The Annals of Country Life

The Annals of Country Life: Boxer, Bobcat, and Barbeque

February 15th, 2014 17 Comments

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The East is in the grip of yet another icy winter storm, but here in California were are not only experiencing the worst drought in years, but we are also experiencing the earliest spring I can remember. It’s only the second week in February and already the Flowering Pear trees in town are in bloom, while the Flowering Plums we planted in front of our house are pink with blossoms. The southern Sierras are noted for a relatively mild climate, but this is ridiculous. February?

Taking advantage of the mild weather, I was barbequing pork loins the other night under the watchful supervision of Pete the Beautiful Big Brave Brainy Bouncing Brindle Boxer. Supervising is what Pete does. After mature consideration and close observation, Pete has come to the conclusion that Darleen is not competent to do anything without his supervision, especially if it involves going somewhere in the car, and that while I am reasonably competent in the barbequing department, there is always the chance I might drop the plate. If you’re a Boxer, when it comes to food, hope springs eternal. Hope, and a marked tendency to lie about when or even if you last had a meal.

Pork has to be watched closely, so the two of us were outside doing the watching, when I saw a bobcat working his or her way through the tall grass on the hill behind the house. (Note I said I saw the bobcat; Pete doesn’t get easily distracted when watching barbequed meat.) The cat was only about thirty yards outside the fence walking slowly and steadily along, neither hunting nor hurrying. Since Pete and I had been talking, and I had been rattling the barbeque grill, opening and closing the top, turning the loins, and moving around on the patio, there is no way that cat couldn’t have been aware of us, barring hearing impairment and a visual handicap. He, or she, walked past the stumps of the dead pines I had to have cut down, across a wide open space, over a large boulder, never looking down at us, and only as he began to wind through some smaller boulders did my watchdog extraordinaire finally see him. Bobcat four

One of the wonderful things about Boxers is that they don’t get hysterical. They don’t frighten easily, or possibly at all, but they don’t bark unnecessarily either. In fact, the only way I could be certain Pete saw the bobcat (he wasn’t about to leave the barbeque) was that his entire energy changed and his eyes hardened. I know that may sound strange, but Boxers have marvelously expressive faces, and now his normal goofy eat-play-love expression was gone and he was back on active duty.

The two of us watched the bobcat pick his way through the rocks, across another open space, and when it finally passed the twelve o’clock position relative to us, Pete trotted out toward the far end of the fence. For the first time, the bobcat glanced down. He was clearly so completely terrified and caught off-guard by seeing a vicious, bloodthirsty man and a ferocious Boxer thirty yards below him that he had to sit down and scratch vigorously behind one ear to relieve his feelings. Then, with that curious mixture of languor and grace peculiar to cats, he jumped up onto a large flat boulder, reclined elegantly on his side looking down at us, and began a lengthy toilette, grooming himself carefully from ears to tail. Pete sat down in the gravel below him, the two of them watching each other, Pete with interest, the cat with magnificent unconcern.

Just then I saw Darleen through the window and signaled to her to bring the binoculars. She looked at the cat through binoculars and we talked in normal tones until the pork was done. Taking the meat off the grill and putting it on a plate finally drew Pete away from his observation post—after all, it’s all very well being a loyal watchdog and protector, but let’s not get our priorities skewed—and we all went inside. But what stayed with me, what especially delighted me, was the complete unconcern of the bobcat: man, wife, dog, barbeque, conversation, opening and closing of the door, none of it bothered him. I hope he stays close by. I hope he kills some of the damned ground squirrels that are coming out of my ears. Hell, I’ll happily barbeque some of them for him.

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The Annals of Country Life: The Wolf at the Door

February 5th, 2014 11 Comments

Wolf by Quinn

Long, long ago, when the world and I were both much younger, I went camping in Algonquin Provincial Park with a very pretty girl and my two dogs. It was in the beginning of the off-season, so while the weather was lovely, we had the place pretty much to ourselves; in fact, I don’t remember seeing another human being in the two days we were there.

We had cooked a meal, sat around the fire talking, and were just heading into our little tent for the night when suddenly a pack of wolves began to howl. It froze me in my tracks, and the effect on the dogs was amazing. One of them was a big, tough Briard, but even as their hackles went up and they both began to growl, I could tell they were terrified. To be honest, my hackles went up and I began to growl, with about the same degree of conviction and for much the same reason.

