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  • Writer's pictureChristian McMahon

Backyard Surveillance State and the Birds Who Frequent It

A writer spies on his neighbors and reflects on his connection to nature.

The rabbits are what ultimately drove me to the birds. So much so that my desk, and the French doors next to it, are collectively known as the duck blind now. Though there isn’t enough water for ducks in the arid suburban wilderness of the Southern California backyard they face. The yard is perfect, however, for hummingbirds, mourning doves, towhees, scrub jays, mockingbirds, the odd hawk, a pair of hooded orioles, juncos, one very lost bulbul, and lately white-crowned sparrows arriving from Alaska for the winter.

I find myself sitting at my desk, behind the open window, Merlin bird-ID app in hand, motionlessly recording songs and pictures to frantically identify any new guys in town so that I can learn more about their little birdie vibes.

This is only a part of the critter surveillance state the yard has become.

A major excavation project at a nearby watershed from 2018 through 2021 drove rabbits into my neighborhood en masse. Our suburb is fussy about wildlife. Every few years there is a vocal anti-deer movement spurred on by begonia munching rampages in the fancier gardens. Despite that, the fluffy white tails and twitchy ears of our new rabbit neighbors escaped the ire of the townsfolk, and garnered a quietly welcoming attitude.

They were suddenly everywhere, shy and nocturnal. Full of questions, I bought an inexpensive trail camera and perched it on a flexible tripod in a nook by the pool filter shed, where I had seen them dart when startled by an opening door, the shadow of a leaf moving the wrong way, or a dog barking a few houses away.

Checking trail cam footage quickly became the best part of my mornings. Left alone by humans and our weird noises, the rabbits pass nights dirt bathing, playfully jumping at each other, generally frolicking, and nibbling the wild clovers that I stopped weeding after I realized they like it so much. Clover is bunny Cheetos, apparently.

The early morning birds that showed up in the footage took me by surprise. Their behavior runs the gamut from soap opera to circus. I am far more engaged by them than I ever would have anticipated. A family of doves reared their children in the yard, raising their surprisingly large offspring safely through their awkward flightless phase in the yard’s relative safety. Towhees – small, dull brown birds I had never noticed before – do the most charmingly goofy shuffle dance as they comb the leaf litter for tasty bugs. Mockingbirds and scrub jays pop by and just generally look in charge of things.

A painting of a California scrub jay by Christian McMahon.

My writing career has been built on a curiosity about wild places and my place in them. As a younger writer I assumed that this curiosity could only be satisfied by far-flung travels to the Real Wilderness.

Initially, I felt guilty for the time spent on the slowness of staring out my windows and checking trail cam footage. As though this time isn’t engaged in Serious Work. But this gap humans have created between ourselves and nature is an artificial one. Harmful, in my eyes. My yard, on the outskirts of the second most human-filled city in the country, is a wilderness full of diverse species. The rabbits are adapting to the destruction of their habitat by moving here, the birds find food and shelter enough to carry on for generations. By slowing down and paying attention I have begun to learn how to make things nicer for my neighbors, and to see myself for the critter that I am.


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