Before I even start this story, I want to assure you that what I’m about to tell you happened after the weather had warmed up and we weren't using our wood-burning winter furnace for heat. Now with an intro like that, what in the world do you think this story is about?
In May on a very rainy spring day, my husband Joseph was down in the basement looking for our black cat, Otie, who really had gotten himself locked in the garage, but Joseph didn't know that yet so he went down in the basement to see if Otie was there.
When Joseph opened the cellar door, he heard a scuffling in our large wood furnace, then heard a whoomph and a big puff of ash came out the vent.
If this was a cartoon, Joseph would have had ???!!! in the balloon over his head.
He was immediately curious what form of wildlife would be inside our furnace. He knew right off it was a good idea to have help.
He ran upstairs and mentioned something about an animal in the furnace, so I instinctively grabbed my rubber gardening gloves on my way through the mudroom and down the stairs. Any animal that could find its way through three floors of chimney flue was certainly one to be reckoned with.
We carefully opened the furnace door and, lo and behold, sedately sitting inside on the metal grate was a full grown green and gray wood duck.
It took a few seconds to register to our unbelieving eyes that there really was a duck inside our furnace. A large duck. A large dusty duck. A duck who appeared to have an attitude about being there.
As we stared openmouthed, she drolly turned and looked toward us, then back at the wall.
She shrugged her regal ash-covered shoulders like you’d do if you’d been quite inconvenienced by having to wait so long for a bus to arrive and wanted the bus driver to know you didn’t take kindly to his lollygagging tardiness.
I reached in. She let me pick her up with hardly any fuss. Joseph opened the basement door and we set her free out into the yard.
She waddled off mumbling to herself, shaking and fluffing her sooty gray feathers in the drizzly rain.
Wood ducks nest in old tree cavities, some as much as 30 feet off the ground. When the eggs hatch, the little ducklings leap out of the nest to the ground (!) and immediately make way toward water, never returning to the nest again.
We figured she was looking for a nesting place and saw the dark, quiet opening of our rooftop chimney. She must have stuck her head in for a look and fallen down. The chimney was too narrow for her to open her wings and get back up, so she followed the warren of vents down floor by floor until she ended up in the furnace.
She was still preening and brok-brak-berk-berk talking to herself as she wandered off. We closed the cellar door, shut the furnace door and went back upstairs.
This is the first time we've found a wood duck in our furnace, yet it still seems almost normal for around here.
Late last spring I walked into the kitchen where two of our cats sat, eyes riveted to a scritchy little noise in the vent area above the stove. When I slid the panel back, three baby chimney swifts fluttered down onto the stove top.
Baby swifts can cling to the inside of a chimney wall, gripping any little chink in a brick. They have feet like velcro. As I scooped them toward my chest to keep them from the cats, they grabbed onto my sweater and stuck like glue.
I shooed the cats into another room and closed them in. I pried the birdlings off my sweater and put them into a box that I covered them with a towel, then carried a ladder up to the second floor deck.
Now I don’t know everything about animals, so I called the Audubon Society to ask what I should do. They told me to get an old piece of towel, let each birdie attach itself onto the towel with their velcro-grip feet, and lower the towel down inside the chimney where you see the nests.
I climbed onto the roof with my bird-decorated towel in a box and looked down into the big furnace chimney, but no nests in there. That was the one the wood duck came down.
I went over to the smaller kitchen chimney (no longer used) and looked down it. I was surprised to see a whole nursery of nests up and down the chimney sides, each with openmouthed squawking little birdies.
So I lowered the towel down and tied it off so the birds could unhook their feet and climb back to their nests on their own.
I had to repeat this process a few more times over the next week.
One time I gingerly opened the vent to catch another bird while one of my cats watched. I was so used to the drill by now -- hooking them on my sweater -- I didn’t even bother to move the cat out of the room.
But this bird was nearly ready to fledge and instead of falling into my hand as the others had done, he spread his wings and flew into the kitchen.
Reflexively I stuck out my hand without even thinking and scooped him out of the air, surprising even myself at my dexterity. I stepped outside with this last little chimney swift, opened my hand, and he flew to the other swifts in the trees across the driveway. That was the last of the swifts that year.
And then I stepped back into the kitchen where the cat was still sitting, awestruck, wide-eyed, dumbfounded that I knew how to catch a bird.
So like I said, these animal adventures, although each unusual, are also fairly commonplace. Our ever-growing list of animals who have found their way into our home in the past year reads like this:
A raucous-voiced flicker who’d been
ingraciously carried in through the
cat door and was back out in less
time than it took you to read about it
Thundering herds of mice and voles
(alas, all eaten by cats, per our agreement)
One hefty wee-eyed velvet-furred mole
who I released across the street in my
neighbor’s field (please don’t tell my neighbor)
A handful of wood rats (not city rats) who
checked out the cellar woodpile in the fall
until our cats spelled out the “way it would be”
if they planned on staying
Eight bunnies, including one on Easter day,
all ever-so-gently carried home by our
cats and escorted back out to the field by us
Two small green garter snakes who
slithered in from their stonewall home
near the front door
A scarlet hummingbird who visited a
blooming red fuschia plant through an
A cluster of lizards, one who surprised
me by hiding under a rug