The Night Shift.

Home from the hunt

If you look closely, you will see what Kainan sees. One to the far right, one to the far left. The night shift is heading home.

The young couple heads home from the night shift. Traffic is light. Most of the world is still stretching and shaking off the last fog of sleep.

They have had a busy night. They always have a busy night. Their work follows routine, familiar trails where the likelihood of finding field mice, bunnies, and other small prey is high. It’s hard work, especially in the winter, but now the days are a bit longer, and the warmer temperatures mean bounty. Their full bellies will now provide sustenance for the warm, squirming secret they have tucked safely in a deep burrow by the big pond.

Now it is time to rest. Time to recover. Time to enjoy the safety of their haven. Tonight, when the moon peeks above the treeline, it will be their cue to clock-in once again. They will announce the start of their work night with a mellifluous chorus and the neighboring workforce will answer. It’s an ancestral ritual, passed through generations. It is a confirmation of life, of boundaries, of territory.

On this morning, just as at sunrise yesterday, the young coyotes dart carefully and purposefully from the cover of the trees across the open pasture. It is this last part of their path that leaves them open, vulnerable in the morning spotlight.  But they are not afraid. They know this place; they know the others who share their home.

The dogs come rushing out of the house, but the coyotes know they will stop. They have a fence they will honor. The wild ones pause, sitting to watch the silly dogs racing up and down the fence shattering the early morning peace with their frustrated cries. The coyotes know the dogs will soon become bored with this game. They will go back to the house to do whatever it is domestic dogs do.

But they know one will remain. He is different. He doesn’t bark, he doesn’t race around aimlessly. He just watches with quiet intensity. This one both fascinates and unnerves the coyotes. There is something about him that is like them, but also very different. He is huge and powerful in comparison to their lithe, agile frames. Even from a distance, they are able to meet and hold his gaze, for just a moment, before moving on. They know this one.

Often, during their night shift, they sense him there. He lies in the big yard, but he does not sleep like the other dogs do. He watches. He samples the wind with his long snout. His ears remain alert and pinpointed to their every move.

Yes, this one is different. He seems to understand the need that drives the coyotes every single night. He will sit and watch them in rain, snow, or cold. On some level, he seems a part of their world. But no, he is on the wrong side of the fence. He lives in the house.

The big wolfdog watches. Every morning he sees the coyotes cross the field. Part of him wants to race the fence and bark at them with his housemates, but he never does. He sits back and studies. He knows by the scent on the wind that this pair has young in a burrow just behind the big tree on the north side of the pond. He knows they work long nights. It is a job called survival.

On some deep level he is drawn to them. Sometimes he adds his deep howl to their evening chorus, speaking a language that was born to him. He could go. The fence that separates his world from theirs is not insurmountable.

But he doesn’t go. The other half of his brain always wins. He watches as the coyotes disappear into the camouflage of dense brush that leads to their home. Then the big wolfdog turns back toward the house, where he hears the call that puts his wild side to bed for the day and summons the playful dog.

“Kainan! Breakfast!”

Hey, Bill! Pick on Someone Your Own Size. (Or, Sparrows are not Ducks.)

20150618_190414So if you’ve been reading along recently, you may have read a post or two about the rain and subsequent mud we’ve been experiencing here in the Heartland. Specifically at my house. And all over my house, thanks to mud-loving dogs. According to very excited local meteorologists, it was the wettest May in Oklahoma history with upwards of 15 to 18 inches of rain depending on where you were standing.

And then, just to mess with us, all of that wet weather was followed by a couple of weeks that were almost rain-free. The mud surrendered to the blazing sun. We actually got to mow the yard. We ventured out without even a backward glance at the old raincoat.

Well, kids, it was just the old calm before the storm. During the second week of blissfully sunny, dry weather, we heard rumors of a storm brewing down in the Gulf of Mexico. We ignored it. The whole ignorance/bliss thing.

But then some of the reports actually managed to breach our defenses and there was excited chatter about a weather event. Oh, it is NEVER good when they toss the word event in there.

