For the Birds Radio Program: Photon and the Ants

Original Air Date: July 2, 1998

Laura’s little dog is consumed with studying the ants in an anthill; so far she hasn’t discovered birds nor the baby foxes in the neighborhood.

Duration: 3′45″


This summer I’m moving into a new house, and have a new little dog to move with me. Photon is a little white ragmop dog, tipping the scales at just barely 6 pounds. Her name comes from physics, for a tiny particle of light and energy. She’s very interested in the big outside world, but hasn’t figured out much so far. She’s so fascinated by the ants in a backyard anthill that she has hardly begun to notice birds yet. Every time I let her out, she heads straight for her anthill, to scrutinize the ants crawling about. Suddenly all the teeming insects get too exciting to bear, and she plunges her nose into the dirt for a deep sniff. But what she gets is a snootful of ants who not only get stuck up her nose, they sometimes bite her, too. She looks shocked at this, and sort of hurt, and ever more determined to figure out these strange little creatures.

Meanwhile, she hasn’t even begun to notice the birds raising babies in the yard. Baby Cedar Waxwings fly right above her head while she stares at the ants. My adult House Wrens chat tiny obscenities at her the moment we open the back door. The pair of Gray Catbirds invariably fly to the nearest branch to study us the moment Photon appears. Since catbirds are natural enemies of cats, you’d think th´¥’d be allies with dogs, but it apparently doesn’t work that way. Yet even with all these birds fluttering about her making noise, Photon keeps her nose to the ground, checking out those ants. In this respect, she reminds me of Betsy, my springer spaniel. When she was a puppy, one night a Saw-whet Owl flew straight in for a tiny white spot on Betsy’s dark back, apparently mistaking it for a mouse. But Betsy, who is supposedly a bird dog–never lifted her nose from the ground to even notice it.

The Yellow Warblers and Common Yellowthroats are far enough away that they seldom break from their baby-feeding schedule. A neighborhood family of Merlins keeps them on red alert, and a puppy is the least of their concerns. The Merlins make plenty of noise, but Photon has never noticed that, either.

Despite the active ant hills in my yard, I don’t have any flickers. I see them sitting on other ant hills in the neighborhood—flickers love the spicy formic acid taste, and their own meat is permeated with bitterness from eating ants, which may help them fight off lice, mites, ticks, and mosquitoes, since they haven’t figured out how to buy Deep Woods Off. Flickers love ants, but I guess in my yard they figure Photon’s got dibs on them, so they’ve found other sources for their formic acid fix.

Actually, Photon is not the only puppy in the yard much of the time. There’s also a family of fox kits. I think they have a den somewhere right beyond my yard. Every now and then when I look out, there one will be, sitting in the backyard hoping just once I’ll let my little puppy out alone. The backyard birds are having a lot more problems with foxes than they will ever have with Photon, but they seem to treat her as an equal threat. I don’t know if this helps boost Photon’s self-esteem, but puppies somehow never seem to have problems with self-esteem anyway.

A puppy is always a delightful and hopeful addition to a home, and a silly one who attacks ants and doesn’t even notice birds scolding her right over her head is even more fun.