The Annals of Country Life

Alfred Hitchcock Is Alive

February 10th, 2015 11 Comments

The Birds


…and making very weird movies in the southern Sierras.

I need a little ornithological help, so I’m reaching out to the kinds of people who read or contribute to Steve Bodio’s site ( or anyone else who might know a little about birds. Or possibly the supernatural.

The property to the south of my place, about a quarter of a mile away, is owned by a guy who lives somewhere else. I think he plans to retire there, but in the meantime he rents out the two little houses, one to a gal who works in town, one to an elderly retired gentleman.

Over the years, working on my property, I have occasionally found golf balls over in that southwest corner of my little ranch: one or two here and there, and not often, perhaps once or twice a year. For several years I put it down to a previous renter with a horrendous slice practicing his swing, but he moved out years ago, and his slice wasn’t that bad. Nobody could have a slice that bad.

Then one day, riding a little used trail on the mountain at the north end of the valley, I found a golf ball under a pine tree. No one could possibly hit a golf ball that far, either with a slice or a hook or straight. The nearest golf course is four or five miles away in a straight line, over a mountain; hell, you couldn’t even shoot a golf ball that far out of canon. Very few people even go up that particular part of the mountain, the slope being steep and somewhat treacherous, so it wasn’t a question of someone dropping the thing.

When I mentioned it to a friend, he speculated that it was probably ravens who, like magpies, are apparently drawn to anything bright and shiny, and who have a highly developed sense of both tool use and play. While that sounds a little peculiar, I accepted it as the only logical explanation I could come up with. I have no idea why a raven might be attracted to a golf ball, but then they probably have no idea why I do certain things.

Starting six or seven months ago, I began finding more golf balls, three and four at a time, and once, seven of them, all in the same relatively small corner of my property, maybe a quarter acre strip.

But then yesterday things took an ominous turn. Cutting a long story short, without even trying, without poking around under trees or walking through the long grass, or straining my eyes, just in the natural course of doing some maintenance, I picked up thirty-two golf balls. Thirty-two! Just in that same small area.

Does anyone have a clue as to what might be going on?

I’ve been thinking about it, and here are the possibilities I’ve come up with:

  1. The elderly gent who rents the nearest house has slid into senility and taken to stealing golf balls from the courses in nearby communities and towns, and throwing them over onto my property for obscure reasons. There is now a warrant out for his arrest and the duffers at the nearest club have put a price on his head.
  2. The elderly gent, or the working gal, or both, or some other person or persons unknown is/are trying to gaslight me in some obscure fashion.
  3. While I am not and never have been a golfer, I do I write for a very elegant golf magazine, The Golf Sport ( and the ravens have somehow figured this out and think they are doing me a good turn.
  4. The ravens have decided to reclaim the earth and are practicing for all-out warfare. Today it’s golf balls; tomorrow it’s undetonated ordnance from one of the military bases over in the Mojave desert or Nevada. Take that, vile capitalist lackey of the imperialist American war-mongering machine!

An Unkindness of Ravens

January 16th, 2015 17 Comments



The other evening we had one of those picture-perfect, God’s-in-his-Heaven-all’s-right-with-the-world evenings: crystalline air, golden glow, sun setting on the mountains across the valley, no wind, pleasantly cool temperature; ideal weather for barbequing, which is what I was doing. I was waiting for the barbeque to heat up and wandering around the backyard, taking it all in, when I noticed an enormous unkindness of ravens about a thousand feet over my head.

An “unkindness” is the correct collective noun for ravens, though I’m not sure why. As smart as they are, the collective noun should be a “Mensa” of ravens; and with as many of them as there were that evening, I can guarantee their collective I.Q. was considerably higher than that of the man watching them.

But why so many together at one time? Normally ravens congregate in groups of six, eight, twelve, something along those lines, but this was about fifty or more birds, maybe a hundred, for all I could tell, circling elegantly around in a widely dispersed, broken black cloud, not climbing, not moving in any direction other than around and around.

