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Danny Heitman doesn't care for possums; his readers beg to differ.

I didn’t mean to start something when I wrote about a snake eating one of my backyard birds. But when you mention snakes and birds, along with a cameo appearance by a possum, I suppose the reader mail will inevitably come in.

Mail is what started all of this in the first place. One recent Saturday, while collecting postal deliveries from our front porch, I found a big garter snake across our welcome mat. A dead pine siskin filled his jaws, and the snake was having a time getting it down.

He eventually prevailed, which prompted a few thoughts here on the mysteries of wildlife. Spring is usually a time to think about the prettier aspects of the great outdoors — the flowers in bloom, the robins in flight, the sky brightened from gray to china blue.

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But my front porch visitor had reminded me that not everything in nature is a cheering sight. At the very least, I mentioned, maybe the garter snake had made a meal of a bird that was destined to die soon anyway. I had recently seen a listless pine siskin near one of my feeders. Bright little birds with yellow-tinged wings, they’re not known for sluggishness. Clearly, something was amiss.

So maybe, I conceded, I should welcome our snake’s role in the great chain of things, a strange community that also includes our backyard possums, arguably the strangest of them all.

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Tom Reagan was one of several readers who let me know of problems with sick songbirds this year. He shared a news story about widespread illness among pine siskins in South Carolina. Another reader reported a similar problem in Texas. That led me to Michael Seymour, a Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Department ornithologist who mentioned that some backyard birds here have been ailing, too. The problem is salmonella bacterial infections, which can spread quickly among birds at feeders.

After spotting a few more sick siskins around my place, I followed the agency’s official advice, scrubbing my feeders with a soap and beach solution and putting them away for a time to discourage group feeding.

How ironic, I thought to myself, that the songbirds I’ve been watching to take my mind off the pandemic would be having a health challenge of their own, with my feeders acting as superspreaders. That’s been a potent reminder for me that all life is connected, which is part of its beauty and much of its burden.

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Other readers gently challenged my views on possums, animals I tolerate without much liking. I’ve never warmed to their looks. Glee Cordell wrote with admiration of their “sweet, heart-shaped faces.” Cordell also shared information about the good that possums do in eating ticks, rodents and garden pests.

I couldn’t ask for kinder readers. Not one of them mentioned that with a face like mine, I have no room to talk about what another critter looks like.


Email Danny Heitman at danny@dannyheitman.com.