Wild Things

Why Did the Chicken Cross . . .

. . . spurs with the city council?

Well, actually, I don’t think most of the council members are all that cross with chickens. I bet they’re tired of hearing about them, though. Rapid City is having another debate about whether to allow people to keep a few chickens in their back yards.

Speaking as someone who is not a fan of chickens until they are safely beheaded, plucked, processed, and cooked (all of the aforementioned, preferably, done by someone else), you’d think I would be on the anti-chicken side of this argument.

Not so. If my neighbors want to have a handful of chickens in a coop in their yard, I don’t care. My objection to chickens wanes considerably when I’m not the one who has to feed them, gather their eggs, or help pluck them.

Besides, if the neighbors have chickens, the neighbors will have eggs. Possibly, even, extra eggs. I’m not proud. I’m willing to be a hypocrite if it gets me fresh-laid eggs now and then.

However, amid all the clucking and squawking about chickens, pro and con, I do agree with those who insist that chicken coops need to be well-constructed and secure. I don’t want a bunch of stray chickens attracting stray skunks, coyotes, and mountain lions who might be tired of venison.

I especially agree with the person who pointed out in our local paper that all the chicken coops need to be built with two doors.

Because if they had four doors, they wouldn’t be chicken coupes. They would be chicken sedans.

(Sorry. Sometimes when you scrape the very bottom of the idea barrel, all you come up with is chicken manure.)

Categories: Just For Fun, Wild Things | Tags: , | 2 Comments

“Please, sir, may I have some more?”

It was a scene straight out of Charles Dickens. The unwed pregnant mother, abandoned by the father of her child, was out in the snowstorm. Cold and hungry, she waited outside the lighted windows of a house where people were eating, talking, and laughing. They saw her, but none of them gave her so much as a crust of bread.

Actually, the reality was even worse. It wasn’t just one unwed mother, but several. Heavy with this year’s fawns and with yearlings at their heels, they came through our back yard in the middle of last week’s snowstorm, looking for something to eat.

The snow was more than knee-deep, so no matter how energetically they dug with their slender front hooves, they couldn’t get to the bottom of it. First they explored the area that we pretend is our compost pile, where they often find delicacies like carrot peelings and orange rinds. Nothing. They pawed here and there in the yard. They shoved their noses into the snow in hopes of finding stray blades of grass. All they got for their trouble were white masks.

Finally most of them wandered off to the trees at the edge of the yard and started browsing on pine needles. One doe, however, stayed behind for quite a long time. She stood perfectly still, gazing up at our second-story deck. What had caught her attention was the bird feeder with its tantalizing sunflower seeds.

We could almost see her thinking. “If I just had something to stand on . . .” “If I got enough of a running start, maybe I could jump . . .”

Eventually she started off to join the others in the trees. Then she came back for one more speculative look. “If it snows another foot, I bet I can reach it.”

No such luck. The does nibbled a few pine needles and dry weeds, then moved on.

After the snow stopped falling, we dumped out a fresh batch of vegetable peelings and orange rinds that made a garish splotch on the white world of the back yard. Overnight, it disappeared, leaving nothing but tracks. Except for the onion skins. Even hungry unwed mothers have their standards.

Categories: Wild Things | 1 Comment

The Birds

Picture this idyllic scene of early spring in southeastern New Mexico: The western sky is streaked with the orange, gold, and pink of a glorious sunset. We are standing in a residential neighborhood on a calm evening, watching a flock of birds as they come in to settle in the treetops for the night. As they circle above us, the last rays of the sun touch the tips of their outspread wings with bronze.

Amid all this loveliness and serenity, why am I fidgeting so uneasily, wishing the garage beside me had broader eaves so I could move closer under its shelter?

Because the birds soaring over our heads are vultures. Dozens and dozens of them, circling in a holding pattern and then swooping down to land in a row of trees along the edge of a well-kept back yard.

The vultures settle onto the very tops of the trees, even though it would seem the branches there would be too slender to hold them. There are so many that the treetops are edged in black like an old-fashioned letter announcing bad news.

Each time a few new birds land, a ripple of grumbling goes through the flock. The ones already perching either resist the arrival of the newcomers, shift position to make room for them, or take off to rejoin the circle above the trees. Meanwhile, more birds keep coming, and coming, and coming. They seem to be auditioning for a remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. All that’s missing is the ominous background music.