The final blow was when they named the damn storm. When a storm gets a proper name, you have to take note.

789436_1280x720Tropical Storm Bill. Yes, Bill. I know we’re being all P.C. by not calling every hurricane and storm by a feminine name, but don’t we all agree that Bertha is a bit more tropical stormy sounding?

Alas, we were stuck with Bill. And I think he was a bit bitter. He swirled and whirled his way right up from the Texas gulf coast and took a good swipe at Oklahoma. OH the rain. And then more rain. And top that off with a bit more rain.

Screenshot_2015-06-18-17-25-32 (1)This is when I started wishing that phones weren’t so darn smart these days. Our phones sounded alarm, after alarm, after alarm about the serious threat of flash flooding. Now, far be it from me to downplay the dangers of copious amounts of water pouring down from the heavens to overwhelm our storm sewers, rivers, and streams, but if I have to hear that honking alarm one more time, I just might go off the grid.

At some point we just smash the phone to shut it up and don’t even take note of the actual alarm. It’s the phone that cried wolf/flood/tornado.

The kicker about that alarm is that it does NOTHING to warn baby birds about the danger of steady downpours. There are no little, tiny smartphones in the nest. And evil Bill took full advantage of the situation.

Right now you’re thinking my brain is waterlogged and I’m making no sense whatsoever. Stay with me. We’ll get there.

Yesterday, during one of Bill’s milder outbursts, I was walking a stout, feisty dog down a sidewalk in front of my business because apparently dogs still have to go to the bathroom, even during a “major weather event.” Suddenly, something sitting in the middle of a sizable puddle in the parking lot caught my eye. There, soaked through, shivering, and stunned, was a tiny fledgling sparrow.

20150618_153022Fortunately, I saw the little bird before my canine escort did. One quick scoop and the soggy baby was out of the puddle and headed inside my dog boarding and daycare facility for a little check-up. Pretty sure, had he been aware of said destination, the bird would not have considered this development an improvement to his situation. Ignore the 50+ carnivores, little guy, I got this.

After handing the dog off (we did not need his curious, insistent help!), I tossed some little towels in the microwave (note: I put TOWELS in the microwave) to warm them and then wrapped little Soggy in the warm towels. (Note: You do NOT put the baby bird in the microwave to warm it…that is WRONG. You might think I don’t have to spell that out, and yet…well, I feel better for having said it.)

I put Soggy into a little bucket all cozy and covered in warm towels and ran errands with him. Yes, he went with me to the credit union. We went through a drive-through for a beverage (he didn’t want anything). We dropped some plastics at the recycling place. It may seem crazy to take a baby bird for a trip in a Jeep, but what Soggy needed was a little time to warm up, dry out, and calm down. I needed a little time to get my errands done. Multitasking at its finest.

Finally, a few errands into our outing, I heard a little peep from the bucket on the seat next to me. Good sign.

Then that peep was followed by a little chorus of questioning cheeps and chirps. Very good sign!

Back we headed to the spot where I found Soggy. There are lots of shrubs and trees around that parking lot and the sparrows nested there in droves this spring. Soggy was likely born in that parking lot and he still needed his wild parents to finish his how-to-be-a-bird education. The best thing for Soggy at this point was to get him back to his mom and dad.

Ah, but what about Bill? Bill was still hanging out. Bill was still spitting and drenching everything in his path.

Time to outsmart Bill.

20150618_163106I took Soggy’s little bucket, turned it sideways to create a little storm shelter. I tucked the shelter beneath and behind a large shrub and made a little cave in the warm, dry towels. Soggy could hang out there until the storm passed and his folks called to him to come home.

Tiny bird vs Tropical Storm Bill. I am pleased to say that the win goes to tiny bird in this match. I’m also pleased to report that Bill has moved along (friends to the east, your phone may be screaming at you as I type) and we now have a bright shiny new day to enjoy as we work to dry out once again. There is surely some grand David and Goliath message in this story, but right now, I’m just grateful that one small bird caught my eye yesterday.

