Life and Death in a Backyard

The greens have been washed, carrots pulled and leeks chopped and frozen. Nothing sets me in motion faster than a hard freeze warning. My small garden is now devoid of living things aboveground, and the earthworms who have multiplied and prospered belowground are heading south and into the composting ditches I have dug in circles around the crabapple tree. I grew an amazing amount of food in a tiny space this year, and I am expanding for next.

Woodpecker putting on a Winter layer at the suet feeder; photo by Sheila Velazquez.

My outdoor space is very small. I step out my back door onto a concrete pad that sports a compact gas grill, chair and side table. When I give people directions to my door, I tell them to “look for the blue grill.” There are raised beds, the garden and the bird feeding station. The feeders are hung from an overhang outside my office, the room where I, and Arlo the cat, spend most of our waking hours.

A neighbor offered me several suet cakes to add to the feeders, which I was pleased to accept. The suet did not come with metal cages, but I figured I could rig something up. And I did. The cakes are set in plastic boxes covered on one side with a film. I ripped that off, poked holes in the plastic and fashioned a hangar by threading them with twine. Now, how to accommodate perches—the hard part. Chopsticks solved the problem, two pushed through front to back and side to side. Plenty of room to alight and have a meal. The woodpeckers soon became regulars.

It took several relocations of the feeders before I found the sweet spot where the squirrels could not get to them. They then discovered they could leap to the window screen and then to the feeders, and so I removed the screens. Now I smile at the shocked look on their faces when they bounce off the glass. They will have to be satisfied with picking through the gravel below for their share.

Chipmunk benefiting from messy eaters and gravity; photo by Sheila Velazquez.
Chipmunk benefiting from messy eaters and gravity; photo by Sheila Velazquez.

I dislike squirrels but find the chipmunks endearing. One little fellow lives in a pile of flowerpots I have emptied of their contents and covered with a tarp. He dashes out when the birds knock seed to the ground, grabs his booty, then hurries back to his shelter.

The blue jays can sometimes get their footing on the seed feeder, but it takes care. I am also not fond of blue jays. I much prefer the titmouse, wren, finch, chickadee, even the plain little house sparrow. Until the cold drives me inside, I sit in my chair and watch dusk drop over the hills. The birds are so used to me they don’t even flinch.

Yesterday I came home to carnage in the yard. Blue feathers with flesh attached lay in a whorl on the bright green grass. The victim had been a blue jay, likely the target of one of the wily hawks that circle and watch from the tallest trees. I felt some remorse for having cursed the pesky bird.

As I write this, it is late afternoon, gray and cold. Through the window I watch the clouds move across the darkening sky. A squirrel and a rabbit are sparring in the grass. The birds have called it a day. Wind whips the leaves from the trees leaving gaps in the autumn color. That happened fast, didn’t it. I look up to see a V of geese flying overhead. Just October and the pall of winter is settling over the landscape. I’m ready.

Sheila Velazquez

Sheila Velazquez is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in more than 100 print newspapers and magazines, including Grit, New Woman, the Hartford Courant, the New Haven Register, the San Antonio Express-News and Bay Area Parent. Her awards include two from the Society of Professional Journalists for a syndicated column. Sheila has contributed to online websites, including and She served as contributing editor of Organic Producer magazine and wrote biographical material for reference collections that include “Contemporary Authors,” the “Encyclopedia of International Biography” and “Notable Sports Figures.” Feel free to send her an e-mail.

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