Screech Owl in the Farmyard on January 20th
Note: I wrote this back on January 26th. Unfortunately it's only the beginning of the story - and at this point there is no happy ending in sight. There is, however, a small bright spot in all of this sadness and frustration. Two small bright spots, actually, which even qualify for Daily Dose Of Cute status. Stay tuned.
January 2009 Update: You can read the rest of this story here.
There are days when farm life sucks, and last Sunday was one of them. I was here by myself, it was zero degrees, and all the water pipes were frozen. But that was no big deal. That was just January in Missouri in The Shack. But then around 11:00 am, two coyotes killed a sheep in the hayfield. Yes, during broad daylight. Yes, while the donkeys were out there with them.
The time between looking out the kitchen window and realizing what had just happened and getting to the scene of the crime was agonizing. As Bear and I ran the several hundred yards out into the field I switched between sobbing "No! No! NO!" to screaming at the coyotes in a vain attempt to scare them away from the white, unmoving lump I knew was a sheep.
The rest of the flock had fled. I was pretty sure the sheep was dead, but I held onto the slim chance that it might still be alive. Not knowing who it was - that was the most awful part. I figured it would be 12-year-old Skinny Chip, one of my big pet wethers who has bad hooves and trouble walking. I prayed it wasn't Cary.
It wasn't. It was a healthy young wether who probably weighed 100 pounds and would have graced someone's table in a couple of months - and put a couple of hundred dollars in our pocket. Instead it had become this Sunday's dinner. It was a clean kill, and it had just happened. The body was still warm. The blood that covered my hands was still warm.
When I was a little kid I watched "Wild Kingdom" every week on TV with my dad, who loved nature and animals and died when I was just eleven. I want to say that it was on on Sunday nights, maybe at six o'clock, right before the Walt Disney hour. At least that's how I remember it. Mutual of Omaha sponsored the show. I had no idea what Mutual of Omaha was, but to this day I can still remember their 800 number.
We don't have TV reception down here in our little valley. Instead I look out a window and realize I live in Wild Kingdom.
I can't blame the coyotes. They live here, too, and they get just as hungry as I do. It's the dead of winter; food is scarce. I heard there weren't any acorns in the woods this year. Things like fences and property rights and animal ownership mean nothing to them. All they see is a field full of fat and easy targets. A lamb is a lot easier to chase down than a deer.
I do partly blame myself. We've become complacent about the coyotes. We know we're surrounded by them. We hear them at night, their howls and barks echoing through the hills. We know we've been extremely lucky all these years to have sustained so few losses to them. And yet a couple of weeks ago we chose to watch a mating pair of these beautiful creatures (because they are indeed beautiful) cavorting around in the hayfield through a set of binoculars rather than through the scope on a rifle.
We don't shoot 'varmints' for sport or to 'clean up' our property, and for that we have paid a price. This coyote couple had been hanging around, watching, scheming, waiting, wanting. We knew this, and yet we still didn't shoot them. People around here think we're crazy. Some of you reading this will think we're crazy.
On Sunday I watched the coyotes tear into the lamb. My lamb. Later I watched an enormous bald eagle eat his fill of fresh meat while he stood on the wooly body, nervously looking around between bites. I watched a flock of crows move in for their meal. I watched two friends shoot at the coyotes from the second story window of what will soon be our new bedroom and miss. I want them both dead, I said. They know the taste of lamb. They know how to get easy meat. They need to be killed. They need to be dead.
As he was driving the quarter mile from The Shack to the front gate late that afternoon, one friend saw a coyote standing in the front field by the sawdust pile, which isn't far from the barn. He shot and missed. His dad, one of the shooters in the bedroom, had seen a coyote at the top of our driveway that morning.
On Monday reinforcements arrived. A pack of men and a pack of dogs scattered themselves around the valley at dawn and spent the next 10 hours tracking and chasing and shooting. One dog attacked a coyote and had his face torn up.
At four o'clock in the afternoon I looked out into the hayfield and saw both coyotes back at the lamb. Their lamb. And despite my yelling and Bear's barking, not to mention their having been chased all day by a pack of dogs and men with guns, the brazen, hungry coyotes were hesitant to leave their prize.
Loss is inevitable when you're raising animals, whether they're packed into a giant building under horrid conditions or out on the open range. You expect it, and you learn to take it in stride. You do the best you can, and you learn from your mistakes. You worry yourself to sleep. And you tell yourself it's okay to cry.
None of that lamb went to waste. By Tuesday afternoon there was nothing left but the pelt.
We're doing what we can to ensure the safety of the flock. Skinny Chip is in a big pen. The hayfield is off limits to the sheep. We've installed even more spotlights at the barn and turned up the volume on the radio that plays down there all night. I'm learning to shoot the varmint rifle. Because there are two coyotes out there who will no doubt kill again.
Fortunately it isn't all just death and killing in the Wild Kingdom. In the midst of everything that was happening on Sunday, I came across this little owl sitting on a fence post in the farmyard. Armed with only my pistol, I could do nothing except stare in awe and curse myself for being without my camera. I'd never seen anything like it. It held its face toward the sun, eyes closed, its feathers ruffling in the frigid wind.
It popped open its eyes and stared at me as I stared back at it. It turned its head almost completely around like you've always been told that owls can do but have never really believed. It didn't seem bothered by my presence at all. I really wanted to reach out and touch it.
I ran back to The Shack to get my camera in the hopes that it wouldn't fly away. It didn't. I couldn't believe it.
It was neat. It was gorgeous. It was adorable. I snapped photos until my fingers went numb. I was shocked to see that it hadn't flown away when the shots had been fired from a window directly above its head. I proudly showed it to off to the donkey peddling cowboy and his four-year-old son, who had answered my coyote phone call for help.
"That's a screech owl," the cowbody informed me. "Don't touch it!" he said to his son, who had cautiously reached out a finger.
I took more photos. I moved closer and closer to it, until I was standing just inches away. I was mesmerized.
The little owl stayed on the fence post for most of the afternoon. I checked on it every few minutes from the kitchen window. It was starting to seem a little weird. "What's wrong with that owl?" the cowboy had asked as the three of us stared at it and wondered why it was just sitting there in the middle of the farmyard.
Eventually it flew over to another fence a few yards away, where it sat for a couple more photos. Then it disappeared up into a tree.
Like I said, Wild Kingdom.
Note: After a week of thinking about it, I decided I wasn't going to write this. I was simply going to post a neat photo of an owl I saw in the farmyard. No backstory. It isn't easy putting yourself and your actions out there for attack, admitting that you've failed or that you made the wrong choice about something and somebody died because of it. But I know a lot of you don't just want the photos. You want the backstory - even when it's bad. You read my blog because you want to know what life is really like out here on a farm in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately right now this is what it's like - and the killing hasn't stopped.
© 2008 FarmgirlFare.com, the in awe of nature foodie farm blog where Farmgirl Susan shares the good and the bad of life on 240 remote Missouri acres.