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Snakes, birds and `mongeese,' oh, my!

Byline: Sid McKeen


If you don't care about animals, you may not want to read beyond this sentence. But I feel compelled to describe an encounter I observed last week pitting my favorite member of the animal kingdom - a mockingbird - against my least favorite - a snake. As I do, I can't help thinking of my old friend and colleague, Ken Botty, who wrote a popular column called "Nature at Your Doorstep" for some years for this newspaper.

On my way to the mailbox to pick up the usual supply of charitable solicitations, bills and unwanted catalogs, I noticed the bird jumping up and down, chattering, and flexing its wings at something in the grass a foot or so away. Moving closer, I saw what had its attention: a coiled-up black racer snake, almost two feet long, glistening in the noonday sun. The bird and its mate have been hanging around since hatching out chicks a few weeks ago somewhere on our property.

Watching the standoff between avian and reptile, it struck me that the presence of the snake had precisely the same effect on the bird as it does on me.

That is, I always have a compulsion to stick around and see what the snake is up to, even though I invariably give it plenty of space. My fascination must be the result of some deep-seated anxiety. The bird had a better excuse: He or she was a concerned parent of newborns.

I wish I could report that the mockingbird's protective instincts carried the day and that the snake retired in humiliating defeat. But I took the mail in the house and looked it over and by the time I got back to the action, both had fled the confrontation and moved on.

I love mockingbirds. It strikes me that they must be among God's favorite creatures. Where else in nature, humans exempted, do we see a being smart enough to learn the routines of others of its species and with the incredible memory, talent and interest to repeat them endlessly for the entertainment of the rest of us?

Snakes, on the other hand, give me the willies. I remember once attending a lecture at the Worcester Science Center, at which a local herpetologist brought along some of his favorite slitherers. One was some kind of boa constrictor, which he brought down into the audience to be ogled, as they say, up close and personal.

My daughter, maybe 7 at the time, sat completely motionless while he wrapped the thing around her neck like a necklace in a nightmare, and I sat alongside, frozen to my seat. Clearly, my own parental instincts didn't match that mockingbird's.

I suspect if I'd been born an animal rather than a person, I'd have been a mongoose. These weasel-like critters from Central Asia and Africa are famous for their obsession with snakes, especially cobras, which I personally would give a berth the size of Old Man Mississippi at flood stage. The furry little animals routinely engage giant snakes in the desert and come out victors, who enjoy nothing quite as much as a good snake dinner.

Which reminds me of one of my favorite stories. Seems a zoo official in America wanted to order some from a trapper abroad. He typed this note: "Dear Sir: Please send us two mongooses." It didn't look right, so he tried again: "Dear Sir: Please send us two mongeese." Exasperated, he crumpled up the request and wrote, "Dear Sir: Please send us a mongoose. Oh what the hell, make it two."

Reach Sid McKeen at
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Title Annotation:COMMENTARY
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:May 22, 2011
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