Hopefully, Soggy’s parents will now teach their adventurous child the difference between being a sparrow and a duck. They will surely scold him and tell him that in the event of another Bill, Bertha, or Charles, as the case may be, it is not wise to fly into pouring rain or to land in standing water.

Either way, I think great things are ahead for Soggy. He dodged many potential tragedies yesterday – Bill, dogs, flooded parking lots, torrential rain, microwave ovens – to survive and likely thrive. Surely he is destined for birdie greatness. I hope he throws a feathered wave my way if our paths cross again.

How will I know him if I see him, you ask? He’ll surely be the sparrow sporting a teeny, tiny smartphone.

Loving and Losing Rascal.

rascal

Our handsome, complex boy.

Edie, my little dynamo dressed in Australian Cattle dog clothing, keeps running to the bedroom to look for Rascal. Then she runs into the living room, again to look for Rascal. She looks out the window. She checks the yard. But he’s not there. He’s not in any of those places.

She appears momentarily confused, but then seems to remember what happened and, with the dog equivalent of a shrug, moves on to find another of our pack to chase. The gift of acceptance—dogs have it. We can learn from them.

I do think Edie still hopes Rascal might pop back up because he was her self-assigned job, her cow substitute. It was not an easy job. Rascal was a high-drive, highly reactive, highly unpredictable dog. Yet, since the day agile little Edie walked through our door just over a year ago, she has monitored his activities with relentless drive, devotion, and eventually friendship.

Two nights before Christmas, the unthinkable happened to bring an untimely end to Edie’s job. I’m fairly sure Edie was the only witness to our tragedy because, in the aftermath, I found her hiding in one of our dog crates. She was crouched all the way to the back of the crate, tense, and trembling. It took several minutes of soft talking and reassurance to coax my girl out.

I wish she could talk. I wish she could tell us how it happened. What we have been able to piece together is that Rascal was killed in the back corner of our yard. All evidence points to an attack by a coyote—inside our fence. Inside the boundary we once considered safe.

My mind keeps searching, irrationally, for the rewind button that will take me back to the moments just before Rascal’s death. If I could just go back in time, I could fix this. I could do things differently. I could keep Rascal safe.

Rascal sitI keep thinking back to the last time I saw him. He was actually being good. That was a rare thing for Rascal, especially in the evenings. Usually by 9:00 or 10:00 at night, Rascal had to be shut in his crate to keep him from exploding through the house repeatedly, racing out the dog door to bark at the horses, a bird, a deer, a leaf, anything…everything.

But on that night, he was being calm. I did not ask him to go to his crate. An unintentional, fatal mistake. Thankfully my last words to him were in delight, “Good boy, Rascal.” I’ve said some pretty terrible things to that dog out of total frustration, so I am blessed by this last thought, my last image of my challenging boy.

I was busy wrapping presents and Jim was relaxing in the recliner with a couple of dogs serving as blankets. All of the dogs were in the house, most were asleep. I didn’t pay much attention as a few of them would come and go through the dog door. They had always had free access to the yard. At least they used to.

At some point…it would have been after 10:30 or 11:00…Rascal went outside. I didn’t notice. He didn’t go tearing outside as he was prone to doing. I guess he probably went out to hike his leg on a fencepost. I never heard a thing. No alarmed barking. No sounds of a fight. None of the other dogs sounded an alert. There were simply no signs to bring my attention to the life and death struggle that was happening no more than 30 yards from where I sat tying bows on festively wrapped gifts. No more than 30 yards from where Jim cuddled with some of the other dogs.

I only discovered the tragedy when it occurred to me that we were having a quiet night. No Rascal disturbing our peaceful evening. No Edie in hot pursuit. I called out for him. There was no response. As crazy as Rascal could be, he always came to me when I called. Always. But not this time.

