Several converging experiences over the last week got me to thinking about the role predators play in the food chain and even, it turns out, on the shape of our landscape.
It began with my hen house, led to the ridge at the top of my hay field, and ended in Yellowstone Park.
A few days ago, I mixed up the usual morning hot mash for my laying hens and headed out to the hen house. Shock of “things are not as they should be” when I opened the door. Feathers everywhere. Three dead hens, three seriously injured. And up in the rafters, an adolescent raccoon. I dumped the mash and ran to the tool shed to find something to encourage the raccoon’s immediate departure. By the time I returned, it had left on its own accord.
Human error. My error made it possible for the raccoon to attack the hens. The previous night, when I closed the hen house door after dusk, I didn’t notice the raccoon was already tucked in along the rafters. Over the course of the night, it must have played “catch the bird” with the hens. Not much sign of eating but lots of destruction.
I’ve learned over the years that the best defense against raccoon, fox and weasel attacks on hens is to have a way to secure the hen house door at night–plus metal stripping along all small openings so the weasels can’t, well, weasel their way in. While I am not opposed to the killing of a wild animal that is clearly rabid or exhibiting aggressive behavior around my house or barnyard, I really prefer to find other solutions. Live and let live (as long as the predator understands that the hens or lambs get to live, too).
The next night, I heard coyote calls over the ridge. With my sheep flock gone, I no longer worry about lamb safety, but as recently as last summer, if we had sheep pasturing out of sight of the house, in spite of the combination of permanent and moveable electric fencing, I probably would have walked to the back pasture to make sure any recently born lambs were safe. I never lost lambs to coyote, but neighbors who also raise sheep certainly have. Once again, solid fencing or night time housing can protect against predators.
Frankly, I love the call of coyote, even when it sets me worrying about predatory attacks. Of course, coyote, like most predators, are opportunistic. They go for the easy prey, feeding largely on field rodents and birds rather than domesticated animals.
The third episode in my predator musings came with a video my brother sent me. A long time activist on behalf of wolf protection, my brother has closely followed the re-introduction of wolves to Yellowstone Park and the ups and downs of their protected status. This video, shared below, is extraordinary because it explores how the wolves have had a much deeper impact on the ecology of the Park than we usually attribute to them. Yes, we all know that deer populations run out of control when humans are their only predator. We also know that uncontrolled deer populations destroy bird and other wild life habitat. But check out this video for a different take on the role of the wolf–a story of how the wolf’s impact on deer behavior has transformed the Yellowstone landscape.
After watching the video, I went down the hall to talk to our web guy Dale Hobson about sharing it with you. He reminded me that we have some extraordinary photos of north country predators taken by our listeners and web audiences–in the www.ncpr.org Photo of the Day albums.
Here are a few of my favorites:
Two predators go for the easy snack: bird feeders.