And I’m getting increasingly nervous. We’re just standing there watching, for Pete’s sake. The obvious risk of hanging out underneath a large number of large birds is bad enough. But these are vultures. While we’re gaping at them, we are not moving. Staying that still, in this case, seems like a really, really bad idea. There are more than enough buzzards above us to carry off our carcasses like the winged monkeys from The Wizard of Oz.

(Which unfortunately reminds me of the joke about the buzzard who checks in at the airport, carrying a dead armadillo under each wing. “Sorry, sir,” the ticket agent tells him, “Only one carrion item per passenger.”)

Sorry.

But these buzzards are no joke. We were told that they aren’t permanent residents, but are only passing through. Their visits last two or three months, though, so they have become a serious nuisance. Not only are the birds big, bold, and plentiful; they are also protected by law. This makes getting rid of them a challenge.

Still, I can’t help but wonder. What would “chile con vulture” taste like? And would it be better with red or green?

Categories: Travel, Wild Things | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Who’s the Real Turkey Here?

It's embarrassing for a grown woman, a grandmother no less, to charge out onto her deck, yelping and growling like a Chihuahua that's had a can of Red Bull dumped into its water dish. In broad daylight, mind you. In full view of the new neighbors and their impressionable small children.

It's even more embarrassing to be ignored. Not, unfortunately, by the neighbors. By the pair of predatory turkeys at the bird feeder who are the target of the attack.

Oh, they took off, launching themselves off the deck in flapping disarray, thumping to the ground, and scuttling off through the back yard. All the while they clucked anxiously to each other: "What was that scary critter?" "I dunno. Run faster." "What'd we do?" "I dunno. It was your idea. Run faster." "Was not." "Was too. Run faster."

They would trot off out of sight, catch their breath and calm their nerves—probably with illicit cigarettes—and come right back.

One day I chased them away six times. They finally left for good, but only because the bird feeder was empty.

And they've kept coming back. Now they bring along their brothers and sisters and cousins. They can empty the feeder in sixty seconds flat, meanwhile emptying something else. They seem to think our deck is not only their own personal buffet, but also their own personal poultry port-a-potty.

Even though we've left the bird feeder empty for now—thereby depriving all the innocent little birds of the food they've come to rely on—the turkeys still stop by every couple of days just to check.

Yesterday, there they were again, walking along the deck railing like a couple of prehistoric klutzes in a gymnastics class trying to master the balance beam. Watching them slouch along on their scrawny long legs, I realized for the first time how young they were. This year's hatch, they were lanky (though if they keep raiding our bird feeder, that won't last long) and didn't have the full feathering and wattles that mark adults. Even by turkey standards, their heads looked small, as if they were trying for a cool Mohawk look but had picked the wrong barber.

Suddenly, it all made sense. They're adolescents. No wonder they're always hungry. And no wonder they never listen.

Categories: Wild Things | 4 Comments

People Walking

There they were, as cozy as could be, obviously an item. She didn't seem to care that she was blatantly strolling down the sidewalk with someone new, only a few blocks away from the house where she lived with another man. She looked as ladylike as ever, with her thick white hair and dignified pace.

And her waving plume of a tail.

She, in this case, was the Great Pyrenees (think St. Bernard, only white and a bit less jowly) that lives along my regular walking route. I see her often, out with her owner, so it was a surprise the other day to see her with someone new.

It was even more of a surprise, a couple of blocks later, to see her walking with her owner just as usual.

Oh. I didn't know there was a second Great Pyrenees in the neighborhood. Never mind.

Watching dogs walk their people is one of the things that keeps my mind occupied while I, not having a dog to look after me, am out walking myself. There are as many different walking styles as there are breeds of dogs and body types of people.

There's the all-business chocolate lab who sets a brisk pace and is too focused on his destination to bother with being petted by strangers. The two lively little dogs, sharing the same woman with separate leashes, who are so busy trying to sniff everything that they yank her in opposite directions. The three Shelties, also with one woman but separate leashes, who trot along with such obedience and good behavior that it's almost scary. I've wondered whether drugs might be involved.

One of my favorites is the middle-sized terrier that ranges out to the end of its unreeling leash, dashing through the weeds and exploring here and sniffing there with unrelenting energy. Meanwhile, its owner ambles along in her pajama pants and flip flops, with the leash in one hand and her coffee cup in the other. There's more than one way to enjoy an early morning walk.

