Digging for Birds

My partner and I bought a house in 2019 and moved to San Antonio, TX, in service of my pursuit of a Ph.D. in anthropology. One thing that was abundantly clear to us—we are both from the East Coast and accustomed to a different climate—was that it is dry and gets very hot! Following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, my partner and I decided that if we were going to be cooped up in the house, it would be nice if we did something to make our confinement a bit more tolerable; maybe even enjoyable.

My work as an anthropologist focuses on human-animal relations, and have always felt a strong connection with the wildlife with whom I share the world. Consequently, we decided that a wildlife pond that provides predictable water to the other critters that live around and migrate through the area would be a boon for them and allow us to learn more about native animals.

A large picture window looks out from the dining room into the backyard, so I decided that the best place to put it would be just outside the window. It would attract birds close to watch and beautify the view from the table.

The picture window overlooking the pond

We broke ground on July 13, 2020, with the first iteration of the pond. Little did I know that six inches below the surface was a thick layer of limestone, which I proceeded to painstakingly remove; I had committed to the project and was not going to let millions of years of shell and coral accumulation get in the way1. After several hours of work, I had a hole!

The hole that would become the pond

Once the hole was dug, I had to line it with a membrane so the water would not just seep into the soil. I used flagstones and river pebbles to hide the edge of the liner and planted an umbrella palm and horsetail reed. What we had was crude, but it was a start.

The pond during the building process

It did not take long for the birds to start visiting. First, we had great-tailed grackles and house finches: common sights around San Antonio. While the birds came in in droves, I struggled to find better ways to hide the liner and felt general displeasure with some of the decisions I made in the design. I created the pond without experience and used a lot of trial and error. As such, this meant a whole lot of learning on the job.

House finch

From there, I added a water lily, fountain, and a waterfall. The sound of water attracts birds, so this turned out to be a very smart decision—not just aesthetically—because this caused an explosion in the variety of species that paid us a visit2. Of course, there were common visitors: house finches, house sparrows, great-tailed grackles, and white-winged doves. However, we also had visits from migratory cedar waxwings, Wilson’s warblers, and even our resident red-shouldered hawks came in for a dip.

Once the pond was established, I rescued some mosquito fish who had washed into a quickly drying depression after rain and added them to control mosquitoes (it works!). We also added six American bullfrog tadpoles: two of which are still alive as adults: Lady Frog Johnson (named after First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson: a Texan) and Big Jack (the bird-eating bullfrog).

Our frog, Big Jack, with a bird feather sticking out of his mouth.

Despite the pond’s success, it was too small to accommodate all the activity and the plants. I decided to expand the pond, which proved to be a challenging endeavor. First, I needed to empty half of the pond while keeping the fish and frogs safe. I emptied half of the water and pulled up the side of the pond with the waterfall. Next, I dug out the end of the pond, which would double the overall volume of the pond. I intended to extend the pond liner with seaming tape, but that did not work. Of course—because life cannot be east—I had to replace the liner with a larger size to accommodate my changes. This meant slipping the liner under the old liner, shifting the water into the newly expanded side, and removing the old liner. This was HARD, but my partner and I could transfer the water and critters to the new liner, remove the pea gravel and remaining water from the old liner and drag it out. You will be happy to know that after carefully examining the old liner, no fish or frogs were left behind.

The pond has since grown into its own. The lilies are prolific; we have regular visits from birds and mammals such as raccoons, opossums, and skunks. There is also a non-trivial Gulf Coast Toad breeding population that trill nightly during the Spring and regularly lay eggs. We have also planted a pollinator garden and added seed and mealworm feeders to make the space even better for the birds. As a result, the backyard is always lively.

A view from the window.

The pond has been a big part of why we fared well in the isolation of the pandemic. While we did not have many human visitors, we created a friendly space for feathered visitors. We sit in the air conditioning, have morning coffee, afternoon tea, or evening wine, and watch the goings-on. The birds can visit without being concerned about our presence.

Haraway3 argues that whatever our future holds is an effect of our relationships with the other living things on Earth. My research focuses on how humans and other animals do and do not get along. I believe that our future is tied to our ability to find ways to live with and participate in diverse multispecies communities. I hope that this wildlife pond is a contribution that I have made to my community.

[1] Limestone forms in shallow seas as corals, shellfish, and other sea life die and accumulate on the seabed. Since much of their bodies are made of calcium carbonate, under pressure, sedimentary rock forms. Limestone: Rock Uses, Formation, Composition, Pictures (geology.com)

[2] Attract more birds with water that moves – Welcome Wildlife

[3] Haraway, Donna J. Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press, 2016.

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