Friday, June 26, 2009

Arthur and Matilda - Two Crows

This is another animal story.  It was inspired by a simple picture I found in Ranger Rick magazine once of an old crow looking off in the distance, sitting on a snow covered stump.  This chunk is a couple chapters from an ambitious idea for a book that never made it all the way.  Someday I may come back to it and work on it again.  For now, chapters one and two...

Arthur and Matilda - Two Crows
Chapter 1

Arthur Crow was old.  He was so old that he didn't even remember his age.  Not that it mattered.  All his friends and family had passed on or simply moved ahead with their lives and Arthur had lost track of them.  He never had many friends anyway and he wasn't one to look back.  He was alone now.  Very alone.  

It was a curse, this old age.  He often wondered why he was chosen to live so long, to see so much.  

On Arthur's last day he was flying aimlessly.  He didn't know it would be his last day but he had a feeling that the end would be coming soon.  Now he wasn't sure where he was.  He didn't care.  He knew his time was short and he was glad.  Glad because he felt that Matilda was close.  

Matilda!  How he missed her.  Like most crows, he and Matilda had mated for life.  Since Matilda was gone Arthur's life had no real purpose.  He still ate, preened his feathers and generally took care of himself but he was no longer the sparky bird he was when he was young.  Now he was lonely and sad and longed more than anything to see Matilda.

He spotted a stump below in a snowy field.  It caught his attention and, as he was very tired, he wheeled slowly and swooped.  Nothing fancy.  His sharp talons gripped the stump.  The frigid snow and crusty ice made him ache to his bones.  He didn't care. He just wanted to rest - perhaps to sleep.  He was simply too tired to go on.  

As he looked across the open field a gray mouse scuttled across the edge of a crusty snow bank.  The scene reminded him of Matilda.  Most things did now.  She was so closely associated with the best part of his life.  Matilda, whose eyes shone like no other bird he'd ever known.  Matilda, whose feathers were jet black and sleek, every one in place.  It was on a day not too different than this that he first saw her.  As he sat on the cold, snowy stump he remembered... 

Chapter 2

Foolish mice, he thought to himself.  Don't they realize how easily they can be seen in snow?   This'll be easy.  

With a flip of his right wing tip and a fan and curve of the tail, Arthur dove sharply left, a fancy maneuver for a crow so young.  Arthur had always prided himself in his flying ability.  Wings curved back, tail feathers slightly fanned, claws forward, outstretched, almost to the mouse, brown fur, snowy backdrop, frightened beady little eyes, a tiny squeak of fright, then...

A shiny black flash in front of him, a rush of feathers and wind... the mouse was gone.  Arthur was so startled that he tumbled gracelessly in the snow.  

"What the?"

Sitting on a stump looking down at him with the field mouse in her left talon was a beautiful young crow.  "Sorry'" she said as she tossed the mouse into the air.  "I guess you weren't quite fast enough."  She gobbled down the mouse in a swift gulp and then just stared down at Arthur with a look of bemused curiosity.  "You are pretty fast'" she said with mild admiration.  Arthur thought she was smirking at him, making fun.

"That was going to be my breakfast," mumbled Arthur, embarrassed by his awkward landing in the snow.  

"Was is the operative word in that statement," she said eying Arthur indifferently.  "You braked a little too hard, Brother Crow.  That mouse almost got away from you."

"That mouse," Arthur said, trying to affect an air of his own indifference, "never had a chance."

"True," the young female shot back.  "It never had a chance as soon as I spotted it."

Arthur was back on his feet.  The snow rolled off his weather resistant wings.  He ruffled his feathers and laid them neatly in place.  "You got the drop on me is all," he said, trying to seem nonchalant about losing his meal to her.  "Anyone could have done that."  

As he looked up at her perched above him on the snow covered stump, he noticed how perfectly blue-black and shiny she was, how smooth and perfect her wings were and how strong she was.  There was something else about her that attracted him.  Sure she was pretty.  Almost all young crows with the self-respect to keep themselves in shape were pretty.  This crow had something special.  She was cocky and strong and apparently flew like the wind.  