Earlier this summer, on a visit to Devils Tower, we saw a family heading out along the path that circles the tower. It looked like Mom, Grandma, and three kids ranging in age from about four to ten. Mom was pushing a baby stroller, one of those deluxe jobs with room for so much stuff that it would be easy to overlook the kid altogether. As we passed them, I glanced inside to see the baby.

There, in regal splendor, sat a tiny terrier, all bright eyes and brisk mustaches. Now, there was a dog that knew how to take his people for a walk.

Categories: Wild Things | 1 Comment

Not In My Back Yard

In the coolness of early morning, the aroma was earthy, with self-assured woodsy top notes and a confident musky undertone. It was clear evidence, especially backed up by the marks of fresh digging beside the bush by the front door, that a skunk had been in our front yard.

Being a person who used to know eleventeen verses of "Kumbaya" and who tries to be tolerant and inclusive, I have no personal animosity toward skunks. From an appropriate distance, they're even kind of cute. And it's hard not to have a little sympathy for a critter whose Latin name, Mephitis mephitis, translates as "noxious vapor noxious vapor." Surely just once would have gotten the point across. Repeating it seems a little rude.

All of that peace, love, and tolerance, however, does not mean I want a skunk living in my yard. The morning after I smelled it, I saw it for the first time, rippling its way across the back yard. After several more sightings over the next few days, I had figured out that it was living under a wood pile just a few feet from the garage door.

I called the animal control number. Sorry, the man told me—not sounding sorry at all—but they didn't do skunks. He offered to rent us a live trap for a mere $10 a week, but said, "Once you catch it, you're on your own."

Hmmm, let's think about this. Which is worse, a skunk living in the back yard, minding its own business, or a seriously irritated skunk in a live trap?

Even though we have a one-acre lot in a neighborhood that feels somewhat rural, we're in the city limits. I'm sure shooting a skunk with a .22 would be frowned upon, even if I were a good shot, which I'm not. My partner, who is a good shot, was out of town. Of course, accurate shooting might not be strictly necessary, since the skunk's cozy little home was right next to the propane tank, though the potential for collateral damage would be a bit high.

About now I remembered a story my father told a long time ago. He and several neighbors were working together, shelling corn. At that time, corn was harvested with a machine that left the ears intact. It was stored in bins and then later run through a corn sheller that stripped the kernels off the cobs. The men were shoveling corn into a conveyer that moved the ears up into the machine. All at once a skunk ran out from under the grain bin and made a dash for a quieter neighborhood. As it ran along the row of men, each one stepped back to let it go by. Except the last guy in line, who jumped on the skunk and stomped it to death.

Thinking about that particular piece of gratuitous idiocy made me feel somewhat kinder toward the critter in our back yard, though I still wasn't happy about having it there. It didn't help when my sweetheart got back from his trip. His contribution to solving the problem was to name the skunk Priscilla.

The next evening, I saw Pris—er, the skunk again. With the air of someone on important business, it was trotting toward the ravine at the back of our lot. I haven't seen it since. Maybe, all this time, while I was thinking unkind thoughts about our unwelcome lodger, it had been thinking unkind thoughts about the lack of privacy in our woodpile and the poor quality of the table scraps in our compost pile. Maybe it had decided to move on.

Then last night, just after I went to bed, the cool breeze coming through the bedroom window brought with it an unmistakable aroma—earthy, with a musky undertone.

Drat. My only hope now is that one of the neighbors has a really stupid dog.

Categories: Wild Things | 3 Comments

Where does a 2000-pound buffalo play?

Anywhere he wants to. Or, as my 13-year-old grandson put it, "Any time a buffalo wants to go to the playground, he gets to be first in line at the slide."

This conclusion might not be scientifically researched, but it is based on personal observation.

On a 100-plus degree day in the Black Hills, we stopped at Legion Lake. I was sitting with my toes in the water on the opposite side of the small lake from the beach, which was crowded with shrieking, splashing kids. On the playground beyond the beach, a few more kids were playing on the swings and slides.

All at once, a hush fell over the swimming area. Well, not really. The noise level changed pitch a little, though. I looked up and saw the cause—a buffalo bull near the edge of the water. He had apparently just come out of the trees beyond the lake. Huge head bobbing with every ponderous step, he was striding toward the beach with the implacable air of a large critter who goes anyplace he damn well pleases.

