Saturday, July 20, 2013

watching, fencing, and shooing our urban wildlife

It is not often that I get to listen to NPR on the radio.  But I was out and about early in the morning, running a few errands, including returning some books to the library.  I caught the beginning of an interview with Jim Sterba, author of Nature Wars: The Incredible Story of How Wildlife Comebacks Turned Backyards into Battlegrounds.

I listened for a bit while he described his own relationship with Maine, particularly with Acadia National Park.  And his research into the effects of wildlife conservation efforts in the United States which were begin in the early twentieth century on wildlife populations in our country and the struggles that this can create between humans and animals.  Sterba and the interviewer spoke of bear sightings in Maine, and their attacks on honeybee hives, deer overpopulation, coyote comebacks, and geese taking up residence on soccer fields.  And of the battles that this can create between humans and animals, emerging out of well intended efforts to protect, respect, and undo the harm humans have inflicted.

He spoke of the social capacity tipping point.  When enjoyment of the animals who are making a comeback, thanks to conservation efforts, crosses into having trouble with them.  Creating issues of road kill and dangers of driving, diseases carried by these wild animals such as Lyme Disease-infected ticks, and birds that destroy blueberry crops.

Sterba spoke of the fact that, as a society, we have become de-natured.  We experience very little of true nature, spending more and more time indoors.  And with this has come a loss of stewardship of the natural landscape -- people losing the skills we need to take care of the earth in order to help it maintain its balance over generations -- and an increase in preservation but without controls.

I sat for a few minutes in my car after I had reached the library, listening, and then went into our teeny tiny branch of our city library, and found it on the shelf.  I have already begun reading it; and it is a fascinating study, a whole book about the phenomenon of what I decided to term "urban wildlife" when I first began writing this blog.

I think that here we have a relatively strong relationship with nature and wildlife.  We spend much of our summer out in it, and in the other seasons as well.  We watch for beavers in the river like others watch TV.  We work to create a welcoming habitat for wildlife, pollinators, birds, and plants.  We get excited when we see creatures, running about to make sure everyone in our family gets to see them.  Trying to snap a picture.  We take pride in providing a safe, quiet and in some parts of the yard wild habitat for these creatures, a place of sanctuary on this side of the hedge, as cars whiz past on the busy street.

And, yes, we have introduced domesticated animals into the mix, indoor cat...honeybees even.  And a tended garden that changes the landscape from wild to maintained.

Despite having moved from a country setting to an urban one, I have never lived in a place that has such a diverse population of wildlife.  Skunks and porcupines frequent our yard and spar with our dogs.  We have struggled with urban predators of our flock of chickens as well as of our garden.  I have watched city hawks and eagles take my chickens, I monitor mite infestation of our bees, I trap mice in our house, relocate groundhogs from our garden, chase turkeys out of our fruit patch, and try to keep squirrels and chipmunks out of my garden seed and chicken feed.  Battie, our cat, who once was of the streets herself, tries to help us keep the mice out of the house.  Don't get me started on the pests of the insect variety in the garden.

We are up to our urban elbows here in wildlife.  And this wildlife is city-stock, adapted quite effectively to living closely to humans, unafraid of us, and of our cars.  Like the eagle that took our chickens, it stares us down.  Waits for us to leave.  And attacks the food that we have left out for them as a buffet.  When we are at my family's camps, we watch for these birds of prey, excited to see them, trying to get pictures, enjoying watching them hunt for food in the lakes.  When they are here in our back yard?  I run screaming at them, sometimes with a stick, letting our dogs out to chase them off with me.

We spend a good deal of time working on fencing.  To keep what we tend here safe.

One of the reasons we became interested in chickens was their natural tick control as they hunt for insects in the fringe areas of yards.  Julia was treated for Lyme a couple of years ago, and here and in previous homes we have struggled with a hearty population of ticks.

We are just back from a camping trip to a state park, where our children were delighted to see deer and ducks on the lake, that they were able to get so close to them while walking about the campground, sharing the same air with them as opposed to seeing them from inside the car or fleetingly as the animals run off into the woods.  I kept pushing my own thoughts about their tameness, duck parasites in the swimming water, and ticks as both ducks and deer passed a bit too close to our towels on the beach.  That the deer came into the sites as campers departed, clearly looking for food left behind.