Was it a convention? A political caucus? A union rally? A protest? (Everybody else in the wide world is busy protesting something; why not ravens?) Were they just having fun? They are playful birds—I have watched them take turns sliding on their backs down the snow-covered slope in front of my house—so perhaps this was some kind of game for them, or perhaps they were enjoying the evening as much as I was. But why so many?

I have no idea. I don’t know enough about birds generally or ravens in particular to be able to say what was going on, but if anyone more knowledgeable than I about birds has a theory, let me know.



True at Last Light

October 13th, 2014 11 Comments


As soon as the Packers built up a solid, safe lead over the Vikings, I took Pete the Boxer out for a last ramble around the place, to stroll down the road a bit, close the gate, make sure our little corner of the world was safe and secure for the night. It was that magic moment of last glow, a dark night held briefly at bay by a dying sun, and across the valley, high up on one of the mountains to the south I could see the lights of an ATV, first in one area and then another moving light several miles away in a separate area. Those lights, momentarily appearing, then vanishing almost like shooting stars or satellites, gave me great pleasure to see, because I used to be one of those lights a long time ago.

There are no houses on that mountain, nor even roads; just rough two-tracks used by occasional cowboys, Forest Service and BLM employees, and—in season—hunters.

I used to hunt that mountain many years ago. Much of it is private ranch land, but at the top, and over on the far side, are several parcels of landlocked public land, a section or two of BLM here, another section there, that sort of thing. If you have permission to pass through the private property, there is surprisingly good hunting on those various chunks of public land, and back in those long ago days my friend Dave had permission from one of the largest landowners to drive through.

My friend was a dentist, and the landowner was his patient, so perhaps Dave had threatened him with a root canal without painkiller, but for whatever reason, Dave had full run of the place, and he and I would ride up the precarious two-tracks in the pre-dawn dark, and then ride back down again in the same last faint glow of day.

There were—and still are, in spite of the mountain lions’ best efforts—many deer up there, but the remoteness and steepness of the terrain makes the hunter, or at least this hunter, very, very selective. The sheer amount of labor involved after the shot is enough to make you think about just how badly you really need or want that venison.

The first year Dave and I hunted up there, he shot a very nice buck on a broad ledge just below the top on the far side. It was mid-morning, in an ideal spot, only four or five hundred yards from where we had parked the ATVs several hours earlier, and an easy drive down to where the deer was. It was perfect. And so was Dave’s shot.

Unfortunately, if there is one thing you learn in half a century of hunting, it’s that nothing, man or beast, reacts predictably when shot. This buck was dead the instant the bullet hit it, but it jumped forward, stumbled, took two steps, and went down. Unfortunately, those two steps had taken it right to the edge of the slope, so when it went down, it went down and kept on going down and down and down completely out of sight, perhaps a thousand feet ultimately, while Dave and I stood there with our mouths open and our hearts sinking.

We were both young and tough, but no matter how tough you like to think you are, these mountains can be very humbling. When we finally got down to the buck, it was apparent there was no way we could possibly get him up that slope intact, minus a helicopter, so we did a complete butchering job right on the spot, loins, chops, hams, backstraps, everything, boning the meat out on the grass. I had the better pack, so I took all the meat, while Dave took the rack, and we started back up. The slope was so steep that every time I slipped, instead of putting my hand down to catch myself, I would simply reach straight out in front of my face.

I forget now how long it actually took us to get back up, but I know it was dark by the time we got off that mountain. And probably, somewhere down in the valley, a man walking his dog saw our lights and smiled to think someone was having a great adventure up there. Dave sold his practice to his son-in-law and moved north years ago, and I don’t have an ATV, nor do I have permission to pass through the private land there, but I remember that time fondly, and it made me smile the other evening to see the hunters up there, and to wish them well.


Bird Watching with Alfred Hitchcock

September 25th, 2014 17 Comments



One of the great things about living in a rural area is all the wildlife one can see.