Wolf howling

I know now that the pack was probably about a mile away, or even more, and that it was probably just a normal pack of wolves, not the several hundred animals it sounded like, but at the time, all by ourselves, barely out of our teens (we were on our way back to college), unarmed, it was a—you should pardon the expression—hair-raising experience. For all four of us.

Since then, I have heard other wolves, seen fresh tracks while bird-hunting in northern Minnesota, visited with some semi-tame ones in a scientific compound where the wolves were part of a genetic testing program, and I have also grown up considerably and learned a good deal more about this most magnificent ancestor of my dogs and ancestor of the genetic tribal memory—for good or ill—that runs in each of us.

So it was with mixed feelings that I received link to an article in the Idaho Statesman with the following headline: “Lawmakers: $2M aimed to kill more than 500 wolves.” Putting aside the less than graceful headline, the lead paragraph succinctly sums it all up:

“Republicans promoting Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s proposed $2 million taxpayer-financed fund to kill wolves hope the cash helps reduce Idaho’s population of these canine predators by more than 500 animals, to just 150 wolves in 15 packs.”

Predictably, the so-called animal rights organization Defenders of Wildlife (an organization with only a “D” rating—as in A, B, C, D, and F—for spending only forty-three percent of its total expenses on its programs) denounced the proposed action.

“This is just another example of Idaho’s unwillingness to manage wolves as a wildlife species,” said Jonathan Proctor, a Defenders of Wildlife spokesman in Denver. “They’re singling out wolves for special persecution. The majority of Idahoans expect state managers to manage all wildlife appropriately and not exterminate them to the bare minimum they think they can get away with.”

Wolf snarling

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have no desire to hunt wolves. (I don’t even like to shoot the ubiquitous coyote, though I have done so at the specific request of ranchers.) And in the spirit of full disclosure, I have little regard for animal rights organizations, with their cuddly portrayal of a Disneyesque natural world and their use of emotion to trump both science and reality. But in this particular case, I happen to agree with Defenders of Wildlife. Not because I want to cuddle up with wolves in my tent, but because this makes less than zero economic sense. Let’s review the bidding.

Wolves in Idaho have drastically reduced both the resident deer and elk herds. The elk herds have been particularly hard hit. Elk hunting represents a significant economic boost to the economy in Idaho, and the wolves’ reduction of the herds has had a predictable effect on outfitters, with some of them simply closing their doors and looking for other lines of work.

The economy is hurting generally throughout America. When the economy is in the toilet, fewer people go hunting. When there are no elk to attract hunters, even those lucky people with extra cash go elsewhere where they can reasonably expect to find elk. State fish and game departments are funded largely by hunters and fishermen. State fish and game departments are responsible for managing fish and game in their respective states. Since the economy in Idaho is no better off than the American economy generally, and they no longer have the hunters coming into the state in the numbers they used to, their fish and game department is feeling the pinch.

Soooooo….. The Idaho state legislature puts two and two together and comes up with three. Instead of offering many more, and more liberal, wolf-hunting licenses and various inducements to encourage hunters to come to Idaho and spend the money that would put much needed revenue into the fish and game department’s coffers, the state legislature decides to spend the tax-payer’s money to achieve the same goal they are going to spend two million dollars on.

I know very well that hunters, even in large numbers, are very unlikely ever to take five hundred wolves in a single season, but it would reduce the wolf population while bringing in money, and hunting pressure has been shown to have an impact on the surviving animals, making them more wary around humans and consequently less likely to prey on domestic animals.

Wolf running

Didn’t the politicians in Idaho learn anything from the boneheads in California? Twenty years ago, voters in California, influenced by cuddly and emotional anti-hunting campaigns that had nothing to do with reality, banned mountain lion hunting over the objections of the scientists at the California Dept. of Fish and Game. Today, the very predictable result is: an out of control mountain lion population; increased (and historically unprecedented) confrontations between humans and the big cats; drastic reduction of deer numbers in some areas and (more importantly) of desert big horn numbers in the mountains east of San Diego, where the sheep had been re-introduced at the tax payer’s considerable expense; loss of revenue from mountain lion hunting fees, a loss that the most under-funded (California game wardens earn less than any other form of law enforcement in the state) fish and game department (relative to the population) in the nation could greatly use; and an increased expense for the tax payers because today professional hunters are paid (by the tax payer) to kill more mountain lions annually than were taken by hunters who paid for the privilege twenty years ago. Yep, that sure makes a lot of sense, by golly. They say that California leads the way for the rest of the nation. Is that supposed to be a good thing? Not if Idaho imitating the Golden State is an example.

