Follies with Hamptons Fauna

Deer closeup
Photo, Emil Erlandsson

In a scenario similar to the ritual migrations of some large land animals—the wildebeests of Africa might come to one’s immediate attention—or the giant whales of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans; so, too, does the ritual migration of the human species known as citydwellerectus begin every year around the middle and latter part of the spring season.

They must first cross the benign East River—thankfully devoid of predators—and continue on toward their destinations to the villages collectively known as the Hamptons, and further eastward to the very end of Long Island. I joined in with the earlier migrants almost 40 years ago.

While animals migrate to seek more abundant food sources, or to mate, or to spawn, we migrate to flee the oppressive heat and humidity and pollution buildup among the concrete canyons of our city habitat, to the refreshing climate of the East End’s coastal environs, as well as for the abundance of freshly caught seafood, renowned pristine beaches and cleaner air to rehabilitate our lungs. There was also plenty of mating going on as well.

Many thousands of us find the Hamptons so irresistible and so difficult to leave after the brief summer season. We decided to purchase a year-round house. Initially we settled in Noyac and later in Shinnecock Hills—two of Southampton’s most heavily wooded areas.

While dealing with the sudden realities of house maintenance and land management, we had absolutely no clue that we would be cohabitating with hordes of wild voracious rabbits, marauding deer; a nursing raccoon, swarming bees, hornets, snakes, huge blood-curdling insects and uninvited waterfowl swimming laps in the pool. At other times there were things scampering in the basement, the attic, the garage and underground—and a garter snake slithering behind a carton in the garage and suddenly vanishing which caused untold anxiety for weeks, and then eyes always searching the garage afterward.

The rabbits and deer arrived in numbers soon after the annuals and flowering shrubs we planted for our own pleasure became their food. It was as though we had laid out a cafeteria-style banquet. The moles, or voles, or mice—or all of the above—ate every last one of the 50 tulip bulbs we planted one autumn. The huge insects that attached themselves to the door and window screens imprisoned us in our dread of having to open the door. The exception was a visit from a diaphanously beautiful green chiffon Luna moth that was drawn to the light of the dining room. We gazed at each other for quite a while. And then came a few large roaming dogs that would show up unannounced and lounge around the front yard for hours, as well as the partially feral cats that hunted the nesting birds and their young, when they weren’t lounging around the pool.

To preserve the costly landscaping we began our war with the rabbits by throwing the stones we had gathered for ordnance, in an effort to frighten them with the pain of injury. We somehow managed to never actually hit one; such was our poor aiming capabilities. But one time my husband’s arm and the stone he hurled, hit one of them squarely on its haunch. We actually heard a soft thud on contact. But instead of running away, he lifted his head, sat upright, stopped masticating and turned to look at us. We stood there for many seconds, none of us moving, all eyes fixed on humans and rabbit, when I turned to my husband and whispered—“Let’s just walk slowly backward to the front door but keep an eye on him until we get inside.”

Around the time I began to torture my shrubs with deer netting, the rabbit population seemed to dissipate. I was told by someone who drove by our house every morning, that there was a red fox roaming our property. I did eventually see that red fox, and its friend a black and beige fox, early one morning trotting along the overgrown edge of the west lawn, and I was completely mesmerized. We declared a truce with the rabbits and over time and the subsequent building of 10 new houses along our road—which cleared much of the woods—they all but disappeared. But hang on…although I’ve only seen one lately, it might be that they are mounting a comeback.

As charming as the cute rabbits appeared at first, and the magnificent deer as well, how can one not be enchanted by the sight of a pair of wild mallards paddling about in the pool? The brilliantly feathered male and his drab mate would take a leisurely turn in the pool and then retire to the shade of a nearby oak tree. After a while one or two of their friends came to visit—go for a swim and then join the couple in the shade. Then more friends came. This went on for a few weeks until one day I noticed duck poo on the top step of the pool. Lots of it. They got their checkout notice to vacate when I placed an upended outdoor chair on the top step. Otherwise they were perfect guests. Quiet, undemanding, ate nothing and kept to themselves. I sort of miss them.

While encounters with the rabbits and mallards took place outside, I was totally mystified about the chirping sounds coming from the fireplace chimney one year in late April. My only thought was that some poor bird must have somehow got caught in the chimney and, hopefully, it would find its way back up and out. The peeping was intermittent so at times I thought it had escaped. But the next day, after clearing the dinner dishes from the table, I alerted my young daughter that I was going to try and rescue the poor bird before it died in the chimney. I could no longer bear the peeping. It was like a cry for help. I cautioned her to keep still as I would open the flue and let the bird into the house. I instructed her not to chase it around as it would be quite frightened, and when it calmed down I would try to coax it out the door. She dutifully took her place at the far end of the living room. I got up under the flue and began to lift it open when, suddenly; we heard a long, low growl—like that of a very large dog. I froze with my hand still holding the flue open just a crack for a few seconds when there issued another long, low growl. I let go of the flue and stood up. The chirping stopped. There were no more growls. Stunned out of my senses I stupidly pondered how and why a dog came to be trapped in the chimney when my daughter’s little voice said—“Mom, I don’t think it’s a bird”, and I didn’t think it was any kind of domesticated animal either.

The next day I called Animal Wildlife Control, those wonderful people who are dedicated to rescuing endangered animals, and who once came to remove a hornet’s nest and, at another time untangled a rather large black snake badly caught up in deer netting. I was told it was a mama raccoon with her young. They couldn’t send anyone to remove them until Monday but if left alone they would be gone by Memorial Day weekend. And indeed they were gone by then, but not before she moved them all to the other chimney in the family room. Raccoons are in the bear genus and I shudder to think of what a crazed mama raccoon would have done to us and the house had I somehow managed to open the flue wide enough for all of them to fall through. Occasionally, one thumps about on the roof in the early morning hours. It still sets my heart fluttering whenever I hear it.

So the rabbits have mostly gone due to overdevelopment and I don’t bother the lone one that comes around. The deer are sure to follow as they continually lose habitat, but whenever I see one I still marvel at their beauty. Get some raccoon-proof grills for the chimneys. The snakes will run away from you, first. There are no more foxes, or turtles, or partridges or even those blood-curdling insects. The dogs, too, have gone but the cats are still around. But if you put out some seed or a birdbath, many beautiful birds will visit and the air will be filled with birdsong—and you will become a birdwatcher.

“All good things are wild and free.”
—Henry David Thoreau

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