I saw my first condor the other day. Well, “saw” is a relative term; technically, yes, I saw a condor, I think, but it was so far away that the only reason I even bothered to look through the binoculars was that it was being harassed by a raven, and by comparison the raven looked like a sparrow, size-wise. Also, I knew the condors were in the area because my friend Dan Bronson ( told me the condors were in this neck of the woods. Very much in his small corner of this neck of the woods.

For those of you who might live in other countries and not be up to speed on the California condor (gymnogyps californianus) it is the closest thing we have these days to a pterodactyl. It looks like a cross between a pterodactyl, a dyspeptic undertaker, and a B-52 bomber, only nowhere near as pretty as any of those. It is America’s largest bird, with a wingspan that can reach over nine feet, and for many years it teetered on the brink of extinction.

And right now would be a good time to point out that those of you who believe global warming is an unprecedented catastrophe caused by man’s rapacity and greed, a catastrophe that will destroy the world as we know it, you will all be pleased to know that global warming should be a definite asset to the condor. If I have my facts right, the ancestors of the California condor were once both common and widespread from the Pacific to the Atlantic, but their numbers (and physical size) became greatly reduced as a result of the last ice age.

Be that as it may, for the last thirty-five years the condor has been the subject of an intense effort to keep the species viable, and they were only released back into the wild in 1991, so seeing one is a big deal. That is, to see them through binoculars is a big deal. For Dan and his wife Sonja, it would be more accurate to describe it as a big ordeal.

That’s Sonja’s photograph above. That’s Dan and Sonja’s gazebo the condors are sitting on. Each condor weighs about twenty-five pounds. Each condor has a prodigious and powerful beak. Each condor has a (pick one) highly developed sense of humor, or a great deal of curiosity, or a catholic sense of taste. The result is that when they come to call, as they did at Dan and Sonja’s, they leave a trail of destruction, with damaged or missing roof tiles, screens torn out of the frames, and—most inexplicable of all—large quantities of caulking around the door frames missing, apparently ingested, but certainly no longer where Dan would like said caulking to be.

The handyman hasn’t gotten to Dan’s house yet, but it looks as if the damage with run to several hundred dollars at the very least.

And for those of you who think I’m just a tinfoil-hat-wearing-paranoid when I say that the NSA has its cameras in all our underwear, consider the following:

When Dan sent me the photograph, and mentioned the damage that had been done, he also asked me, as a hunter and wildlife lover/enthusiast, if he ought to call US Fish and Wildlife to see what he could do to discourage a return visit. I jokingly left him a phone message saying that I had contacted USFW on his behalf and that they had declared his home a condor refuge and were taking his house under eminent domain, and that he and Sonja would have to move. Dan had barely played his phone messages when USFW did in fact show up at his house, the real thing, not an imitation, but not because of me. It seems the tracking devices they put on the birds are so accurate that it is possible to pinpoint an individual’s location to within a matter of feet. Hence the young man who knocked on Dan and Sonja’s door.

Apparently the young man was very polite and helpful; not so helpful that he offered to reimburse the Bronson’s for the damage the birds had done, but helpful in offering suggestions for discouraging the birds’ from lingering, suggestions that included running around and waving your arms and yelling; or running around and banging pots and pans together; or squirting the birds with water. You know, all those things we really long to do and have so much time to do instead of, oh, earning a living.

Condor in flight


I would have liked very much to have witnessed Dan’s efforts to be inhospitable to the condors, but I got the next best thing. I happened to be talking to him on the phone the next day, as he wandered around his yard picking up bits of screening and roof tiles that were no longer on the roof, when the condors returned for another feast of caulking material, and the soliloquy that I heard went something like this:

“Yeah, it was really fantastic to see them, Jameson. It’s why I love living up here in these mountains so much. I mean they’re one of the rarest of all birds, so it’s something most people never get a chance to… Oh, wait. One of them is coming back… No it’s, it’s four of them. No! Five, six, seven, eight. There’re eight of them. One of them is flying right over my head, only a few feet over me. Wow! This is cool! It’s an immature one because it doesn’t have the white underwing markings… Oh, no! Oh, shit! It’s landing on the roof. They’re all landing all the goddamn roof. No! Hey! Get out of here! Go away! Go! I’ve got to get the hose. Sonja! Where’s the power nozzle? Go away! (pant, pant) God damn it! I haven’t got enough pressure. I can’t reach them. Sonja! Get some pots, get the lids and start banging them. Oh, no! Don’t do that! God damn it! Go away! Oh, shit! (pant, pant) I’ve got to get the ladder. I’ll call you back.”