Wolf Two by Quinn

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Steve Bodio on Golden Eagles

December 14th, 2013

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I received an email from Steve Bodio about Golden eagles, in response to my post (“Golden Eagles Redux. Or Not.”), and he has been kind enough to let me reprint it here. He has the unique perspective of a falconer who knows what he is talking about. He also provided the magnificent photograph.

This is Steve:

I have a bit of a heretical stance about Golden eagles re wind farms– too complex for sound bites ( or just too ambivalent?) but closer to yours than the prohibitionists’ stance.

I dislike the amount of kills allowed for wind farms. But whether or not the population is harmed needs at least two questions answered. One is how many (golden) eagles there are; the other is what else takes them out of (breeding) circulation.

The first is never discussed except among biologists– it is as though certain enviros do not want to ever say anything optimistic. The number of bald eagles got brought low, partly by persistent pesticides, and now increases as it becomes ever more tolerant of human society. But the number of known Golden nests (or rather the reasonably accepted extrapolated number ) is AND MAY ALWAYS HAVE BEEN almost inconceivably high, so high I am not inclined to quote it without access to the actual data, except five figures of PAIRS in North America. (There are two nesting pairs I know of within ten miles of where I write these notes). This is never publicized, but you can track it down. The data is not from livestock or energy apologists, either. Remember, there is an untouched Arctic population, and ones in Labrador that seem to eat herons in breeding season. The golden is so adaptable that there is a Greek population that eats mostly TORTOISES. I doubt wind turbines will dent those numbers or scare them away.

The Texans used to shoot hundreds every year and it seems to have done little BIOLOGICAL harm. Now wind farms are allowed to kill several hundred a year, and Navajos and other Native Peoples are allowed not only unlimited hunting but utterly unlimited access to such species as red- tailed hawks, not to train but to sell feathers. Which works out in practice that every delinquent kid on a troubled reservation sees a hawk on a pole ands shoots it. Then probably sells it. While there are serious religious uses of eagles by the Pueblos, there is also an internal market, really illicit, in feathers for tribal dance outfits, competitive and lucrative- and some sympathetic judges have decided these commercial competitions are protected too. (Meanwhile one pueblo has modified its ceremonies to no longer kill eagles, and has hired a biologist to teach them how to keep them in a healthy way!)

Many activist types hate falconry as intolerable meddling with romantic symbols, but a falconer’s eagle is not even lost from the population– only “on loan” so to speak. The Kazakhs I rode with in Asia let them go to breed after ten years, and eagles commonly live to over 30. Until now falconers were a allowed a take of (I think) 6 wild caught golden eagles a year, only from areas in Wyoming and the Dakotas with proven sheep predation problems. Right now the government is inclined to end this benign “use”. I wish that moralists and humane activists would not go after the tiny portion of eagles allowed to falconers! If we allow a small kill harvest from the tribes, an unknown yet amount for wind farms, oil wells, roads and such, and want a healthy population… we HAVE to set fairly rigid quotas to be safe. But known numbers could easily allow a live take of up to six (or ten or whatever– except I don’t think that there will ever be that many eaglers), some of which would eventually even breed.

Meanwhile, in the warden- free lands of most reservations eagles still exist only because of apathy– there is no protection. Ranchers under 60 are more or less benign, and don’t shoot them (wolves are far more threatening in both reality and reputation), but some angry young rez kids kill every sitting bird they see, and sell the feathers no matter what, as a demonstration that they “own” them Some tribes have made clear falconers shouldn’t get any quota, because they are religious symbols! A bit of googling would show us the old regs, under which we existed and complained for decades, while Texans shot hundreds or maybe even thousands– see Don Scheuler’s Incident at Eagle Ranch) even thousands, were uninformed– they now seem almost as unimaginable as photos of the aerial dogfights with eagles when they were hunted from planes. But counter intuitively they were probably biologically harmless in that they didn’t– because they couldn’t– wipe out eagles. Morally though, making dead eagles a commodity for anyone looks worse to me than wind farms; commerce can drive extinction like stoking a fire.

