Friday, May 9, 2014

tracking the small

One summer, when I was in high school, I attended an advanced studies program to study Ecology.  It was an amazing summer of growth for me, in many ways.  One of the larger projects I completed there was an ecology study on some of the undeveloped land owned by the school, land that included a pond, a field, and woods, a short bike ride away from the campus.  We were each assigned a lab group and a 4 by 4 foot quadrat of the land in one of the three habitats, and were told to learn all we could about the larger piece of land by focusing in on that small square of earth.
I was assigned the Mammal Life category for my lab group and was handed several small Havahart traps, and was told to set them in my quadrat and check in on the traps to see what mammals move through that area at different times of day.  That summer, riding my bike out to the plot in the early morning and late evening to complete my check ins, was probably the most formative part of the summer for me, and was apparently the beginning of my road toward the rather animally life we live here on our small plot of urban land.  From that summer study, I realized just what can be learned from a small piece of the earth.  How focusing in on the small and studying the heck out of it, looking for clues, thinking about proximity to other habitats, the effects of human activity, watching for subtle changes and connections between plant life and animal life, weather, and time can tell you so much about the larger habitat.  How to press your nose closely into the grass and then look up and around and see the larger view better.   It is quite a metaphor for how we live our life as well, starting here at home, doing our own small bit of work of parenting and caring for each other and the earth, and how when standing here and looking outward, knowledge of our small life changes our view of the larger world.  

Every once in a while I find myself doing something that reminds me of pedaling my bike out alone into the woods, reminds me of the quiet and solitude of those woods and the field and pond and of how it felt to be out there figuring it all out on my own.  It happens quite a bit here.  There is something about the setting and the fact that often I am trying to figure out some nature-based problem here on my own.

I woke up early this morning to the sounds of the chickens squawking.  And given a strange dream I had been having just before I woke, I think they had been squawking for some time.  Jonathan headed down to the coop to check on them for me.  And quickly, in the early morning light, it became clear that we, well, the flock really, had suffered a predator attack.  

The winter has been hard on our chickens.  And the flock is admittedly aging.  They lay fewer eggs than they did last year.  We have been talking about getting more chickens, chicks even, but given the limitations placed on how many we can have here in the city, it is a tricky business maintaining a small backyard flock in close proximity to us and therefore in some ways creating more of an attachment with these creatures, the kids especially connecting with them as pets perhaps, but at the very least as creatures that we care about and care for as humanely as we can.

But despite scratching our heads about what to do once a hen is no longer productive, and knowing we are paying to feed her and that she is not really earning her scratch anymore, they are still our chickens.

And then, nature started making the decision for us.  It started a few nights ago.  I went down one morning after school drop off to clean out the coop and collect eggs and realized that what had been five chickens was now four.  There were a few feathers here and there, but another chicken was molting, and that could have explained it.  I wondered if somehow in the dim light and rush of evening the missing chicken had been closed out of the coop by mistake, and that she had roosted somewhere else and that she might come along at some point during the day.  As the day went on and there was no sign of her, I searched every outbuilding where she might be trapped behind a door.  I checked places I had seen them hang out when free ranging.  And walked the river bank looking for signs.  I wondered about the possibility of a hawk snatch.

I tried to believe she might return in a few days, perhaps with a mohawk, and a jagged tattoo with the story of true adventure like Louise.  Elliott wondered if we should hang flyers for our missing chicken, like the missing cat and dog posters we see in the neighborhood from time to time.

And so, we began being more careful about closing them into their secure coop and pen each night.  They have a larger fenced area that is mostly there to keep them in rather than to keep predators out. Sometimes in the warm summer we leave the door to this area open at night, so they can scoot right out to more open space in the early mornings.  We would have to stop doing this now.

And then, this second attack occurred.  We looked around in the early light, before the kids woke up and tried to figure it out.  But we could not.  They were just gone.  And the door to the coop was still closed.  The night before, had we closed them into their secure enclosed space?  I remember watching Jonathan do so as I planted the last of our fruit trees nearby.  It is possible he missed one.  But two?

We looked about a bit, saw no explanation, and needed to go back inside to get the kids ready for school.

After deciding not to break the sad news until after school, and after dropping the kids off, I came home.  And did a more careful inspection.  Once again, I was pedaling out into the woods alone, and this is what I found.

A hole under the outer fence.  And a bit of reddish blond fur caught on the fencing, where the creature's back would have rubbed.

Still, for the life of me, I cannot figure out how this animal got into the coop.  I checked everywhere for breaks in the fencing, Hogan's Heroes tunnels, openings that a small creature might have been able to squeeze through.  But nothing.

What I did find was a lot of feathers.  In clumps.  There was little gore, which is strange because we have had experiences with that as well from predator attacks in the past.  But today, just clumps of feathers, rustling beautifully and blowing in the wind.

But given the clumps outside the fenced area and just single feathers within, I still wonder if perhaps they were taken from outside the coop, or at least were...paid the most attention to...outside the coop.

I decided, given my past success with such an undertaking, that I needed to try to track this creature.  Otherwise we were likely to have another loss the following night.  

I remembered a burrow over in a grove of trees that I had seen when we were collecting maple sap, one that seemed active with fresh dirt around it.  I decided to investigate.  

I saw no trace of feathers, and I have to admit, this burrow looks a bit more groundhog-ish than foxy.

I headed back to the coop, went around the back where the creature had gone under the fencing and looked out into the woods.  And started to see feathers.  A trail of them.  

They were on this worn path through the underbrush, appearing in clumps, as though the creature had stopped every ten feet of so, and had a snack or perhaps shaken off the feathers from his body.

I followed the trail to an old stump, the root system exposed and creating a shelter. 

Here there were many more feathers.  Perhaps a larger snack.  Or maybe an extended stay here when those humans came out and started poking around where he had just found dinner.

He sat here, perhaps, waiting for those noisy humans to leave.

Let me tell you, I was very proud of myself to find scat.  I photographed it for further study.  But I'll spare you from having to view it here.

And then, I followed the trail down the bank to the river.  I ended up, strangely, at our river landing, where there used to be a dock before it got carried away by flood waters.  I looked across the river at the tree that our neighborhood beaver is currently working on, the telltale fresh wood chips giving away its work on the muddy bank.

I wondered, are beavers carnivores?

And then I looked down at the bank in front of my feet.

Feathers.  In one small area.  Lots of them.

And next to them, tracks.

I think I found where the creature had his breakfast, with either a cleansing swim or a sip of water, post meal.

I am thinking it is a fox.  Or maybe a lynx.  I have to admit I am shocked that I was able to track it.  This is not something I spend my time doing typically.  But it makes you realize just how much you can observe on a small patch of urban land.  Where domesticated animals meet up with urban creatures.  Wild creatures.  Just how much can happen here, where nature meets human development.  Where old meets modern.  Where what we do here on our small patch of earth moves outward and changes how we see the world.

I spent the day researching where we can get some chicks this weekend.  To soften the blow when we tell the kids what happened.  And figuring out how to keep our two remaining jittery and lonely chickens safe at night.  

We found those chicks, from a lovely person who specializes in breeding hens that are just right for backyard flocks, the perfect blend of winter hardy and self-protective and yet family friendly and gentle with children.

We will raise them by hand, teaching them to trust us and eat from our palms.

And I am hopeful for these chicks, and for us, that what we do here in our quadrat, what we learn to study and look closely at, will affect how we look at the larger world.

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