Postscript: I just received an email from Dan, an email that is conspicuously lacking in his normal cheerful and chatty style, an email I can best describe as terse. There are now seventeen condors currently circling his house. Either his caulking tastes really good, or perhaps the birds know something he doesn’t, and he and Sonja ought to check their life insurance policies.


Country Matters of the Pungent Variety

September 16th, 2014 15 Comments



I slept with the window open last night and some predator, almost certainly an owl, set off a skunk much too close to the house. The smell was enough to wake both my bride and me, and Darleen—burying her head under the covers—proclaimed bitterly that it smelled as if the owl had taken the skunk directly outside the bedroom window, possibly even in the bathroom. I was tempted to laugh at her, but I didn’t want to spend the rest of the night on the sofa. My poor little hothouse flower doesn’t know what a skunk smells like when it’s really up close and personal. As, for example, when it sprays you. I do.

While we were still living in Germany, my mother and father had an adventure right out of one of those macabre pre-World War Two books or movies like The Old Dark House, only with a happy ending. My sister and I were away at our respective schools and my parents took a vacation by themselves in England. Somewhere, on some desolate moor or common, on a dark and stormy night, their car died (a Jaguar, natch) and they had to hike across country through a driving rain to the only light they could see. It turned out to be an ominous and forbidding old stone farmhouse, but as soon as the door opened it became considerably less o. and f. The place belonged to a very affable farmer and his wife and five bullmastiffs who all took turns trying to lick my parents to death. The dogs, that is, not the farmer and his wife.

Both my parents loved dogs, but my father in particular thought life without a dog was like a meal without wine or a day without sunshine, and he had a special weakness for the bully-breeds, bulldogs, mastiffs, boxers, and here he was surrounded by five of the bulliest of the bully-breeds. Our beloved old one-eyed boxer had died only a year or so earlier, one of the bullmastiff bitches was pregnant, and the upshot was that long before any mechanic arrived to fix their temperamental car, money had changed hands. Six months later a bullmastiff puppy from the farmer’s “R” litter arrived at the Cologne airport.

Roger, for so the farmer had named him, was an affable, lazy old schmoo. He looked intimidating as hell, but in the normal course of events his attitude was, much like my father’s, “Wherever two or three are gathered together, let’s have a party!” When events became abnormal, however, he became a very different kind of dog. It only happened twice that I know of, but both times he lived up to the bullmastiff’s justly earned reputation as a guardian. For the most part, however, he was just a big old happy-go-lucky slob.


After he retired from the Foreign Service, my father became the director of a small museum out in the country in Virginia, Gunston Hall, the home of George Mason, the author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights which eventually became the model for our Constitution’s Bill of Rights, so many of which are so flagrantly ignored by today’s administration. One of my chores in those long ago days before security systems and alarms and electronic communication, was to walk Roger around the place late at night, just to make sure everything was safe and secure. Roger and I were ambling down a path not far from the house one very dark night, when suddenly he growled and started to run. Being a Bear of Little Brain, and thinking I was a lot tougher than I really was, I ran after him. I could hear, rather than see, him stop, so I skidded to a stop too, and then I heard a faint hissing sound.

Before I could even process what it might have been, the spray hit me. Hit both of us, actually. The only good thing was that I was so close to the skunk that he only got me from about the waist down. I had to throw away a pair of suede boots and a perfectly good pair of blue jeans. Poor Roger, on the other hand, hand to be repeatedly bathed, and even after all that he had to spend the night on the porch.