Disregarding the lesser beings all around him, he marched across the grassy area between the beach and the playground equipment. The kids at the top of the slides and ladders stayed put. Most of the people on the beach, though, seemed unconcerned as they watched the buffalo go by just a few feet away. Most of the kids in the water kept right on shrieking and splashing.

Personally, I would have been dog-paddling for the far side of the lake like a Malamute out to win the Iditarod. On a hot day, a buffalo isn't going to stay out of the water just because he can't find a Speedo to fit him.

The bull got to the far side of the playground without running over any innocent out-of-state toddlers. By that time, a park ranger in a pickup had driven up to show the buffalo, "This beach ain't big enough for all of us, buddy." With some encouragement from the vehicle, the burly beach bully kept on moving and disappeared into the woods.

For a little while. About 20 minutes later, he was back, wading into the water a little way from the beach. No mere pickup was going to keep him from quenching his thirst.

Note to all Black Hills visitors: Those "Buffalo are dangerous" signs? They mean it. A buffalo is not a nice, gentle cow. (As a matter of fact, your average cow isn't a nice, gentle cow, either. Those soft brown eyes are deceptive.)

No wonder that Dr. Brewster M. Higley, who wrote the words to "Home on the Range" back in the 1870's, was willing to let the deer and the antelope play but preferred the buffalo to roam. If one happens to roam onto the beach or the playground, it's wise not to challenge his right to play wherever he wants to. Even when the chips are down, the buffalo is always going to win.

Categories: Wild Things | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Secret Life of Lovebirds

The dove approached the bird feeder with hesitant dignity, gracing the common flock with its presence rather like Queen Victoria at a backyard barbecue. She—it was somehow impossible to think of the bird as anything other than female—was different from any of the other doves and pigeons that occasionally wander across the deck. This one was smaller and paler, so soft a gray as to be almost white, with one black stripe across the back of the neck.

We looked it up in The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, and there it was, number 350. Our guest looked just like the picture of the ringed turtle dove.

There was nothing in the least remarkable about this until we read the description on page 585. According to Audubon, the range of the ringed turtle dove is Los Angeles, California. To quote: "Escaped from captivity. Also established locally in southern Florida. . . . The small population in downtown Los Angeles has apparently not spread and is localized in a few parks and tree-lined streets."

Okay, then. Assuming our dainty visitor was indeed a ringed turtle dove—and no other picture in the bird book even came close to resembling it—how did it end up in western South Dakota?

True, we'd recently had a human houseguest from California who flew here in a manmade bird. The chances of a lone turtle dove stowing away in his luggage seemed remote, especially since he came from San Francisco. It's also possible the bird we saw was a local escapee, maybe one of a pair released at a wedding reception who had fled from its matrimonial obligations.

Or perhaps the truth is deeper and darker. What if there are tiny colonies of fugitive ringed turtle doves hidden all across the country? The one in Los Angeles could be the home base, showing to the public a peaceful community of harmless lovebirds, billing and cooing in the most innocent way. Behind the scenes, however, it could be the logistical center for a secret underground—er, aboveground movement of turtle doves with a goal of freeing all their relatives still held in captivity.

The one we saw could have been a scout, sent to search the middle of the country, checking every bird feeder, wedding venue, and party supplier to compile a list of captive turtle doves. Then, some dark night when we least expect it, the birds will launch Operation Winged Freedom, a massive aerial assault intended to release every enslaved lovebird.

The scout certainly wouldn't have found any captives here. We put out food so we can watch the birds, not capture them.

I just hope she doesn't know what happened to all her cousins that have disappeared in such numbers during dove season. If we're lucky, she'll never make the connection between us, my father, his shotgun, and all that dove-breast jerky that shows up at family reunions.

Categories: Wild Things | Tags: | 1 Comment

Watching the Watcher

The large furry creature was lurking in the dark hallway. I couldn't see it, but I knew it was there. I could hear it breathing. It was 3:07 a.m.

At times it slept; I could hear it snoring. But even then, I couldn't turn my back on it and go back to sleep myself. I could feel it out there: watchful, waiting, alert for any movement I might make. It was between me and the kitchen; between me and the telephone. There was no way I could leave the bedroom and slip past it in the dark without it catching me.

I knew this, because at 1:37 a.m., when I got up to go to the bathroom, I had nearly stepped on it.