"You're not as fast as you think you are," he said simply.

"Oh yeah?  I'm faster than you."  More of that boldness that he found so inviting.  

"Wanna race?" he dared.  

"Sure, to that tall pine down in the valley and back to this stump.  I'll give you a head start, Brother."

This was too much!  "Oh no, I insist, ladies first."  Like a flash of black lightening she was off.

"Uh, oh," Arthur mumbled.  "Who is this kid?"  With that he flew as fast as his wings could pull.  She had a good lead on him.  Why had he let her get that head start?  Now there was a chance that he would loose, and to a female!  His pride would be badly hurt if he lost.  He was gaining on her but it seemed as he got closer that she was deliberately holding back.  She was playing with him.  She darted under limbs and under rocky ledges in a daring game of follow the leader.  It was the kind of game that young crows play with their elders when perfecting their flying skill.  

When the young crow broke into the open air the sun shone full and bright on her sleek black body.  He caught up after a tremendous burst of speed and, for the first time during the race, he could see her beautiful face.  She didn't even look like she was straining.

"Oh, there you are," she spoke calmly, not at all like a bird in a race.  "I was wondering if you would ever catch up.  So much for ladies first, am I right?"  

The next moment she was pulling ahead again, even though Arthur was flying with all his strength.  "Who is this kid?" Arthur repeated to himself as he was again viewing her from behind.  The tall pine was about one hundred meters ahead and the winner of the race was a foregone conclusion.  Knowing full well that she would arrive first at the stump Arthur took this opportunity to examine his new acquaintance more carefully.  He could see her bulging shoulder muscles through her dark feathers.  She was perfect.

As she reached the topmost branch of the pine tree, instead of circling it and heading back to the stump, she fanned her tail and spread back her powerful wings.  It was a perfect landing on the topmost branch of the tree, almost unbelievable considering her speed.  He swooped around her and lit beside her on the pine bough forty or so meters in the air.  Panting heavily, yet not wanting to seem worn out, it was Arthur who spoke first.

"I thought the race was to be around this tree and back to the stump in the snow field," he puffed.

"I didn't want to embarrass you any more than was necessary."  She spoke calmly, as though she wasn't out of breath from the strenuous flight.  She was eyeing him now.  "You're not half bad, Brother Crow," she said matter-of-factly.  

"You're not so bad yourself."  He could not take his eyes off her.  "My name's Arthur, by the way."

"Mine's Matilda.  Pleased to make your acquaintance, Arthur."

Arthur knew then and there that his life was changed.  Looking into Matilda's sparkling black eyes he saw his own reflection.  She must have seen hers too.  She bent forward, slowly, delicately, until their beaks almost touched.  Arthur was holding his breath waiting to see what this lovely creature would do next.  

"Beat you to the stump!" she cried in a burst of speed and blue black feathers.

"Oh no you won't!"  Arthur was after Matilda in a flash.  But of course, Matilda won.  

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Angelo's Story - Afterward

I feel compelled to finish up the little story of my old turtle friend, Angelo the eastern box turtle.  After his "escape" or rather his justified wandering off into the wild where he rightly belongs, I wondered if I would ever see him again.  If you read that post, then you know I had very mixed feelings about him leaving my teaching/learning world.  I didn't know if he would survive for very long.  After all, he had been practically hand fed Reptomin (the equivilent of Purina Turtle Chow), worms from the bait store, apple cores leftover from my students' lunches and canned corn for all of his 27 years.  I wondered if he would be able to forage successfully.  He never had to provide for himself before.  Would he know the difference between a poisonous mushroom and one that would be good for him?

I had not seen him go completely inside of his shell for about ten years.  Around 1998, when one of my students was taking him outside for some sunshine at recess, she dropped him.  It was only from about two feet and it was into the sandy soil that surrounded our portable classroom but he clunked heavily to the ground and when I picked him up he was closed as tight as the box for which he was named.  You couldn't even see his eyes.  He stayed that way too.  About five minutes later he emerged slowly into the sunshine and began to trundle around the playground as if nothing had happened.