They are sweet dogs, bullmastiffs, but not prodigious intellects. One night later that same summer, my parents had long since gone to bed, Roger and I had already done our late-night patrol, and I decided to let him out into the fenced yard for one last leg-lift before I went to sleep. I was brushing my teeth when I heard something outside. It was Roger, engaging in a rematch with a skunk, but unfortunately, this skunk happened to be right by the air-conditioning intake, and a minute later, my father, my mother and I all flew out of the house in our pajamas, my father lighting up the night with a string of profanities that probably still drifts through the woods of Mason’s Neck like phantom fairy lights. It was weeks, and I mean literally weeks, before the smell eventually faded from the house enough that you could walk in there without your eyes watering.

You can see why I’m not terribly sympathetic to Darleen’s grumbling about distant smells drifting down the hill.


Dry Times

June 11th, 2014 20 Comments

Button buck

It’s hard to know to what extent the rest of the country, or the world, is aware of the drought affecting much of the West, but it’s bad. It’s bad throughout all the Southwest, but especially in California. Like an old vaudeville routine, it begs the question: How bad is it?

Objectively, it is severe enough that there is something about it on the news practically every day. These reports feature colored maps with most of the Southwest in some shade of yellow or red, but with almost all of California shown in a dark and dirty shade of brown, a sort of über-red. A few days ago I drove down to the Central Valley, the salad, fruit, and nut bowl of the world, and the giant electronic billboards normally used to warn drivers to “Click It or Ticket,” or occasionally to post an Amber alert, were all lit up with warnings to conserve water. Some of the farmers down there are actually pulling out their citrus orchards: there isn’t enough water to keep the trees alive. The water in the Sacramento Delta that would normally grow oranges is being withheld for a tiny fish, called a smelt, that may or may not be endangered, depending on who you talk to, a decision made by environmentalists with swimming pools who play golf with politicians on manicured courses in Palm Springs.

Anecdotally, there are almost no cattle no speak of left in the mountains in this part of the state; the herds have all been sold off or shipped north. When I go out to clean the pastures, abnormally short and stunted grasses crack beneath my feet, and little puffs of dust rise up around my boots. Even the hardy, obnoxious, and ubiquitous mustard weed is dry and brittle.

But what really brought it home was something that happened the other day when Darleen and I were trimming branches on some of the trees around the house. I was taking advantage of being forced at wife-point to do chores, and I had turned the hose on very low to water two cottonwoods we planted many years ago as shade trees for the horses. Cottonwoods are tough, double-tough, capable of driving their roots deep into the ground for any kind of moisture, but even they need some help in times like these.

I was doing the heavy lifting, piling up the branches into the bed of my truck, tying them down, then off to the local dump. On the way back, after about the third or fourth trip, as I drove up my driveway, I saw one of those steel-cuts of a deer silhouetted in the shade under one of the cottonwoods. You know the kind of thing: yard art cut out of large sheets of metal in the form of deer or elk or horses or perhaps a cowboy leaning up against a wall, charming or tacky, depending on your point of view and on the skill of the artist doing the cutting.

But this one surprised the hell out of me, because I had never seen it before, and I wondered when Darleen had bought it, how she had gotten it home and hidden it without my seeing it, and how she had managed to get it set up under the trees. The damn things are heavy.

I kept driving closer, my brain addled by heat and work, staring at it, until, when I was only about twenty yards away, it raised its head. It was a very live button-buck (a fawn that is old enough to grow its first set of antlers) drinking out of the well around the base of the cottonwood.

I want to delineate the magnitude of this: It was at the height of the afternoon heat, a time when deer normally stay bedded down in the shade to avoid heat stress; the cottonwoods are at least a hundred yards from the edge of the hill behind the house, where the trees and boulders provide shade and shelter; the hill behind the house is south-facing, and in these mountains, only north-facing slopes have any springs or rivulets. Yet this little buck was so desperate for water that he had come a long way down a dry hill and crossed all that open space in bright sunlight just to get a drink. Not only that, but he was so desperately thirsty that when I stopped my truck only twenty yards away, he only looked at me briefly and then went right back to drinking. He drank steadily for about five minutes, occasionally changing his position relative to the water, but never again lifting his head, resolutely ignoring an idling pickup.