Tick checks each night are a part of our children's night time routine, though they were never a part of mine.  Despite our vigilance, we sometimes find them on us, and a few have already attached themselves.  The children panic, I reassure them, remove them, tell them it's no big deal, that we removed them in time...and then google pictures of a potentially Lyme disease carrying deer tick as compared to a less concerning dog tick.  And begin my weeks of watching for a target rash without telling them, surreptitiously checking them over while I brush their hair and teeth, while giving them a hug, or sunscreening them.

We are out in it.  We are in our yard, growing and eating from it.  Despite our love of, our respect for, our welcome mat laid out for nature, we are also engaged in efforts to contain it.  Putting up fencing to try to keep it where we want it.  With bug spray and fencing and traps we are trying to reroute, divert, protect, and yes, adjust.  To coexist with this scrappy feisty urban menagerie, who -- due to their adaptation to what is a seemingly unwelcoming and challenging urban habitat here -- are a bit more intimidating, a bit more feral.

It is an interesting battle we wage.  One that is likely confusing to the creatures who venture here, and to our children as well.

There is currently unidentified scat out behind the chicken coop.  I plan to try to identify it today, which I am sure will involve googling pictures of scat on our iPad, held up next to the specimen on the bank, just behind the coop.  I considered showing you the picture of it that I have taken...but decided that might not be appreciated.  We were recently away for a few days and returned to find the chickens' feeder ripped off its hook in the chicken area and dragged away, emptied and abandoned.  This has happened every night since we returned home.  I am not yet sure what creature is doing this.  Whatever it is seems more interested in the feed than the chickens so far, so this offers a bit of relief.  I am going to need to improve the fencing around the larger chicken run.

* * *

I arrived home and carried my library bag with Nature Wars in it into the house and set about making everyone lunch.  I went outside to grab some peas from the garden, slammed the door behind me, and saw a flutter of movement in the grass.

And saw these.  A family of wild turkeys, the babies still small.

Moving about the yard.  Relatively unafraid of me, moving away from me slowly as I tried to photograph them, but not running off, eating as they went, the mother watching me cautiously. 

 As I walked behind them, they moved down the hill and toward the coop.  And then the turkeys stopped short.

They had come face to face with our chickens, who were escaping the blazing sun and heat by sitting in the shade of the rock wall part of our swing set.  Our chickens became alert and looked at them, sideways, in the way they do when concerned, head twitching, bodies held tall and rigid.  The turkeys and the chickens checked each other out for a bit, not getting too close, the chickens holding their ground like bullies on the playground. 

I guided the turkeys away from them, aware that one does not want wild fowl and domesticated fowl to intermingle as it can bring disease, and then encouraged the turkeys down the bank, and out of our yard.

I headed back to the garden to pick the peas.

And heard fluttering and squawking.

I looked over to the coop and saw that the chickens and the turkeys were having a West Side Story moment.  The turkeys had returned in the few minutes that had lapsed and had actually entered the coop area.  And Raspberry, our hen who thinks she is a rooster, was lining up her ladies to protect their hood.  There was a good deal of feathery fluttering and fowl jibber jabbering and soon the turkeys were on the run.  But one baby turkey took flight, and sat up on the door jam, eight feet off the ground.  She sat there for a bit and looked around.  And then serenely flew down to her mother.

So, given that apparently baby turkeys can fly, perhaps we have found our coop burglar.  But there are plenty of other likely suspects lurking about in the shadows as well.

The kids had all joined me at this point, and were taking about how cute the baby turkeys were, but also taking in stride my explanation about why these turkeys should not mingle with our chickens.  They seemed to be able to accept this strange relationship we have with our urban wildlife better than I would have expected.  Perhaps tick checks and Triple E and parasites and such are this generation's reminders of the need for balance, of letting the wild be wild, and treating it as such.  That there are dangers for them and for us being in too close a proximity.  We are all adapting to each other, and to our changing earth.

The kids helped me chase off the turkeys a second time.  A respectful shoo-ing...if you will.  Or, in Jim Sterba's words, our expressing our social tipping point.

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