Friday, May 13, 2011

Food Chain

I have lived in small towns, big cites, suburbs and far outside the city limits. Each has its advantages. Which is better? You may as well ask which came first, the chicken or the egg. But when you live in the country you live more closely with nature and by doing so you must find the balance between contentment and control. You can choose to live like Thoreau at Walden’s Pond, or you can throw up fences and drain the pond.

In my attempt to find a spot somewhere in the middle I have chosen to soften nature’s harsh realities while trying to commune with it. My one-hundred-year old farm house (with the three-year old addition) heats me when I am cold and cools me when I am hot, but outside its walls there is life and death.

The food chain gets rattled once in a while around my home. From the fields, woods, and skies come snakes and frogs, mice and voles, rabbits and squirrels, muskrats and skunks, owls and hawks, foxes and coyotes. They all compete for survival. And despite my best efforts the carnage will sometimes spill over into the farmyard.

Given to counting heads I can say with some certainty that we never shared a cow, horse, sheep or goat with a predator. We have however, been more generous with our smaller stock. Predators usually come at night, although sometimes the slayer will come calling during the day.

As I pulled into the yard one afternoon something seemed to be amiss. An osprey had dropped in for a chicken dinner. I watched with rapt attention knowing since there was nothing I could do for the dead bird, I may as well enjoy the live one.

But I am not always so willing to stomach uninvited guests; I will usually grouse
about the pilfering of poultry. One summer we kept a paddling of ducks in a wading pool.Not wanting to have these messy birds muck up the barn we thought it better for all concerned to have them quack about freely in the barnyard. But we hadn’t concerned ourselves with raccoons.

At night the ducks started to disappear. This went on until I put Max, our 90 lb. German shepherd, inside the gate. He seemed to always know what was expected of him. The first morning I found a raccoon in a tree near the barn, the second morning Max came to the gate with bloody gashes near his right eye.

The ducks, which belonged to Nathan, were scheduled to go to the county fair as a 4-H project. Nathan and I talked about it and concluded that saving some dumb ducks wasn’t worth losing one of Max’s eyes.

Fortunately the raccoons never came back for the ducks. But a weasel was more tenacious. Although I never saw him, the slaughterhouse he left behind inside the barn provided ample evidence. He removed heads and filleted bodies. Ignoring live-traps and closed doors he decimated our chicken and pigeon population. The research I did told me that if I didn’t catch him he wouldn’t stop coming until the last bird was dead.

I kept a loaded shotgun next to the bed and a baby-monitor in the barn to alert me. But still I could not catch him, so I resorted to something I had never done before: leg traps.

I built heavy wooden boxes with small holes on one or both ends (I experimented). Placing the boxes over the baited traps I would place a concrete block on top so a cat or dog could not trip the trap. I even baited one live trap with a live pigeon (she was protected by a wire mesh wall I had attached to the inside).

I was out walking my trap line one morning after about a week of cleaning up dead birds inside the barn (the pigeon in the trap survived). One of the leg traps had been sprung. The weasel never came back.

Somewhere out there a weasel may have an injured leg, but I have to set my priorities. For after all what comes first, the chicken or the leg?

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