By now some of the dogs were up and heading outside. That’s when I noticed them acting strangely as they congregated in the dark of the back corner of the yard. That’s when I saw a black form laying on the ground, up against the fence.

And I knew. I knew he was dead. I knew.

We quickly gathered the other dogs into the house and Jim ran out to see what was wrong. I could see by his motions that there was nothing to be done. I could also tell by the movement of his searching flashlight that he was concerned.

On this night, Rascal—our fierce protector, the ultimate, fearless predator—became the prey. Because there was simply no noise, we believe a coyote was already in the yard when Rascal ventured out. Rascal was a formidable match for another dog, but no match at all for the ancient survival instinct of a wild animal. He was killed efficiently, and I like to believe quickly, by a grab to his throat. I did not see it happen. I believe only Edie knows the whole story.

I won’t go into detail, but Rascal was not killed in an act of violence by the coyote, we know he was killed for sustenance. We had just had an ice storm and every tree, every bit of brush, every blade of grass still wore a shimmering, translucent jacket. The coyotes were simply hungry and trying to survive freezing temperatures in an area where habitat loss has grown more pronounced every year by humans moving in, changing the landscape. Instinct led this coyote to the scent of our dogs…his prey.

Now I have to come to terms with this violent, sudden loss. An argument rages inside my mind. My emotional self feels extreme guilt and grief. How could I have missed this struggle? How did I not realize my dog desperately needed help? Logical me says that I cannot punish myself for this. The reality is that I did not know. Even if I had heard something it’s doubtful I could have saved Rascal, and in truth, my actions would have likely caused our other dogs to stream into the yard, putting them in grave danger as well. In time, the logical side will prevail. I will see to it. This was not our fault. This was not my fault.

coyote run

Once a fascinating photo, now an eerie foreshadowing. This photo was taken a few years ago. This was a small female coyote who visited our fence in the mornings for a short time. Rascal is at the front of the pack, running the fence with the coyote. This was never an aggressive event, but almost seemed playful. We suspect that this little female, thriving in the bounty of spring, was likely seeking a mate.

Looking back does no good. There is no going back. What we do have to live with now is the knowledge that our home, our haven, has been violated.  We have always felt safe here. We have always kept our dogs safely fenced in…the natural world free to exist outside of this boundary, often to our delight. But now the boundary, our trust, has been breached.

I truly don’t blame the coyotes.  I hear them sing so beautifully every evening. I know they have young to feed. But just as they would protect their den, so shall we.

We have taken steps to ensure the immediate safety of our dogs. They no longer have free access to our main yard after dark. They no longer have access to the yard when we are not home. We check carefully before we let the dogs out at night or in the gray, pre-dawn morning. We are vigilant.

Motion detection lights will be installed in the dark corners of the yard. An electric fence will be run on the exterior of the chain link, not to keep our dogs in, but to keep wildlife out. We fear that the coyotes may come back. They have tasted blood here. The rifle positioned by our back door is a constant reminder that they are no longer welcome to come so close again.

The dogs all still rush out to the spot where Rascal’s life was taken. They still sniff carefully there, the male dogs and the female husky/malamute mix mark with their urine there and scruff their back feet as if sending a message to the coyote. I hope he listens. I hope he heeds their warning.

And now things here are much quieter. Much calmer. Rascal was a force to live with—his absence leaves an unmistakable void, both in a bad way and, admittedly, a good way as well. He was like a dangerous whirlwind in our home. He stirred the other dogs up. He caused stress. We were working on it, though, and I believe we were making progress. I’ll never know.

Rascal was a vital, strong eight years old. For as much as he was an impossibly frustrating dog to have around, he was equally affectionate. He was fiercely loyal to me. He was incredibly smart and complex.

To my Rascal:

You were a dog I never intended to keep.

You were a dog I never intended to love.

You were a dog I never intended to lose.

In the end, on all three counts, the best of intentions failed, and love and loss became reality. You were the dog that was so very hard to live with…now you are the dog I find it very hard to live without. Know that we learned from you. Know that your absence from our fold leaves a hollow spot. Above all, know that you were loved.

