Our last morning on the island, Jeanine was unloading the dishwasher, Martha was organizing the recycling, and I was folding dried bedding. We were cleaning up our traces of a week’s habitation in Ron’s house. The sky was leaking fat dollops of rain, the first rain we had seen in several weeks. Our stay on the island had been full of sunshine and miraculous sunsets. The day’s rain made it easy to leave such idyllic a setting, to return to our suburbian lives rife with traffic and the roar of lawnmowers.
I was mentally reviewing a magical sighting of ravens winging overhead and calling to each other with their stones-dropping-into-water knocking sounds, when Martha’s urgent call beckoned.
“Quick, you guys, get over here, RIGHT NOW!!”. She had her nose plastered against the sliding glass door of the dining room and was gazing fixedly toward the outdoor bird feeding station. Jeanine and I converged and pressed our noses to the glass as well, eager to see some exotic new bird. Some rosy headed finches were chasing each oher around the feeder. A rufous-sided towhee muscled its way to the preferred area of the platform and put the finches to flight into the surrounding hedge.
“It’s the same old birds,” complained Jeanine brandishing a fistful of mixed cutlery. “Nothing new here. I’m going back to my labours.”
“Stay a moment and watch,” suggested Martha, “Just keep looking at the bottom of the feeder post.” We stayed put and watched, waited.
Soon a low rodent slinked out of the shadows at the bottom of the hedge, made a run to the base of the feeder, curled its body into a ball and proceeded to chow down on fallen seeds. It had cute round ears and button black eyes, a rounded head and fawn-coloured fur. I opened the sliding door, whereupon the beastie scurried back into the safety of the hedge. It flashed a longish tail.
“Eeuw!!” exclaimed Jeanine. “It’s a rat!!!” She slammed shut the sliding door. We stood on the inside, gazing out to get more sightings of this rat.
The animal made several forays into the grass around the bird-feeder’s base. It sat there munching away, undisturbed by the birds above, and by us shut safely behind glass doors. At every opportunity I studied its movements and conformation. While it shared rodent characteristics with rats, it looked distinctively different, shorter and rounder in body and with a compressed face that reminded me of a gerbil’s. Its eyes were bigger and more button-like, not beady like a rat’s.
“That might be a vole,” I conjectured. “There are voles living out in the wilds here. While it kind of looks like a rat it is too rotund, and its belly is a lighter colour.”
“Pshaw,” said Martha. “You are half blind, G. You can’t mean to tell me you can actually see it has a lighter underside. It’s got to be a rat!”
“Well, I can see flashes of beige.” I asserted. “Go look it up on Ron’s computer.” Yep, we were on an island, but the internet has extended its hooks even here, even if it was only by dial-up.
“We don’t have time to check,” said Martha, peevish. “We have to get our garbage down to the transfer station. I still say it’s a rat.”
“Yuk!” uttered Jeanine. “Just think, here we have been lolling around in the mornings and evenings with all the sliding doors open, and these rats may have taken up residence inside the house. What will Ron think when he comes home and finds his house infested with rats?”
“Well,” said Martha in her reasoning manner, ” he may rethink feeding birds outside. I had to stop doing that at home when I saw rats that were getting fat on fallen seed from my bird-feeder.”
“No kidding, you guys.” I repeated. “There are such things a voles. It’s probably just a vole who has discovered an easy source of food.” I opened the sliding door and returned to my chore of folding sheets and towels.
Here I’m back home and after greeting Rumpole and having a coffee with him, after playing with Jessica and giving her a dog cookie, after picking up the General and ruffling his fur, I repaired to Google the flora and fauna of the island we had been staying on. Sure enough, there are both voles and rats on that island. But after looking the photographs I am only halfway convinced that what we saw there was a vole. How can I be sure, me with my poor vision?
But, whatever it was, it was doing a fair job of fattening itself for the winter ahead, and also had secured itself a source of ready food for the leaner months. This is all to the good, providing it was a vole and not a rat. Ron may not be happy to have a whole population or brown rats he is feeding in perpetuity. And heaven help him if they take up domicile in his garage or basement. He will be inundated.
Surely he must be aware of that possibility. Maybe its us squeamish suburban matrons who need to take deep breath and relax about the whole thing. Maybe I need to convince myself that it was just an innocent vole who we had sighted. Who knows?