Why not reasonable quotas for falconers’ birds? Fewer privileges for Indians, at least ones with no religious stake, as those don’t have the built- in cultural reverence? And less posturing from anti- wind people at least about eagles aka Charismatic Megafauna (the turbines may actually be worse for bats, group far more threatened than the golden eagle!)

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Golden Eagles Redux. Or Not.

December 7th, 2013

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I just posted a blog about a Golden eagle trying to take my hat—or possibly my head—off as I teetered on a ladder cleaning my gutters. And now, in one of those coincidences that makes you think Jung really knew what he was talking about when he developed his theory of synchronicity, I stumbled across an article about wind farms that contained some disturbing news. California, where I live, has some of the largest wind farms in America (second only to Texas), notably in the Altamont Pass area near San Francisco, in Kern County in the central part of the state, and in the southern desert in Imperial County.

Wind energy is clean energy, and in addition to its minor contribution to America’s electrical energy needs (wind farms account for about four percent of all terawatts used) it is a feel-good industry. It’s not the most effective form of energy production, and it’s not the most aesthetically pleasing addition to the landscape, but driving past a wind farm it is easy to lull oneself into a sense that we’re making progress, that we’re on the verge of a cleaner, healthier, and safer world where wind and sun will eventually replace coal and fossil fuels and those nuclear power plants we all prefer not to live near as we boot-up our computers with electricity.

Cleaner, yes. Healthier? Safer? Well, that depends on whom it is supposed to be healthier and safer for.

The article I read was by someone named Rick Moran and was entitled Administration to Give Wind Farms Thirty Year Pass on Killing Bald Eagles. Following up on that provocative headline, I found the Audubon Society’s take on it was no less shrill: Interior Dept. Rule Greenlights Eagle Slaughter at Wind Farms. The Audubon news release was accompanied by a photograph of a Bald Eagle. I’m not sure why Mr. Moran and the Audubon Society singled out Bald Eagles, but it is a well-established fact that wind turbines are lethal to birds of all kinds, and birds of prey especially. Back in 2001, when there were far fewer—and for the most part smaller—wind farms with much smaller wind turbines, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintained that forty-thousand birds killed annually was probably an underestimate. In the Altamont Pass, the bird of prey most vulnerable to turbines is the Golden Eagle, drawn there by traditional migratory patterns and an abundance of small animals, primarily ground squirrels. Those wind turbines in the Altamont Pass area date back to the late seventies and early eighties, before Barack Obama even started shaving, yet now everyone seems to be excoriating the President’s administration for “slaughtering” eagles.

I’m afraid the bloom is off my rose when it comes to President Obama. The “Fast and Furious” debacle did it for me. Since I have already written about that, I have no intentions of laying the whole thing out again, but what it boiled down to was the President went on national television and said he knew nothing about the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms’ “Operation Fast and Furious,” and maintained he had not even heard of it until it became breaking news a few days earlier. Two weeks later he refused to release any White House emails or documents pertaining to “Fast and Furious,” invoking the right of executive privilege. Since executive privilege only applies to conversations and correspondence between the President (or a member of his staff speaking on his behalf) and some other party, we are left with only two options: either the President lied when said he knew nothing about it; or he broke the law by invoking executive privilege to protect someone else. Since then, we have had the shameful disgrace of Benghazi (immortalized by Hilary Clinton’s dismissal of the deaths of four Americans with the words, “What difference, at this point, does it make?”), the less than stellar debut of Obamacare, the President’s constitutionally questionable use of executive order, and host of lesser issues that have tarnished his reputation.