The late Roger Ott, a part Cherokee horse trainer, once told me that the plains Indians used to capture wild horses by the simple expedient of posting squaws at every known water hole. Then the young braves would start to chase the horses in relays. The wild horses of course would run away easily at first, but as the day went on the heat began to build they would need water. The squaws would chase them off the waterholes, and this would go on and on until finally the desperate and exhausted horses would stand in a nervous group, uncertain what to do. One of the braves would walk up with a water bag and give the dominant mare a sip, just a taste, of water from his hand, then turn and walk away. And that mare and rest of the band would all follow.

It’s a sign of how bad things are when animals become desperate enough to ignore their own survival instincts in order to follow an even greater imperative. I suspect we have many nocturnal visitors to the horse troughs down by the barn. And I pray our well holds up.


Sumer Is Icumen in…

May 12th, 2014 8 Comments

Western tananger 011 (Small)

…Lhude sing cuccu!

Groweth sed, and bloweth med,

And springeth the wude nu –

Sing cuccu!


They didn’t have spell-check in 1226 when that was written, but it’s the spirit of the thing that counts. My spelling isn’t much better.

For many years we marked the beginning of spring in the mountains by the arrival of the orioles, specifically the Scott’s oriole, a bright lemon-yellow fellow, who used to nest in the trees around the house. Scott’s orioles are shy birds, and the exceptionally dense foliage of our Raywood ash trees provided them plenty of privacy.

But over the past several years, for unknown reasons, we haven’t seen any, so when Darleen spotted a flash of yellow in the bitterbrush on the hill behind the house, she was delighted, assuming it was the orioles coming back late from their winter tour through Mexico. “Visit the historic towns of Old Mexico! Marvel at the ruins of Aztec temples! Enjoy local cuisine and the hospitality of rural Mexico! See old friends again! Relax in four-star accommodations!”

But it wasn’t. It was a Western tanager, also bright lemon-yellow and black, but he wears a red hat that makes him look very flashy indeed, rather like the motley fool of medieval times. In 1226, say.

Western tanagers are not particularly uncommon around here, but they are a coniferous bird, preferring pine trees to oak trees, and bark-beetle depredation has taken a toll on the old pines on our property. Old pines are more susceptible to bark-beetles, especially when stressed by drought, and California has had more than its fair share of drought this year. The result is that we have had to have four large old pines taken down. They don’t look good when they die, and they become even more dangerous than they are when healthy. Even healthy pines will literally explode into flame from the heat of an advancing fire (I have seen this happen) and when they’re dead, they explode much more easily, putting them on a par with sage and mesquite for being a fire hazard.

So the only old pines left on the hill behind our house are very high up, and there aren’t many of them anyway at this relatively low elevation, and as tanagers nest exclusively in pines and spruces (to my knowledge) I was a little surprised to see them.

And “them” is the operative word. It’s a trifle difficult for an amateur to tell one gaudy male tanager from another, especially at a distance, but there appeared to be at least four and perhaps as many as six males. And, I presume, their spouses, but in contradistinction to the human world, it the males who draw your attention.

Western tananger 031 (Small)

And it was the bitterbrush that drew the birds. It’s hard to imagine anything called “bitterbrush” being palatable, but they were feasting with gusto, cramming berries into their mouths as fast as they could, building up their energy for nest building at higher elevations. I miss our orioles, who are energetic singers, as opposed to the relatively quiet tanagers, but it is always nice to see summer visitors, especially anything as beautiful as a tanager.


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

February 15th, 2014 17 Comments

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Bobcat two

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.


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


Steve Bodio on Golden Eagles

December 14th, 2013


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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