The drought has been as hard on wildlife as it has been on farmers. Our resident hawks and kestrels have gotten more and more aggressive with our chickens as the populations of mice, gophers and ground squirrels have declined. I cannot blame them for trying to make a meal out of my birds – they are hungry! Every creature must do what it can to survive.
The kestrel has been taking a young chick every couple of days from one of my light brown hens. This poor hen has lost all but one of her chicks. I have tried locking them up but the chicks are eager to explore and slip through chicken wire and under the edges of their pen as their mother and free-ranging chickens dig up the dirt. Once out the chicks are vulnerable to the kestrels and one by one they have disappeared.
Yesterday the last chick was out again so I decided to let it’s mother out to protect it. Not an hour later I heard a commotion and saw the kestrel performing some amazing air acrobatics in an attempt to catch the chick. He was being put through his paces by the hen who countered his attacks – throwing herself at the predator battering it with her wings and legs. It was quite a fight. The kestrel landed in a tree to rest only to have the hen fly up and attack him in the branches. I was able to scoop up the chick and return him and the hen to their pen. Even with my presence the kestrel stayed close by flying over my head to try and find out where the chick was hiding.
I felt very sorry for this wild bird as I knew it had to be extremely hungry to be this bold. I spent most of the day pondering how I could help it. Were there ways I could attract sparrows to open areas that would give it a better chance hunting them? Could I flush mice and moles from the ground in areas where the kestrel could grab them? If I put out strips of chicken would he take it?
In a weird sort of irony when I left the house this morning I was greeted by a present from one of my cats. A killed but otherwise untouched sparrow on my door mat. My first thought went to the kestrel so I took my “present” to an area I know the kestrel frequents and left it poised in a “natural” feeding position. I hope the kestrel gets it before the ravens do! I hope it provides a meal and a little more energy to hunt natural prey.
I must be the only farmer who is hoping for a few more field mice, moles, sparrows and small birds to raid my fields. My neighbors the hawks and kestrels need them!
Ten days ago I had to cull again due to the drought. It was my third cull and probably not my last. This one hurt a great deal. It included sheep that in better times would have been retained as breeding stock and flock leaders. They were better representatives of my breed of sheep than the first ewes I meticulously researched, selected, purchased and waited (seemingly endlessly) to be delivered.
I mentioned to other farmers that this type of culling cuts the heart right out of you – and it does. But as I try to explain how it feels I realize that many folks, who are not faced with the day to day decisions about which animals to keep and which to slaughter, might not recognize the difference between a rancher’s decision to harvest and a forced, painful cull. How do I explain that difference?
A harvest is never “easy” to a rancher who respects each and every life on their farm as we do. But a forced cull amplifies the pain. It is not just a decision to take a life for purposes of sustenance. A forced cull abandons both progress and potential. Like many ranchers we have been breeding our sheep for specific purposes in our particular environment for many years. We select individuals who thrive and best fulfill our goals. Each year the lambs get stronger, more vigorous and better suited to our land. They evolve to thrive here and as such become more than just a sheep of a particular breed – they become sheep uniquely suited to sustainable husbandry on our ranch. A forced cull means there are fewer of these uniquely suited sheep and a smaller gene pool from which to develop the next generation.
But beyond the practical implications is the fact that when you have a forced cull you often have to include animals you have worked with and admired for many years. They may not be the prettiest or most productive. Maybe their wool color is not perfect or they are a bit on the small side. Or maybe they are just a bit older than the rest of the flock. But they have made positive contributions to the next generation of your flock. They have mowed your orchards and eliminated weeds from your crops. They have followed you from field to field trusting you were taking them to fresh grazing. They know you and take direction from you willingly. They have provided you with milk and wool and lambs in return for your protection and care. And even when they are not tame or friendly there is a bond between you that may be hard for people to understand unless they experience it.
Even now after ten days my heart aches for the individuals I had to cull. The logical side of me knows why it was necessary but the emotional side of me will continue to grieve. I know there are ranchers all across the State with similar stories.
I have been really worried about our neighbors the hawks during this drought. The lack of rain means there is little food for rodents and birds and that in turn means little food for the hawks. Recently they have been paying far too much attention to the chickens in my yard and it has me worried. Hawks should be eating wild prey – not chicken.
For now we have been able to divert the hawk’s attention by shooting large numbers of ground squirrels for them to eat. Ground squirrels are very destructive to crops, the land, and buildings. Without normal rainfall (and the associated creek flooding) in recent years the ground squirrel population has exploded. They need to be controlled and for us shooting is the most environmentally sensitive. The side benefit to this approach is a banquet for our hawks. It keeps them full and away from the chickens – a win-win.