But on this issue of wind turbines, I happen to agree with him. The world and his wife and the little dog behind the stove are all screaming for America to break its dependence on foreign oil. But nobody wants more oil drilling. Fracking is demonized as being right up there with pederasty. Burning coal is equated with chain smoking on an airplane. Practically every green organization in the land is calling for (in some cases suing for) the dismantling of hydro-electric dams great and small. And hard to spell places names like Chernobyl and Fukushima kind of dampen one’s enthusiasm for living near a nuclear reactor. The people who scream the loudest against these energy sources use up a lot of kilowatts in their temperature-controlled offices screaming on their MacBooks and their i-phones while playing games on their i-pods. Something’s got to give if we all wish to continue living our lives in the ease and comfort we have all come to accept as a birthright. And just as we take these things for granted, so too more and more emerging nations and societies are going to want the same toys. How are we going to power all those critically important X-box games and smart devices?

Do I want eagles killed? Of course not. But the Audubon Society itself pointed out there are large swaths of the nation that are not migratory paths, and where wind farms could be placed with minimal danger to any avian species, and that in any event, greenhouse gas emissions have the potential to kill far more birds (not to mention people) than wind turbines.

Just for the record, as long as I’m ranting…

As someone who shares his home with three cats, consider the following: forty thousand birds killed by wind turbines pales in comparison to the estimated one hundred million migratory songbirds killed every year by hunting housecats. It’s why I never allow my cats outside.

Besides, they might become a meal for an eagle.

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Golden Eagle

December 2nd, 2013

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I had to clean out the gutters the day after Thanksgiving, one of the routine chores of late fall, after all the leaves have finally fallen. The good news is that we live in a one-story house, so for the most part it only involves my getting up about ten feet on a ladder. In fact I don’t even have to extend the extension ladder, except for the area over the entry which is about twenty feet up. The bad news is that we live in a one-story house, so it means there is a lot of roof and miles and miles of gutter, making it pretty much a day-long job, between dried leaves and dried mud which must be scraped out. But except for the raised entry area, it’s also a relatively safe job.

So of course I was up on the ladder at the highest point when a golden eagle went past. He was so big and so close to me and going so fast that for a wild moment I thought I was under attack by a B-52 bomber. (“Bombing Run Goes Awry; Local Man Vaporized; Details At Eleven.”) We have a healthy local population of golden eagles, so it’s not unusual to see one. Thrilling, always; unusual, no. But normally I see them hundreds of feet up in the air, riding the thermals with stately elegance. Once, Darleen and I came upon two on the ground eating something they had killed. They had progressed to that point in their meal where I could no longer tell what it had been before it became dinner, but we reined in the horses about fifty yards away and watched as the massive talons held down the bulk of the meal while the formidable beaks tore off chunks.

They are awe-inspiring predators. Steve Bodio has written a magnificent, fascinating book, Eagle Dreams, about his travels to western Mongolia to hunt with the Kazakh horsemen who ride out with their eagles after no less a prey than the wolf, and it includes a photograph of wolf skins hanging from the home of one of the hunters. I’ve never personally met a Mongolian wolf, but I don’t imagine they’re that much smaller than our wolves in North America, which is to say they’re probably just about the size of a former middleweight perched high up on a ladder.

There is thrilling, and then there is thrilling.

In this case, the eagle passed about twenty feet over my head, going at Mach speed with a family of red tail hawks (three of them, so I assume it was a family unit) in hot pursuit, followed by an large extended family of ravens (mom, dad, kiddies, aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, in-laws, even that embarrassing old great-uncle who always tells such inappropriate jokes at family gatherings), though it was hard to tell if the ravens were pursuing the eagle or the red tails, the red tail and the raven being, shall we say, uneasy neighbors. They went by in a noisy woosh! (ravens are noisy fliers) at such great speed that they vanished over the nearest hill almost as quickly as they had appeared, leaving me clinging to the ladder and wondering if I should seek shelter.

My God, what a magnificent bird!

Though it is about a kestrel, not eagles, I’ll leave you with The Windhover, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnet from the God’s Grandeur series. A Roman Catholic convert and Jesuit priest, Hopkins dedicated the poem, To Christ our Lord, and while it may be a difficult read that begs to be read aloud, it needs no explanation beyond that to make it accessible. However, to clarify, I will add that “sillion” is an archaic spelling of “selion,” meaning a furrow turned over by the plough.

The Windhover, To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-

dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon in his riding

Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding

High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing

In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,

As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding

Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding

Stirred for a bird,–the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!

