Monthly Archives: February 2014

Ol’ One-Eye

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

One Eye, an imposingly large female Barred owl, clearly thought the lake house and all the surrounding property was her private hunting ground. She’d apparently taken up residence years before we moved in, according to the neighbors.

One Eye was one of many Barred and other owl species that made the woods surrounding the house their home. We soon learned that owls were active during the day, as we’d often spot them sitting quietly on a tree limb, and we certainly heard them calling during the day. Here’s a great video snippet (not mine!) of a Barred owl calling

During the Fall and Winter, the Barred owls in particular would get to hooting and setting up such a cacophony of racket at night that we were hard-pressed to get to sleep. Their calls went far beyond the typical 8-note territorial call to a far more strident caterwauling (Google the sound, it’s amazing).  I soon became pretty adept at mimicking their standard call and more than once an owl landed in a tree nearby to check me out!

Anyway, our owl certainly had her one eye on our chicks, and one night we raced outdoors, chasing yet another chicken alarm call, to see One Eye perched about 30 feet up on a massive limb of the oak tree near the front door, a baby chick grasped in each of her talons.

Even as our hearts fell for the fate of those tiny chicks, we couldn’t help feeling awed by the presence of this mature, large owl. She was simply magnificent, sitting heavily on that limb, the porch light picking out the highlights on her feathers, the dark orange of her scary-looking talons and the glint in her one remaining eye. When she lifted off the limb and flew silently away, her wing-span was easily five and a half feet across.

We’d often come across One Eye as we worked around the property or walked to and from the dock. Sometimes she’d be sitting on a limb of the magnolia tree, eyeballing us as we sat in the shade reading books and watching the geese and the chickens moving around the lawn and the ever-present aerial display of eagles and ospreys as they headed out to their fishing ground or battled over the fish successfully caught.

Sometimes scenes like this would strike me as bucolic and also a bit macabre. All around us critters were eating and being eaten, stalking and being stalked, hunting and hiding from the hunters. No matter how much you may read about such realities, when you become a part of the landscape for hours and just observe, without disturbing anything, it’s amazing what you take in and, I guess for me, how much that may form or change your fundamental outlook on Life. Pretty heady stuff perhaps, but ultimately the moments seldom lasted because practical matters would inevitably intrude and, once again, we’d find ourselves in “protection” mode.

We talked and talked about the problem we were causing by introducing domestic fowl into this ecosystem. It didn’t matter that we hadn’t started it, we had willingly taken on the responsibility of protecting the chickens, and now the geese, and in the case of the chickens, we were failing. Different folks had different opinions, and many a beer was consumed out on the dock or the porch or sitting on the stools around the kitchen bar as we weighed options, pros and cons.

Ultimately, we recognized the hard truth was that all our efforts to grow the flock were only succeeding in growing more fodder for the wild critters. We knew the whole issue was going to come to a head at some point, even as we dreaded the inevitability of the outcome.

Chicken Battles Snake

In spite of having our “guard” geese on the property, the flock of Bantams was slowly being whittled down by the incessant  attention of predators. These ranged from the hawks during the daytime (past masters of chicken-snatching) to coons and owls that would pluck the chickens from their night roosts in trees, to snakes that would steal eggs in the odd places where they were laid, any and all the time. We simply couldn’t keep enough biddies hatching in our hand-crafted, snake-proof incubator, nor could we be around every second of the day or night.

We did our best to ward off the attacks, when we were aware of them happening. Which usually occurred at night, when it was 40 degrees or lower outside and we were huddled by the fireplace or, worse, rousted from our beds to find ourselves rushing outside in our underwear, brandishing a big spotlight in one hand and an old mop handle in the other (we kept a lot of those nearby, mostly to keep Hansel at bay when he got too frisky.)

One such night there came such a thumping and screeching from the roof that it drowned out the TV. Our response was instant and unspoken. We hit the drill, snatching up our respective spotlights and mop handles, flipping on the porch light, lifting the latch of the front Dutch door and flying out to the cold and windy night.

WhiteMommaWhite Momma, our very best “settin’ hen”, had been roosting up on the roof, just under an overhanging eve, and we could hear a series of choking squawks coming from that spot. An extension ladder was leaning conveniently against the roof and I dashed up it, stick and spotlight in hand. I quickly grasped the scene: there was White Momma, frantically pecking at and dancing around a writhing snake, which clearly had one of the biddies in its mouth. In fact, it had most of the baby chick in its mouth and the poor baby wasn’t moving.

As I clambered onto the roof, I yelled to Anni what was going on and asked her to come up the ladder and shine her light. After that it was all a blur: somehow I set down my spotlight and approached the snake, which was obviously a large rat snake. I managed to shoo White Momma out of the way and used the mop handle to wedge the snake’s head, hard, down on the roof surface, trying to get it to spit out the baby. After a bit of a tussle, the snake released the biddy, which was dead.

I called out to Anni “Here comes the dead baby,” and I shoved the poor thing over the edge of the roof. We quickly decided I’d flick the snake over the roof too, so at least it wouldn’t be near the nest. As I turned back to get the snake, damned if it didn’t have White Momma in its mouth! She was putting up a real fight and I was so afraid for her, but I was mad as hell at that snake now. It wasn’t gonna get our best hen! So I chased it as it wriggled off, and thank goodness Anni was there with the light. I finally wedged the snake against the eve and thankfully it let White Momma go. She took off like, well, like a wet hen, squealing all the way.

I pounded that snake over the edge of the roof and clambered down the ladder, ready to cut off its head with the ax or the hatchet or the machete or the hoe– we had a lot of tools and weapons at hand. But Anni restrained me, and talked me out of killing that damn snake. We watched it slither off into the darkness past the wash of light from the porch. I know we both cried, standing out in the cold, looking down at that poor dead little chick.

I’m no bleeding heart but really, that was a shocking scene. Plus, we were so frustrated at our inability to protect these free-range chickens, who, we were told, would not come into a coop and if we put them there forcibly every night (oh yeah, not an easy task), they would die. The whole situation of caring for these critters was turning more complicated than we had first thought.

Then, of course, there’s the disposal of the baby chick. You’d think this would be a fairly straight-forward thing, but we were both upset. Anni suggested we put it in a Ziplock bag and out in the garbage collection in the barn, ready for the next trip to the green box (dumpster.) I argued it was dead anyway and so we should toss it out in the woods to feed some other critter. We agreed on that logic, or maybe we were just anxious to be done with the trauma. In any case, the little chick body was consigned to the deep woods and we went back inside, sad and deflated and not a little worried about White Momma tangling with that same snake again. After all, chickens were somewhat creatures of habit, and snakes truly have terrific memories and will return to the scene of the crime, again and again.

I told Anni that if I saw that same snake again, anywhere near the house, it was gonna be a dead snake. She didn’t argue the point.