So I wondered after his departure the other day if Angelo could still close up tightly into his shell if he needed to.  And he would definitely need to.  We have lots of box turtles around our house.  Every year a couple of them come out of the woods to eat the fallen peaches from a tree in our side yard.  At least one of them comes back year after year.  I know this because when I go out to visit them and pick them up I recognize the chew marks on the back of one's shell.  The teeth marks are rounded now and completely healed up.  But some animal, a fox or a raccoon or even a large neighborhood dog (namely Buckley the old English Sheep dog that terrorizes the UPS delivery guy) had found that turtle and gnawed on it trying to get to the prize inside.  

That turtle (a beautiful old female with golden brown eyes) hid successfully in its armor until the predator gave up and left it alone.  Would Angelo be able to close up the same way to save his own skin?  It had been so long since he had closed up that I didn't know if he was even physically able to shut himself up completely.  Maybe the muscles it took to pull himself tightly closed had atrophied during his long years in my classroom; his long years in captivity.  

So the morning I knew he was gone, I wondered.  Whenever I picked him up he usually stuck his long neck out really far, his front and back legs looking as though he were swimming in mid air.  When I picked him up he did the opposite of what a wild turtle does.  When he was loose in the wild woods would he be able to protect himself in that passive but extremely effective way that box turtles have by literally shutting out the world, just hunkering down and waiting out the danger?  

I didn't know if I would ever lay eyes on him again.  My son Devin and I looked around for him very carefully the morning he left.  Believe me, if Devin couldn't spot him, he was not there.  I was resigned to never seeing Angelo again, but I felt pretty good in the knowledge that even short-lived freedom would be worth the time he spent with me in my classroom teaching kids.

I even received a response from an editor of Ranger Rick magazine reaffirming the simple fact that wild animals belong in the wild.  Wouldn't you know that Devin did see Angelo within a couple of days.  He and Heidi yelled excitedly for me to come outside and make the positive ID.  It was Angelo alright.  His shell was clean and the bright yellow markings contrasted sharply with his dark brown shell.  It  was definitely Angelo.  No mistaking it.  He looked great.  A rain shower and a couple days in the woods had restored him.  

When Devin handed him over to me, Angelo was almost completely closed up in his shell.  His legs were safely tucked inside and I could only see a hint of those sparkling ruby red eyes.  When I held him closely and spoke his "name" instead of hanging out loosely and pushing his head forward as I figured he would, he hissed (the only sound box turtles ever make) and closed up his shell completely.  I could see nothing of his leathery scaled skin.  I was holding Angelo, but I was holding a wild turtle, one who was fearful of this large potential predator.  

I carried him down to the center of our property where there is a wash when it rains heavy.  I set him down on the clay, he was still completely closed up, maybe loosened up a bit.  I walked back several steps and squatted down to watch.  With mosquitos buzzing around me I watched my old friend slowly open up his shell, poke his head out and gaze cautiously around.  Sensing no danger, he pushed out his front and back legs and walked confidently forward into the leaves until I could no longer see him.  

In a very important way this beautiful eastern box turtle was no longer Angelo at all.  Maybe he never was.  He was just a big beautiful healthy box turtle, back to where he naturally belongs.  Back to where he always belonged.


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

We Love Turtles

Here is a follow up to yesterday's post. These are the song lyrics to an informational song we wrote early last fall. It is so much better when you hear us sing it. It's sort of a rhythm and blues thing.

If you don't know about turtles, you probably should
Some have shells just as hard as wood
Some shells are soft but either way
They keep out predators night and day

Now turtles are reptiles, this we know
When it's cold outside their blood is cold
They have a backbone deep inside
Some are camouflaged so they can hide

TURTLE - they can't leave their shells
TURTLES - they're protected well
TURTLES - their hearts beat slow
TURTLES - can live to be really old

A lot of people think that turtles are slow
But some are quick, yes you should know
Some have flippers and swim in the sea
Some walk the land like you and me

TURTLES - live in ponds and some in lakes
TURTLES - live in oceans for goodness sakes
SOME TURTLES - are peaceful and won't attack
SOME TURTLES - are aggressive, you'd better get back

The "eastern box" has a special shell
It closes with a hinge and protects it well
Snapping turtles can hurt you bad
They have a sharp beak don't make them mad
Terapins live in water and on land
They slide off rocks and walk in sand
The red-eared slider and the yellow-bellly too
If you thought they were tortoises, well that's untrue

TURTLES - some swim and some crawl
TURTLES - some are flat and some are tall
TURTLES - they all lay soft eggs
TURTLES - are reptiles with four legs

They have long necks, they can pull them in
They have scales somewhere on their skin
Turtle shells have two parts to know
The carapace above and the plastron below

We Love Turtles!