On her, rather. Lucy. The chocolate lab of mature years and generous girth who is staying with us this week while her owner is out of town.

This is a new experience for me. I've never lived with a dog in the house before. Lucy is placid, obedient, and impeccably mannered, but even so, it's been an adjustment. She's patient, though, and so far she seems to believe I can be trained.

Parts of the routine of having a dog in the house are relatively easy to adapt to. I've learned that getting up from a chair to go to another room for just a minute means Lucy will heave herself up on her arthritic joints to follow me, so she can flop down onto the floor wherever I am. I've learned that even if you do it as noiselessly as possible, opening a bag of dog food is magical. It instantly makes a tail-wagging dog appear in the kitchen, even if a millisecond ago she was at the other end of the house. I've learned that a walk with a dog is a stop-and-go exercise. Who knew there were so many places to stop and check the P-mail?

There are even some advantages to having a dog in the house. When I mutter to myself over my keyboard, I'm not talking to myself; I'm talking to Lucy. Also, taking her along early in the morning to get the newspaper offers security against mountain lions. Not that Lucy could take on a mountain lion single-pawed, of course. But if her doggy presence wasn't enough to keep one at a distance, at least I could easily outrun her.

Still, I'm not sure I could live with a dog on a full-time basis. I could get used to the routine and the responsibility. What I can't handle is the guilt.

The long sighs she emits from time to time as she lies stretched out on the floor in my office while I'm working and paying no attention to her. Having to pull her away from a particularly entrancing smell so we can actually finish a walk the same day we started it. The long-suffering patience she shows at mealtimes—ours, not hers—when she sits at a polite distance, pretending not to watch every trip our forks make from our plates to our mouths. And especially, the sad, reproachful look we get when we leave the house, shutting her up in the utility room and telling her she has to stay.

Not to mention the vigil she keeps in the hallway at night, sleeping with one eye open, too obedient to come into the bedroom but ready to spring—or at least to lumber—to her feet the second she hears us get up.

I'm doing my best to manage the guilt, though. If Lucy wants to guard the hallway all night, I can't stop her. But I don't need to stay awake watching the watchdog. From now on, I'm sleeping with the door shut.

Categories: Wild Things | 4 Comments

A Better Mousetrap

"Utah man’s shot at mouse hits roommate."

As a newspaper headline, this one certainly did its job of catching my attention. It wasn't immediately clear, however, whether the victim was the roommate of the man or the mouse. Finding out that and other details required reading the whole article.

Apparently this man spotted a mouse in the pantry of his apartment. His reflexes possibly being faster than his thought processes, he hauled out his gun and shot at the critter. The article didn't specify what type of firearm, but surely anything bigger than a .22 pistol would have been serious overkill.

Not surprisingly—mice are small targets, not to mention quick—he missed. The bullet went on through the wall into the adjoining bathroom, where it hit the man's roommate. In the best tradition of old Western movies, it was a shoulder wound.

The shooter was 27, old enough that one might think his brain would have matured into a certain minimal level of common sense. When he spotted the mouse, then, why didn't he do what any reasonably functional adult would do and simply set a mousetrap?

Well, maybe he didn't own one. Maybe he couldn't find one. Maybe, like so many of us, he had a couple of mousetraps somewhere, probably in the kitchen junk drawer. Amid the clear tape, masking tape, duct tape, scissors, screwdrivers, pliers, odd nails and screws, matchbooks, string, paper clips, rubber bands, bag clips, broken refrigerator magnets, pencil stubs, and nonworking pens, a couple of insignificant mousetraps could easily get lost.

Or maybe he was out of peanut butter to use for bait.

It's also possible that the "small, empty balloons and burnt tin foil" the cops found in the wastebasket had something to do with his decision. To me those items sound like evidence of a children's birthday party where somebody left the potatoes on the grill too long. Since the man was charged with possession of drug paraphernalia, however, apparently in the world of law enforcement they are evidence of a different sort of activity.

At least the story had a happy ending for somebody. With one roommate hauled off to the hospital and the other to jail, the mouse could enjoy undisturbed occupancy of the pantry. With plenty of space and plenty of food, it may have even decided to sublet to a couple of roommates. Slower ones, preferably.

After all, if the shooter got his gun back when he was released on bail and came home, it wouldn't be a bad idea to have more than one furry little target to share the risk.

Categories: Wild Things | 2 Comments

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