From My Tuscan Window

Chapter 34
Animals and Birds
Wolves had begun to return to the mountains west of Gioviano in the 1970s, and by 2005, the wolf population had rebounded to the point that farmers were complaining to the local authorities about the wolves preying upon their sheep and goats. The fact that wolves had survived in the presence of humans in the Garfagnana for 40,000 years is testimony to the Italian spirit that still considers nature a part of the human soul.

From our window, we can look out onto the homeland of the wolves which is shared by bears, foxes, and even eagles. Huge cinghiali (wild pigs) also inhabit the hills and the vast forests that cloak the mountainsides like coats of swaying green velvet. Once Giovanna (Jane), our second daughter, was taking a hike alone on the mountain trails above Gioviano when an entire troop of spotted piglets accompanied by their mother crossed her path. Fortunately, the mother did not sense that her babies were in danger, and so Giovanna stood mesmerized at the sight while the family trooped by.

Cinghiali are a favorite food of the locals, and various dishes include the meat of these wild creatures. Sausages, ham, and ground cinghiale meat which is used in flavorful sauces can be found on restaurant menus in season. Wild pigs are very smart animals, and had they sensed that Giovanna wished to make a stew out of them, she would have been in grave danger.

From spring to early summer is the nesting season of the rondini, the swallows that like to build their mud nests against the ancient wooden beams of church towers, terrace ceilings, and in medieval passageways. By 5:30 a.m., even before daylight, the babies awake crying for their breakfast. The parents begin chattering so loudly that even the soundest human sleeper is awakened.

During the day, the swallows can be seen diving and weaving, while chattering to one another, in pursuit of insects that they take back to their hungry broods. The parents are very meticulous about not having their babies soil their nests, so below the nests one may be amazed at the size of the growing piles of bird droppings. My mother, who herself is quite meticulous about the cleanliness of her house, would have my father construct rondini bathrooms out of shallow wooden fruit crates. He would hang the crates directly under the nests attached to the beams over her terrazza, where we often ate.

During the last five years or so, huge herons, called Airone cenerini, have returned to the valley. Similar to our Great Blue Herons, they may be seen on the banks of the Serchio waiting to catch small fish or in the sky flying singly or in pairs high above the valley floor. They love to visit the local fish hatchery where the fishing is easy. The fish hatchery owners have begun constructing scarecrows or in this case “scare herons” in hopes that the big birds will go elsewhere for dinner.

At least two species of owls inhabit our village. One, the Barbagianni, is similar to our barn owl and lives in the attic of an ancient house just across from my window. It is fun to watch the little window that serves as the owl’s home just as dusk falls upon the valley. At first the owl sticks its head out to determine if it is dark enough to fly out in search of mice. Then without warning, the owl will swoop out and is gone in a flash, not to be seen again until the next evening.

Another smaller owl, the Assiolo, similar to our screech owl, is not often seen but can be heard at night sounding as if it has lost its best friend. The call is so forlorn and haunting that when several are calling each other from different parts of the village, one might think that a funeral wake is in progress, with the mourners sadly remembering their lost loved ones.

On a happier note, the fireflies, where incident light from streetlights and modern civilization has not frightened them away, blink their little tail lights in the dark like a thousand twinkling stars. Our four children would love to walk to the cemetery in the pitch black of the forested trail, where the fireflies like to gather at night in June. Below our window in the tall wildflowers that grow there, we often see a myriad of these special insects twinkling. That scene coupled with the twinkling lights of the distant village of Montefegatesi clinging to mountainside overlooking the Orrido di Botri, (canyon) makes one hope that heaven is this beautiful. The irony enveloping this thought, however, is the fact that Montefegatesi boasts a statue of Dante who was inspired to write more about hell than about heaven.

Swallows in the Street.
By Sue Russell

Since we have been here in Gioviano, I have been watching the swallows dip, turn and soar in the search of insects to feed their hungry young.

Twice, however, I have noticed different behavior--once a week ago when most of the swallows in town flew like an army of planes either circling the bell tower in a clockwise direction or heading down river towards Lucca. I couldn't tell where they were going, but never before have I seen them fly in squadron formation.

The second time was today when two swallows, who have a nest above the ortensia (hydrangea) bush in front of the Palazzo, flew to the ground. They were finding breadcrumbs to feed their young. One flew up to feed the babies while the other sorted through the remains.

Sabina’s father came along while the bird searched and stopped his three-wheeled

vehicle so that he wouldn’t disturb the bird until it could find what it was looking for. When the bird moved out of the way, the man continued on his way home.

Updated December 21, 2009
Copyright 2005-2009 George H. Russell
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