When you live on a ranch there is certainly ample opportunity to observe animals and birds in their natural habitat!! I was thinking that only today while watching my collection of birds competing for the daily ration of bird seed outside my window. Some time back it had occurred to me that my living room window was an ideal place for several bird feeders, and so, in quick succession, a biggish, mixed-grain-holding feeder was hung for the bigger variety of birds, while next to it I installed a slender, long tube holding thistle seed for the finches. (And so have you bought finch thistle seed lately? Apparently it’s the filet mignon of bird seed, as a smallish bag costs around $18 – and this bag my finches can demolish handily within a week.) And next to those hangs a hummingbird feeder.Beneath we installed a derelict pedestal fountain which no longer wants to hold water, but which makes a dandy two storey feeder for the bigger birds. A regular visitor to this bird cafe is my resident cardinal, with his flashy red plumage and bossy ways – and the other day I was rewarded by several visits from his lady love, Mrs. Cardinal. Mrs. Cardinal is a different kettle of fish, if you will forgive the mixed metaphor, to her lord – she is not a nice bright red, but rather a mottled sort of reddish-brown, somewhat plump, and on her head, instead of his flaming red crown, she has an arrangement which can only be described as a bird version of a bad hair day – a sort of angry tuft of brownish feathers arranged in a defiant pompadour.
Still on the bird front, I remember one day, while driving to Tucson early in the morning, encountering some object that hit my car door. Glancing back, I saw a bird flopping around on the road. I stopped the car and went back to see. It was a little owl, apparently only stunned. Not wanting to leave it on the road to get run over, I bent down to pick it up – unfortunately with both hands. Wow! I had no idea that a little bird could be so ferocious! It grabbed both my hands with its claws like bands of steel almost crushing my bones, and effectively imprisoned me with both hands tied. With an effort I managed to free one, and then pried those little relentless claws off the other hand, one by one, till I was free. It took quite a while. I carried the little blighter off the road and plunked it down in some grass. There, I said to it, you sit there, you little stinker! It glared at me balefully, and I could see it wasn’t hurt, and would probably happily fly off – unlike my poor hands, bruised and crushed and throbbing. It gave me a new respect for birds of prey – I had a feeling that, given a bit of encouragement, that bird would have made a breakfast of me! It’s no wonder that the Apaches have a healthy respect for them – apparently a visit from an owl is a harbinger of death. You may well say that – it sure is, for some poor little mouse!
Years ago we had an Apache by the name of Fred working here as a wrangler. Fred was Apache in every sense of the word – he dressed the part, and he apparently had the same superstitions – I remember one day when one of our office gals found a bird feather and, thinking to please him, tried to make him a gift of it. Fred recoiled in horror. “No, no”, he said, “you don’t know anything about Apaches!! That’s an owl feather! That’s very bad luck, I can’t even touch it! It’s a sign of impending death!” Apparently owls don’t affect non Apache people the same way, as my owl incident happened a few years ago, and here I am, still hale and hearty, though with much the same respect for this bird as Fred had.
And it’s great to live in harmony with other creatures, too. Many years back I had a friend by the name of Mary. Mary and her husband had built a house which they had themselves designed, and this house had a feature which I have hankered after ever since, and sadly, so far have not been able to arrange in my own house. This was what they called an Earth Room. The Earth Room was in fact a large front entrance to the house, and it consisted of walls built of cement with no windows and no floor, this being the original earth on which the house was built. The ceiling had set in it a double wide sliding glass door, which could be opened in good weather – almost always available here in southern Arizona – and the earthen floor had planted in it many varieties of exotic trees and bushes which otherwise would not survive the dry heat of the Arizona high desert. In the middle of the floor, beneath the trees, was another fabulous feature – a small pond, with a bubbling fountain. I admired this Earth Room volubly and with not a little envy, and then Mary and I sat on the sofa in the living room, which opened off the Earth Room. We began exchanging news and gossip. Suddenly she said, “Excuse me” and went to the sliding glass door which lead to the outside, and opened it. To my amazement, what came through the door was a huge big toad. It hopped into the room, and proceeded past Mary and me to the Earth Room, where it plopped itself into the pond. Mary sat down and went on talking. “Mary, Mary” I said urgently, “wait a minute, back up, what was that?” “Oh” she said, “that was Horace (I may have the name wrong here, this was some years ago) ….”and he lives here”. It turned out that Horace was of a class of toad that burrow into the ground during the cold, dry weather, and then emerge during the summer rains to live above ground, catching bugs and stoking up for the next sojourn underground. Horace had been sleeping below ground, peacefully unaware that someone was building a house over his head. When he felt the time was ripe to emerge, he was surprised to do so next to a handy pond in the middle of someone’s Earth Room – so he lived with his new family, asking only to be let out now and again to catch his dinner. Hunger satisfied, he would then come to the sliding glass door, and sit there croaking until Mary opened it and let him in so he could return to his pond and to contemplating his navel, or whatever it is that bullfrogs do in their spare time. Ever since that day I wanted an Earth Room in the worst way, but so far haven’t got it done. But there is yet time…..
