We have a large pond on our farm which is fed by a medium-sized creek. It naturally attracts all sorts of wild animals. Water fowl such as geese, ducks, cranes, egrets and pelicans all congregate at various times of the year. Meadowlarks, quail, pheasants, turkey, owls, and hawks all nest in the prairie grasses or cottonwood tree branches. We see deer, raccoon, badgers, beavers, coyotes, jackrabbits, cottontails, and muskrat, and most of these “wilds” raise their babies on our land.
I remember lots of wilds from my childhood years, but it’s only now, as an adult, that I have truly come to love and appreciate them. And I have learned so much! My parents taught me everything I know about raising and caring for horses, cattle, cats, dogs, pigs and chickens, but very little about the wilds. What I know about them now, I have mostly learned from meticulous observation and a few carefully selected books on native Kansas wildlife.
I am not a hunter. I have absolutely nothing against hunting, and it would be highly hypocritical of me if I denounced hunting as I savor another forkful of my tender, medium-rare rib-eye steak.
Having said that, Danny and I do not, however, allow hunting on our land. The reason is simple. We enjoy watching the wildlife more than we would ever enjoy eating it. And the wilds are not stupid. If they were hunted on our land, they would stop coming. And they would stop raising their babies here. (Danny took the accompanying photo of twin fawns.)
A few years ago, one of my teenaged great-nephews was visiting our farm with his family. He had just completed his hunter safety course and was anxious to put his new-found knowledge to use. He asked me if he could hunt on our land.
I said, “Tell you what. You can hunt anything that I haven’t already named.”
He said, “Great! What about those ducks on your creek?” A flock of about fifty mallards had been congregating in a bend of our creek for several days.
“Oooooh,” I replied, with a disappointed look on my face. “Sorry. They’ve all got names.”
He looked quizzically at me for a few seconds, then the light bulb went on. He grinned and shook his head. He never asked again.
Sharing the land with the wilds has produced some interesting tales for the telling. Here are a couple of my favorites.
Years ago, shortly after Danny and I moved to the farm, our dogs woke us in the middle of a warm summer night, barking furiously. They sleep in an enclosed porch right off our kitchen, and when I arose to check on them, I found them eagerly jumping and whining, pleading with me to open the door and let them out. So, I did. I did not turn on the porch light first, I did not peek outside. I just let them out in the dark. Instantly, there arose a horrendous ruckus of barking, growling, porch chairs tipping, buckets rolling!
I quickly ran to flip on the porch light. By the time I got back to the door, the intruder was gone. The dogs were sniffing the porch, the hair on their backs still raised, but there was no indication of who our unwanted visitor might have been.
Several days later, I happened to walk past an upstairs window. We have a two-story farm home, and this particular window was directly above the roof of the porch that had been the scene of the nocturnal disturbance just a few days prior.
There were muddy paw prints on the glass! Paws shaped like tiny, human hands! The paw print of a raccoon.
Suddenly, everything made sense. Lured by the scent of our barbecue grill, a raccoon had visited our porch during the night, then, knowing it could not outrun the dogs, escaped by climbing to safety. It shimmied onto the grill (I discovered later that our grill cover had shred marks on it.) then the porch rail, and finally the porch roof. I shuddered when I realized that, had I opened the upstairs window that night, we would have had a raccoon in our house. As much as I love the wilds, I’m not sure I want to share a bed with one.
This next incident happened almost exactly one year ago. It was early spring, and the wilds were once again coming to life: on the move, out of winter dormancy. I was doing my morning chores, and had just fed and watered the rabbits. Our rabbit pen is situated very near our exterior barn wall, right next to the barn driveway pad. I didn’t notice the pile at first. When I finally saw it, I couldn’t recognize what it was from the distance of the rabbit pen.
Something was splattered across the driveway pad. Was it the poop of some animal? It was a darkish gray splattering of something roughly two feet across. I walked up to it and bent down for closer examination. My jaw dropped open. It was…fish! In the middle of our corral, what amounted to a five-gallon bucket of tiny fish had been splattered on our concrete, and was now frozen to it. (Danny’s boot gives perspective to the size of the fish pile in this photo.)
I stood there, staring, with my mouth open. It looked like the fish had just dropped from the sky. I remember looking up at the clear blue sky, my mind reeling.
I called Danny, who was at work. He thought I was joking. I assured him that I was not.
We puzzled on it for several days. We called people that we thought might give us insight. It was not a human prank. Of that much we were sure. So what animal did this? Raccoons eat fish, but not that many! And if an animal retched it back up, it would look partially digested. These fish were still perfectly formed, like they had just been seined out of the pond.
Finally, we got our answer. About three days after I found the frozen fish, I happened to walk past our dining room window and, glancing out, saw a flock of pelicans on our pond! Of course! A pelican had seined our pond and collected a gullet full of fish. The night before I found the fish, a fast-moving, hard-hitting cold front had blown through from the northwest. If the pelican had tried to take off from our pond, it would have been blown directly over our barn. Whether it had dropped the fish from the air, or whether it made an emergency landing and then dumped its cargo, we will never know. But Danny and I now both rested easier once our fish mystery had been solved.
Raining cats and dogs, indeed. At our house, it rains fish.
(I share a racoon story from my teen years in the October chapter of my second book Another Year on the Family Farm.)
Next Week: Our Dog Ate the Easter Bunny!