Rascal Dwayne

Rascal’s story was the topic of one of my earlier posts. You can read about him there: https://talesyouwin.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/its-a-lovehate-thing-but-mostly-love/

Outwitted, Outplayed, Outlasted. Outfoxed by a Beaver.

Sapulpa-20110724-00036

We have been playing our own little version of Survivor here at Tails You Win Farm. In this episode, we have humans verses Mother Nature’s finest little workers: beavers.

A little background is in order here. I purchased this land, our little slice of the world, in 1997. It was an 80 acre tract that had been part of a larger ranch that was divided and to be sold in an auction. I experienced the thrill of sitting through the bidding, waiting for my moment. I held my breath as the bidding for my dream parcel of land reached what I knew was my financial ceiling. I held up my hand for what had to be my last bid. I sat in disbelief as the auctioneer encouraged the crowd by saying “don’t let $100 per acre stand between you and your dream” as the current bid–MY bid–sat at my maximum purchase price. “WHAT?” Yelled the voice inside my head at the enthusiastic auctioneer. “SHUT UP!” My reality was that $100 more per acre would most definitely stand between me and my dream.

Finally, after three agonizing hours of silence (ok, it was really just a few seconds), no one else raised their hand, no one raised the bid, and finally, blissfully, the gavel fell and the land was mine. Well, it was technically “ours.” At that time, “I” was a “we.” But within four years of buying the land, the “we” decided to divorce and the “I” decided the one thing in my seemingly shattered world that truly mattered, that truly gave me peace, was the land. My land. My dream.

So obviously there is a huge yadda-yadda-yadda between the auction and today. The fast forward is that I survived divorce, met and fell in love with a wonderful man who also shared my love for this undeveloped, blank canvas of dirt, grass, and trees. We built a barn, we built a home, we added a few fences, but basically, we left the land as we found it. Unspoiled, natural and beautiful.

Living here was and still is an adventure. I was raised in the city, but I always felt out of place there. I love animals. I love nature. I hug trees. Our theory with this land is that the wild beings that inhabit it were here before we moved in and it is our job to share this place with them in a responsible manner. The coyotes, deer, raccoons, rabbits, turtles, snakes, possums, armadillos, hawks, and more are all welcome friends. All are intriguing studies in wildlife.

We also have a beautiful pond in front of our house. When we built the house, deer at pondwe positioned it so we would have a view of the pond from our generous front porch. The pond is home to a healthy stock of fish. Turtles sun themselves on the banks during the summer months. Waterfowl use it as a migration hotel every fall and spring.  Herons strut in the shallows. We have a paddle boat that allows us to peacefully share the pond with our wild friends. It’s all very Disney-esque. Snow White would be so happy here.

Our “share our home with nature” theory has worked very well for years. Very well. Until now. Enter the beavers.

About two years ago we discovered we had some new neighbors. Well, actually, the first thing we discovered was a willow tree neatly felled along the shore of our pond. The trunk of the tree had been nibbled to a sharp point about a foot above the ground. A little twilight surveillance revealed our industrious new friend gliding smoothly through the water with only his blocky brown head visible above the surface.

Justin close upAt first we were enchanted. The beaver was fascinating, industrious, and in his own beady-eyed little way, quite endearing. For a time. For a very short time.

How fun! How cute! Ok, he destroyed a tree we really liked, but it seemed a small price to pay for the right to witness a side of nature we had yet to experience. Sometimes he would even come out of hiding while we were in the paddle boat. He would glide by in surveillance mode and then smack the water sharply with his giant flat tail as he dove for cover. Apparently, he was not as happy about our invasion as we initially were with his.

Then we noticed just how many trees he had destroyed. And then we noticed the toll his extensive dens were taking on our shoreline, and more concerning, the dam that allowed our pond to exist. Hmmmm…not so darn cute now, Mr. Beaver. So we did a little research which led us to Ned, a local, humane wildlife control specialist known as the Skunk Whisperer. Ned taught us how to disrupt our beaver’s life just enough so that he would just decide to move away. And move away he did. Hooray! No harm, no foul.