Tuesday, June 9, 2009


This will be a weird post. I don’t know, maybe you think lots of them are weird. On the face of it, this may seem like no big deal, but I lost my pet turtle. His name is Angelo (not that he probably even knows his name). I had him with me in my classroom for since 1983. By lost, I don’t mean he died. He is loose in the woods. To me, he’s lost. But to him, he may finally be found; he may finally be home.

He came to me in my old dog’s jaws. He was just a hatchling, and Tawny, a big buff colored cocker spaniel, came to the back door of our house in southern Indiana with this tiny little box turtle in his mouth. The turtle’s shell was a little crushed in from the chewing he got from Tawny. I was sad. The little hatchling was surely a goner.

I called the vet at the bottom of the hill in Bean Blossom, Indiana, where we lived at the time. He was a farm vet and admittedly knew next to nothing about turtles. If I’d wait on the line, he’d look up what he could in one of his old textbooks. It turned out that a lot of people had them as pets but he knew very little about what they ate. He knew only that they were omnivores. He dusted his broken shell with some kind of antibiotic and said that was all he could think to do. It turns out that was all it took. The vet didn’t even charge me.

I didn’t want to let the little turtle loose in the condition he was in. He was so tiny that he couldn’t even tuck himself into his shell all the way. So I kept him in a bowl in our sunroom. And when it got cold, in our office. I fed him canned corn and bait worms. The worms were much bigger than he was so I had to cut them into tiny pieces. After a couple days he began eating hungrily. It was pretty neat. I thought I had done a good deed and I became really fond of the little guy.

The next fall he had a place in my second grade classroom at Lynwood Elementary in Decatur Township Schools. While he was only a little bigger than a 50 cent piece, he was eating, enjoying sunshine in our large window and growing like crazy. For two years he was part of the class.

Once he was kidnapped from our room. Truly. We came back from lunch one day and he was gone. The class was so upset that we put up wanted posters around the school and offered a dollar reward for his safe return. A child came to my room before school one morning and said that his brother, a second grader from another classroom, had taken the turtle; had in fact, put him in his pocket and had him at home in a jar of water. I thanked him, gave him the dollar, and went straight to that boy’s class. I told him that if he brought the turtle back to school the next day, and that if he was safe and sound, I wouldn’t call the sheriff and report him for larceny. That’s just what he did. Angelo came back looking very stuffed and bloated from having spent so much time immersed in water. Again, I called my farm vet friend and he said to just leave him out of the water for a while and, more than likely, he would be okay. He was.

As Angelo grew, the size of his enclosure needed to grow as well. When I moved to South Carolina in 1986, he was with me in a 3 gallon fish bowl. His water bowl was the size of a shallow tea cup. My first graders wrote about him and drew pictures of him in our first class science journal. They would say things like, “Angelo is looking right at me,” or “Angelo turned the worm over before he ate it.” They were really fond of him. They would come to the classroom years later as they grew up to see Angelo and remark about how big he was getting.

I was at that school for 5 years and every year Angelo would come to school with me in the fall and return with me in the summer. He was as much a part of my classroom as the tables and chairs. As I grew and changed as a teacher, Angelo was quietly sitting in my room, munching on celery, eating worms, marching around his aquarium.