 

 

Brute beauty and valor and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here

Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion

Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion

Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,

Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

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A Neighbor in a Different Land

November 27th, 2013

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I went deer hunting in Texas week before last. It was a trip arranged by Weatherby, the firearms manufacturer, and it was intended to give me and a few other writers a chance to test some of the new rifles the company is offering. From the point of view of companionship, hunting, and testing, the trip was wildly successful and a lot of fun. Good people, good times, good guns, good hunting.

But what I really want to tell you about was a small incident that was a first for me.

Hunting in Texas is completely unique. First of all, there is almost no public land in Texas. There are only two national parks that I know of (Big Bend and Guadalupe) and only a few state parks, so all hunting must be done on private land. Deer and exotics are the backbone of Texas hunting. There is great waterfowl hunting along the coast, and in the moist, sweltering areas of eastern Texas they are so overrun by wild hogs that if you knock on a farmer’s door and ask permission to hunt, he’s likely to offer you his youngest daughter’s hand in marriage. There is even a national television show about a, uh, highly colorful family that makes its living hunting hogs down there. (“Colorful! It’s what you get when you’ve lived in Bolivia for twenty years. You get colorful. Bingo!”) But it is deer and exotics that bring in the big bucks (you should pardon the expression) for private ranches in the Lone Star State.

Because whitetail deer and exotics represent big dollars to private landowners, just as black angus do to cattlemen, a lot of time and effort and money is put into maximizing both the quality of the animals and the quality of the hunting of those animals.

Ranches are completely high-fenced. Think about that for a moment. The ranch where we hunted, a relatively small one by Texas standards, is twelve-thousand-plus acres, cross-fenced into pastures of about a thousand acres each. I happen to know what regular horse-wire fencing costs per foot (which is why I had to do almost all of it on my little ranch myself), so I can only guess at the millions of dollars in fencing alone that have been invested in this ranch. I was told by the ranch manager that there was a permanent two-man fencing crew, whose sole job it was to build and repair fence, day in, day out, all year long. Sort of like painting the Golden Gate bridge.

Then there is the deer-breeding program. Yes, deer-breeding. The first thing a deer needs to grow large antlers is good genetics. Breeding deer is, by itself, a significant economic enterprise in Texas, where artificial insemination is done on scientific principles in facilities that make most hospitals look poor and slovenly, and breeder bucks with good genetics are treated with the kind of care and respect normally accorded to famous stallions. For reasons neither I nor anyone else on this hunt understands, this is only possible with whitetail deer. Mule deer cannot be bred successfully in captivity. We had a lot of debate about this while I was down there, and while mule deer seem to have somewhat larger spatial requirements than whitetail, they are just as adaptable and just as capable of living in close proximity to humans as whitetail are. Just ask anyone—my wife, for example—who has tried to grow roses or apples or just about any kind of garden in these mountains. So I don’t know why mule deer are different.

The second requirement for large antlers is good nutrition, and there are companies that specialize in the development of nutrient-rich feeds specifically for deer. I know what I pay to supplement my two horses, so I shudder to think what a hunting ranch must pay to put nutrients out for literally thousands of deer. Which, of course, raises the question of how you feed wild animals. Scores of feeders, perhaps hundreds, are spread across the ranch. They run off of solar-powered batteries, but like anything made by man, they are subject to inexplicable breakdowns and must be checked regularly. While I was there, the young hand (guide, if you will) I was with found three feeders that needed fixing. It’s a labor-intensive industry.

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(Photo courtesy of Brad Fitzpatrick)

Why a guide for something as inherently private and solitary as deer hunting? Apart from the fact that this was all new land to me and they didn’t want anyone getting lost, the third factor that influences antler size is age. The ranch does not allow any buck (other than obviously deformed bucks that must be culled) under the age of five to be shot, and the guides are there to both judge the age of bucks and to enforce the rule. It turned out to be very instructive; I’ve been hunting deer for almost forty years, but I learned a lot about details of aging that I had not known.

Texas-style deer hunting is done out of blinds over feeders. This is a fact many people find repugnant, but consider that in almost every state where I have hunted whitetail in the East or Midwest, it is legal to plant feeder crops out in the middle of the woods to attract the deer and to hunt over those crops. In the parts of the West where water is scarce, mule deer, elk, and pronghorn are frequently hunted over waterholes. So the bottom line is that I don’t see much of a difference. As it happened, this particular ranch also runs black angus, and both the deer, and my guide and I, got run off the feeders by greedy cattle, so I ended up hunting by glass-and-stalk (and taking a dandy buck), but that was just an accident, and I spent the first two days happily and optimistically sitting in a blind.