Taking care of a day old lamb is a little like taking care of a human baby. There are middle of the night feedings and a lot of “clean up” to attend to. Despite the lack of sleep and mess I really enjoy raising the bottle lambs. I much prefer if they can stay with their Mothers of course! But when I need to play the role of Mother it is quite rewarding.
One of the joys it holding a young lamb while it sleeps and watching it dream. Like a dog they are very active physically when they dream. During some parts of their dreams it is obvious they are nursing as their lips move and their ears twitch. At other times their legs stretch and their hooves extend and retract. Are they running? Playing? Just laying in the sun? I wonder what they are doing in their dream. These dreams start very young – often before the lamb has been able to experience running, playing, and laying in the sun. Are they dreaming from instinct? How do these dreams originate in a being that has not yet experienced the activities in the dream?
A pair of sparrow hawks live peacefully on our farm and I have enjoyed watching them as they hunt. At first I worried about whether they would try for the chicks and poults that wander with their Mothers around the farm. But I soon figured out the Momma hens could take care of themselves and their broods very well – and the sparrow hawks figured it out too.
For the past couple weeks I have seen the pair go in and out of a hole at the top of a utility pole on our property. Then I started hearing sounds and realized they had a nest. Soon a chick emerged fledged and ready for his first flight.
I did not get to see him take his first flight but saw him later that day on an almond tree a couple hundred yards away from the nest. The resident bald eagle was hunting in the area and got chased off rather harshly by the male sparrow hawk. Its pretty funny to see such a small bird harass and worry a large eagle.
I am keeping an eye out for the young hawk – I hope he makes it!
I have learned that one rooster giving an alarm call can be anything from a true warning of danger to a ploy to get his hens to stick closer to him. So I am not too alarmed when I just hear one of them. But a chorus of alarm calls from roosters, peacocks (they honk), and turkeys (they putt) is a situation to pay attention to.
This morning the several roosters who frequent my porch and the mother peahen all started sounding alarm so I ran outside to see what was going on. At first all I saw was a blurr of beige and brown feathers as a hawk flew very quickly across our yard not ten feet from the house. It was very graceful and quickly landed on the tall walnut tree in our yard. It was a sparrow hawk – not much threat to a full grown chicken or peacock but it could make a meal out of young chicks.
As I was watching the hawk – who seemed unphased by my attention – a whole rafter (herd) of turkeys came running up to the house. There were about 20 turkeys in the group and they were giving alarm putts, had their tails spread out, and had their wings slightly spread in “attack” posture. And they were scanning the skies and trees for a predator. It was obvious they were intent on finding and dispatching whatever the intruder was. They spotted the sparrow hawk in the tree and immediately moved right below him, milling about while looking up and making threatening putts. A couple of them jumped on our lawn furniture to get closer and a few moved closer to the peahen with her peachicks and milled around them. This last move was very interesting to me because the peahen and turkeys don’t like each other. They don’t fight anymore but they barely tolerate each other’s presence. However it was obvious the turkeys were closing ranks and using their presence to deter a threat from the peachicks.
Eventually the hawk flew off and the scene turned to one of calm birds pruning and enjoying the early morning sun. I am not sure what benefit the turkeys get for being the swat team for the farm – maybe it teaches the predators to stay away and that is safer for the turkeys when their own poults are wandering around the farm. Or maybe they find it fun. Turkeys do have a great sense of fun and joy – you can tell they enjoy certain activities very much. But whatever the reason I am grateful because it helps keep my chickens safe and the hawks a welcome part of the farm.
This morning my new neighbor the Bald Eagle provided proof of his intentions – and I am loving him for it. I saw him swoop down into my almond orchard and pluck up the biggest, fatest, rotund ground squirrel I have ever seen. A huge squirrel and the eagle could barely take off with it. He carried it about thirty feet into the air and the squirming squirrel got away….but the damage was done. The injured squirrel did not live long on the ground.
I did not know if Bald Eagles would take ground squirrels but now I know and I am thrilled this bird is concentrating on the squirrels and not my chickens. I hope he keeps it up. We put any ground squirrels we shoot out for the raptors to keep them interested in this type of prey. We also absolutely prohibit the use of poison on our farm in any form so there can be no mistakes with a tainted ground squirrel body. This year has been particularly bad for ground squirrels and each of the hawks, osprey, and eagles who call our ranch home could eat two or three a day without making a dent in the population. I love seeing these birds fly through our trees as they hunt the squirrels.
I was worried at first that the presence of the eagle would drive away my hawks but I have seen the hawks hunting everyday in the back orchard. So I guess the birds have worked their territory issues out.
My neighbors say there are actually two Bald Eagles – I have only seen one. Not sure if they are a pair. One of our neighbors who lives up in the hills had the birds sitting in a pine tree like they were waiting for a photo shoot as they were hosting a dinner party. What a treat to have such a majestic bird as an unofficial dinner guest!