I switched districts in 1991. I went back to teaching second grade at Lonnie B. Nelson Elementary. During the five years I spent at Nelson, Angelo helped me to teach science. Of course I had other classroom pets during this time. Various short-lived fish came and went. We had a pair of mice for a short while. When I bought them, I told the pet store guy that I wanted two males or two females but that I definitely did not want any baby mice! It didn’t take long to figure out that they were male and female. Back to the pet store they went. We had various gerbils, hamsters, even a ball python for a year or so that belonged to one of the kids. Angelo was a constant. We switched him to a 10 gallon tank with a multispectrum reptile light. Bought him Reptomin turtle food and night crawlers. Every once in a while I would find a wild box turtle and bring it in for a day and then take it home and release it where I found it. We would compare Angelo with its wild relative. Angelo never went in his shell. He was so completely adapted to his life in the classroom, his life with humans.

Angelo taught kids to love turtles and, I think, wildlife in general. We discussed what you should do if you ever see a turtle in the road. We called them “Turtle Rescues” and many children over the years saved countless turtles from being roadkill because they knew and cared for a special turtle, Angelo.

In 1996 we opened The Center For Inquiry where Angelo was upgraded to a 30 gallon tank, with a huge light and a water container that was the cut off bottom of a large bucket. I had a heated area for him to rest when he was chilled. My second and third graders wrote funny songs about him. “Angelo’s Reptile Rock” was a favorite of my class for a few years. This year when several children did their expert projects on turtles (thanks in no small part to being in love with Angelo) we wrote a really good informational song called “We Love Turtles”.

Still, I felt guilty over the years about keeping him. I ALWAYS counseled children to release wild animals, that if they were safe it was okay to examine them, learn from them and then to release them. When preying mantis or lady bugs or even wood roaches or rolly pollies would come in I would demand their release at the end of the day.

I rationalized about Angelo by saying that he was so imprinted, so unnaturalized that if I let him loose into the wild he would be easy prey for any predator that came his way. I kept him in the first place because he was wounded and wouldn’t release him because of his helplessness because of my keeping him. There was this mobious strip of logic that I used year after year, justifying my keeping him in captivity. Yet, every summer when it was time to close up the classroom I felt guilty. Sometimes I would let him go home with well meaning students and parents who tried to feed him up, keep his aquarium clean and change his water daily. Often I would get him back in the fall all dusty, colorless and light in weight. Healthy turtles are never light.

So this year I decided to bring him home and to build him an outdoor enclosure. A big one. We stopped at the hardware store yesterday and considered lots of alternatives. We settled on large masonry bricks, 12 inches on their sides. I raked out a large area in our woods, lay down chicken wire around the edges, tapped in the bricks, placed rocks on the wire, filled in with dirt and leaves, dug out a spot in the middle for his watering hole and considered us all very lucky. This was going to be the summer of his life, as near to natural as we could get for him. I had collected several beetles, centipedes and earthworms just from raking up the leaves for his area. Yum. He seemed curious and active when I put him in last evening. Mosquitoes hovering, the light dimming, Heidi and I headed out for our evening walk.

When I checked on him this morning, he was gone. The dirt in one corner was a little high, the brick there tapped in a little too far. I suspect he simply kept trying and trying to climb over until he got out. You know, it made me sad to realize that I won’t ever see those bright, inquisitive, red eyes again. It made me sad to know that he won’t ever be a part of a young kid’s natural education. You can read about box turtles in books or in Ranger Rick magazine but until you’ve held one and it looks you in the eye, you never really know a box turtle. He’s been a part of my classroom for 26 years. 26 years of kids growing to love turtles. 26 years I have fed him, nurtured him, changed his water, changed his soil, cleaned out his poop. 26 years of watching that beautiful animal grow from a little broken-shelled squirt to a beautiful, healthy, full grown eastern box. How can one miss a reptile? I will.

There was a part of me that went, “Good for you, old guy.  You made it." It might be that he will be easy pickings for the next fox or raccoon. It could be that he wanders out into the road and gets hit by a car, although we live pretty far out in the country so that’s not all that likely. But maybe he’ll live through the rest of the season. Maybe he’ll come across a female and they’ll have a clutch of eggs. Maybe, before his time comes, even if it’s short, he’ll experience the kind of freedom that will have made all of these years in captivity worthwhile. So, good for you, old guy.