in the game. Parker put the snake out on the shepherd’s crook that held two feeders and a suet basket. The birds scattered.
The snake sat perched at the top of the metal frame, no birds to be seen. And then they began to return. One by one, they flitted near the feeder, checking out the snake, sending out little chirps and whizzes that I can only assume was birdspeak for, “Yeah, there’s a big snake at the feeder.” The boldest of the birds was a brown thrasher that investigated the closest by far. As others sat in nearby bushes, the thrasher got closer and closer, eventually dive-bombing the snake several times at his tail, stopping on the feeder to occasionally spread his wings out as if to say, “Bring it, snake!”
The snake eventually made his way down the pole, and was escorted out of the area by the same thrasher making mad swoops down at its tail to encourage its departure. And the birds all came right back to the feeder.
It was an amazing nature documentary we got to watch play out in real time. Nature is awesome to start with, but when you get to watch the show live it’s even better. And clearly, my dad knew what he was doing. No birds were going to be hurt in the making of this documentary. We were just going to enjoy a little nature show. You know, just a usual Thursday evening.
Mike Gibbons was born and raised in Aiken, S.C. A graduate of the University of Alabama, you can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @StandardMike.