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Wildlife returns

The migratory birds return like clockwork. Our swans made their first pass over the house on March 15, the same date they returned last year.

Flocks of redpolls have been overwhelming the chickadees at the feeder for the past month. The redpolls will soon move north, while the chickadees will stick around and go into hiding.

The gray and white juncos showed up yesterday. Their stay is usually short.

The robins have been here a while, although not yet in great numbers.

One has to be amazed at the decision-making abilities of songbirds, especially given their tiny brains.

The marvels of migration are one thing. But the split-second moves birds make as they dip and dart between tree branches and other obstacles, often as a large group, are also difficult to comprehend.

Who makes the decision for them all to turn left and then suddenly dip down and then turn back? Are their little brains so similarly hard-wired that they each respond in an identical manner to some stimulus we humans can't see?

How can the thousands of instantaneous, individual decisions made by those miniscule brains be so beautifully choreographed?

Part of me hopes that a graduate student in a biology program somewhere is toiling away on this very question.

According to an article in the Grand Forks Herald, there are two graduate students studying a fascinating animal that is moving into North Dakota, the fisher.

The first time I saw a fisher, I thought it was an otter. Then I decided it was a wolverine. In any case, I was sure nobody would believe a word I said, so I kept my mouth shut.

A few days later, a neighbor mentioned he had seen a fisher, which I had never heard of. I went home and looked on the Internet and sure enough, that was the beast.

Fishers undulate across the ground like a galloping slinky. Their coat is a chestnut brown, a different tint than any other animal around here.

In their usual habitat, they eat porcupine bellies while the poor porcupines are still alive. Imagine that: Two relatively rare animals, at least here -- and one eats the other.

Fishers are pretty elusive, but as their numbers grow they are moving west from their native woodlands into the river bottoms of the prairie.

Even more rare are cougars. Cougars still lurk in the realm of legend, although somebody caught one with a remote camera up by Roseau last fall.

However, if you see a cougar and you don't have your camera, just keep it to yourself because pretty soon people won't believe anything else you say either.

I can say without question that I saw a bobcat dart into the woods this winter. The tail was obviously bobbed. But I don't remember if the sighting was in Minnesota or Arizona or somewhere in between, so I can't expect to get any points for that.

Last fall, a coyote hung out around the farm. Unlike the mangy coyotes I have seen in Arizona, this one had a beautiful coat, so heavy that the animal could have been mistaken for a wolf.

I got a good look at the beast in the headlights -- which I hope is legal -- and ran home to the computer and found out that it is a northern version of coyote that is a bit larger than the one they have in Arizona.

Back to birds. This afternoon, the feeder was packed with songbirds of different sorts while in the surrounding bushes dozens lined up like a choir waiting their turn.

Suddenly, the whole bunch vamoosed with unusual panic. It took me a while to see why. The culprit was a shrike, a handsome but wicked bird that kills songbirds for fun and profit.

Although the shrike isn't much larger than a moderate-sized woodpecker, something in those little bird brains knew they were in grave danger when he landed in their dogwood.

After watching just a few animals in their taut life-and-death struggle, a drama that plays out a thousand ways big and small in every swamp, woods and field, I decided that the greatest dramas in the world aren't on TV.

Animals rule far more of the earth than humans, after all, and realizing our small place in the world is healthy for one's perspective.