I wrote last time about my little mare, Skoshi, and I told you how willing she was at all times to do my bidding. I remembered later another episode with her. I was returning from some ride or other, and we were on the ridge above the Cobre Loma cattle corrals. It was in the summer, and suddenly I heard the warning rattle of a rattlesnake. I could see him coiled up, not too far from me – and for some idiotic reason I wanted to get closer to take a better look. Skoshi thought it was idiotic too – every instinct told her that we shouldn’t come any closer, but yet she didn’t really want to disobey me. She hesitated, tried to draw back, knew she should take a step forward, knew it was stupid, and finally, in an effort to comply and yet stay safe, did something no other horse has ever done with me, before or since – she went straight up into the air, as if she were on a pogo stick, quite high, and totally stiff legged. It was the most amazing feeling, this being catapulted high up into the air and then come straight down again – by which time, of course, the snake had wisely departed. It was also a great example of a horse being obedient and yet taking care of her stupid rider – I could just imagine the conversation in the corral that night…..
Dogs, of course, provide a window of their own into the fascinating world of animal behavior. We used to have a great little Border collie named Patches. Patches was the best dog – except for one very evil habit, and that was that she loved to fetch – and fetch – and fetch – and when you were stupid enough to throw a stick for her, it was all over for you for the rest of the day – Patches would fetch it, and lay at your feet, then pant expectantly, waiting for you to throw it, again and again. This game was apt to pall on the human stick thrower far sooner than it palled on Patches – in fact, I think she never ever tired of it, and one could have spent 24 hours a day being a dog’s stick pitcher. As a consequence, we had strict instructions from Gerry, whose cattle dog she was, never to throw a stick for her. Patches hated that – and resorted to every trick in the book to countermand this order. One day one of the guys was fixing a fence in front of the office. He was tall, and the fence was low, so he found that the best way was for him to kneel and work backwards, nailing the loose planks as he went. Suddenly he knelt on a piece of wood, and it hurt his knee. “Darn” he said, pitched the wood behind him, and went on working. But a few steps further on he stepped on another bit of wood. “Well, damn”, he said, and pitched it behind him. However, in a few more steps, there was another bit of wood under his poor suffering knees. Eventually he looked around to see how many more bits of wood there might be – and encountered the sight of Patches, happily squatted down, with a big grin on her panting, hairy face, waiting for him to throw the stick so she could pick it up and place it carefully in his path again.
And there are other, smaller, but no less interesting inhabitants of Grapevine! Some time back, by the barn, a small animal of the gopher variety emerged out of the ground in the saddling area. He had discovered that there were lots of little gopher goodies left lying around on the ground, such as alfalfa pellets – and he snatched one up and dragged it into his hole. This went on for some time, and eventually, of course, the wranglers noticed – and began to encourage this behavior. Before long Gophie became a member of the saddling team. He would poke out his little head, and eventually became so tame that we could give him an alfalfa pellet by hand – he would stick it into his little face and, when he had a few, disappear into his hole to add them to his below ground stash. (We used to joke that there were more pellets under the barn than there were in it.) I remember one day I gave him one – and another one – and another one – and each time he would merely stuff it into his mouth and wait for the next. Finally he evidently decided that he had enough to warrant a trip downstairs to the larder. He tried to go down the hole – and couldn’t – his little face was so fat, it got stuck in the hole! And did he get mad! Furiously he dug and scrabbled at the hole walls until he widened it enough so he could take his stash below ground. That was a lovely summer, our summer with Gophie! In subsequent years his son or daughter appeared – or maybe it was Himself – I don’t know how long they live – until eventually one day he came no more.
And I’ll finish this with a little episode that Danny told me about which happened only today. The retired population of the ranch, four horses and two donkeys, wander around freely during the day, visiting perimeters of other horse’ pastures, stealing their hay, spending lots of time trying to work out how to get into my fenced off patio, and generally being happy equines. Today, Danny said, he saw the two donkeys suddenly go tearing off down the drive, tails stuck up, flailing around in the air like propellers, and Miss Katie even braying as she went. They tore down the hill, turned the corner, crossed the creek and up the hill on the other side. He was just thinking he should have closed the gate to the South Cochise Pasture so they couldn’t get into it, when here they came back, again on the run, braying and bucking – then turned and went out again …. And then he saw why. Two deer had come into the barnyard, and they were chasing them! No deer allowed here ….. out! Now! But the story doesn’t end here…
When I had put out all those bird feeders, I wanted to put out a quail block for the colonies of quail that live here in the barnyard. So as not to have it on the ground, Danny built a nice little wooden stand for it, and placed it outside the wall of the actual front yard, on what I fancifully like to call my front lawn. It’s the front lawn simply because it’s in the front and it has grass – when it rains – and it’s fenced off so the wandering around equine population can’t get onto it. This afternoon, looking out the window, I saw an interesting sight – the two deer were back, the donkeys now having been penned up for the night – and they were investigating the quail block. The doe was standing quite near it, looking around nervously, just in case some deer eating creature should suddenly appear, while the fawn was loitering nearby, slowly coming closer and closer. Fascinated, I stood near my window and watched them – how beautiful they are! Those large liquid eyes, huge ears swiveling around, catching every little sound, their bodies sleekly designed for speed. She came right up to the quail block and took a nibble. Nah! Not as nice as I thought, she grumbled, and slowly turned – and then she and the yearling wandered off.
What a lovely world we live in, when we can share it with other creatures!