But then last summer there was a drought. Every water source in the area dried up–creeks and ponds alike–with the exception of our lovely pond. Guess what? Yeah, the beaver moved back in and there was no way to send him away during a drought.

Most representatives of the “pest removal” community advised that the only resolution involved bullets and someone with a steady hand and and a good eye. Shoot Mr. Beaver? Shoot one of God’s creatures just because he was living his life the only way he knew how, in the only pond that was currently available? Well, no. I just could not condone that. I was determined to let the beaver stay until rains finally arrived to allow him to find another pond to destroy…I mean inhabit.

Well, the rains didn’t come that summer. Then we were into fall and winter. You can’t send a creature away from his home in the cold of winter, right? And then it was spring, and the rains did come. However, now we had seen more than one beaver in the pond and worried that they might have a little family inside their den. Well, you can’t send them away until the babies are old enough to survive, right? So we waited.

At this point the tree loss count was up well over 100 saplings and several mature trees. Our pond, that should have been filled to the brim by spring rains, was once again very low, apparently the result of the beaver den punching through a spot in our dam. Yes, our beautiful pond would not realize its potential again without some serious and expensive restoration. Great.

I have to admit that my love affair with our busy little friends was waning. Their last defender was seriously on the fence. Was I really going to have to face the reality that the only answer was to shoot these little guys?

I started justifying that scenario in my mind. The beavers were NOT here first. Actually, we were. The beavers were destroying a pond that was a vital resource for so many other creatures. If our pond dried up, where would the deer quench their thirst in the evenings? Where would the turtles hide? Where would our tired migratory friends stop for a well-deserved rest?

But still…kill them? Ugh. So one more call to my now-friend the Skunk Whisperer. Ned referred me to the one person he knew who was properly licensed and willing to humanely trap our no-longer-welcome guests. Once trapped, he would relocate them to a safe area where their natural instincts would no longer collide with humanity.

Enter Terry and his “clam-shell” traps. The traps were designed to capture beavers safely, keeping them partially in the water but safe from drowning. With careful supervision, the beavers could be trapped and quickly moved to a new habitat far, far away from our pond.

trapped beaver

Safe, unharmed and headed to a new, wonderful habitat!

Two traps were set and baited with willow tree branches and some smelly brown stuff from a jar that Terry swore was to beavers what catnip is to cats. Around midnight that night I grabbed a flashlight and headed to the pond to check the traps. Lo and behold my little beam of light revealed two shining eyes and I heard a quiet, but meaningful hiss from the trap. Success!

Early the next morning, Terry returned to move the beaver to his new home before the heat of day could cause him any stress. The traps were reset in the hopes that we could quickly capture a second beaver–the one I knew to be our original visitor–a much larger, mature beaver.

Each night and day we checked the traps. Each night and day the traps remained untouched. Problem most definitely NOT solved. Then it happened. I glanced out my back windows to a neighboring pond, just across our property line. There, happily soaking in the shallows, was our beaver. I swear he saw me too and was doing the gopher dance from Caddy Shack…”I’m alright, don’t nobody worry ’bout me…”

If you ever wonder about the intelligence of beavers, I’m here to tell you that I find at least one representative of the species to be quite clever. Justin Beaver, as I now call him (because, no offense, but I’m not overly fond of Justin Bieber either–he needs to pull up his pants and go to college) has officially outfoxed us. I know that the pond he is currently occupying will likely dry up by the end of summer. I know that thisJustin Beaver fall he will likely move back to our pond. But be warned, Justin. This time, I will not care if it is summer, fall or winter and I will be ready for you. I have an eviction notice with your name on it.

We will continue to perform the balancing act that allows us, with our menagerie of farm animals and dogs, to coexist with our wild brethren in peace. But when it comes to Justin Beaver? Game on, my furry friend. Game on.