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And it was in one of those blinds, on the second day, that I got my first good long look at a gray fox.

We have gray fox in the mountains where I live in California, but very few of them. (We also have kit fox down in the Central Valley at a much lower elevation.) If you have a lot of wolves, you won’t have many coyotes. If you have a lot of coyotes, you won’t have many fox. In California we have coyotes coming out of our ears, so there are very few gray fox. In twenty-two years up here I only seen tracks, one dead one by the side of the highway, and one flash of a live one running across the road late at night, so I was delighted to see a gray fox hunting his—or her—way delicately toward the blind.

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The land on the western edge of the Edwards Plateau in Texas is rolling savannah dotted with live oaks, mesquite trees, prickly pear, and pockets of brush, and this fox emerged quite suddenly from some heavy brush just north of the blind. He was small, elegant, beautiful, and had that typical vulpine air of confidence in his own native wit. I half expected him to stop, look up at us in the blind, and make a sarcastic and insulting remark. (This is a somewhat inaccurate bit of anthropomorphizing on my part, since the gray fox is scientifically named Urocyon cinereoagenteus, not Vulpes.) As it was, there was something I couldn’t see there in the grass (mice? voles? insects? a little of each?) he found to his liking, so for about twenty minutes he hunted happily within ten feet of where we sat, sometimes making a quick darting snap with his muzzle, sometimes making the lovely arching pounce I associate with foxes, rising up on his hind legs, jumping into the air and landing on his prey with both front paws. He evidently felt quite safe and at home, never pausing to check for any other predator (primarily bobcat in that part of the state), never paying the slightest attention to the cattle stealing grain out of the feeder one hundred yards away, or the unhappy deer circling cautiously around watching the cattle steal their dinner. At one point he came so close to the blind I could have dropped my notebook on him. Then he gradually hunted his way into a tangle of brush and live oak on the south side and vanished.

If I were a Howard Pyle, I would have drawn him with boots on and a battered cap, a game bag over one shoulder, rifle on the other, a happy fellow hunter on a glorious winter day.

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The Coyote on the Hill

November 6th, 2013

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We’ve been having some of those glorious, God-given autumn days that make you feel that you’ll live forever. Crackling, crystalline air with a hint of cool in the wind, warm sun, and that indefinable something that only seems to come this time of year, that special quality that with each breath fills your corpuscles with health and well-being and longevity and a restless desire to be outside doing anything. Of course, in my case I don’t want to breathe too deeply because my ribs are still a little tender (the doctors say that can last for a year) but you know what I mean. It’s that divine discontent that Kenneth Grahame wrote about in The Wind in the Willows.

For some reason—possibly because they feel as good as I do at this time of year—the coyotes have been especially active lately, having wild parties at night, carousing and singing and carrying on in ways that—if they were humans—would tempt me to call the police and complain. But somehow, being woken up at night by drunken coyotes harmonizing off-key isn’t as annoying as it is when humans do it.

One large female in particular has been hanging around the place and hunting during the day. This is something I encourage. I know coyotes are the bane of cattlemen and sheepherders, but ground squirrels and rabbits are the bane of my life, and since coyotes eat more of those than any other predator, coyotes are always welcome at the Parker household. She walked across the hill behind the house yesterday, only about ten yards away, before finally angling up higher through the rocks and trees. For once the dogs seemed oblivious and slept right through her passing, not that their barking from inside the house would have particularly disturbed her, but it gave me a chance to admire her, sleek and elegant in her fashionable winter coat, eyes, ears, and nose all working toward a single end:Brandied Rabbit with Mushrooms and Cream; Squirrel Stroganoff with Mushrooms and Onions; or possibly Brunswick Stew, where I believe you can combine squirrel and rabbit and just about anything else your heart desires, though I’m not entirely certain which recipe coyotes prefer.

Watching her from the window, she was beauty and grace moving in silence, diminishing, to finally vanish in a few last glimpses—so wonderful. Of course, if I kept chickens, or sheep, or cattle, I might not think it so wonderful, but she was a good-looking girl.

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