Category Archives: The Backyard Biologist – Observations of an Amature Naturalist

ALL OF NATURE IS A WONDER, AND IT IS EVEN MORE CAPTIVATING WHEN FOUND ON YOUR OWN LAND, OR IN YOUR BACKYARD

“The history of any land begins with nature, and all histories must end with nature.” – J. Frank Dobie

Aldo Leopold For the Health of The Land Wildlife Conservation

Aldo Leopold (January 11, 1887 – April 21, 1948) was an American author, scientist, ecologist, forester, conservationist, and environmentalist. He was a professor at the University of Wisconsin and is best known for his book A Sand County Almanac (1949), which has sold more than two million copies.

Leopold was influential in the development of modern environmental ethics and in the movement for wilderness conservation. His ethics of nature and wildlife preservation had a profound impact on the environmental movement, with his ecocentric or holistic ethics regarding land. He emphasized biodiversity and ecology and was a founder of the science of wildlife management. –Wikipedia

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For The Health of The Land may be one of Aldo Leopold’s less known works, but it may also include some of his most powerful essays. He knew, for example,  that the future of wildlife, and the heart of wildlife management, resided within the realm of private landowners and their relationships to the land.

Good stewardship is a choice, driven by the love of wild things and a feeling of individual responsibility for them. It is a voluntary agreement, gracefully held, passed along between family and community. Ultimately, land use decisions are personal, and local, and they should not, and cannot, be dictated by collective policy or enforced by an all-knowing government”.

– Michael Patrick McCarty

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In The Hushed Silence of Winter Storm

 

A Young Mule Deer Buck With Fresh Snow On His Back, Patiently Waits Out A Fast Moving Storm In The Colorado Rockies. Photograph By Michael Patrick McCarty
Laying Low and Hanging Out.

 

A Small Flock Of Canada Geese Walks Through A Field Of Snow And Grass, Searching For Food In A Rocky Mountain Winter Storm. Photo by Michael Patrick McCarty
It’s a lean, Yearning, Time of Year

 

A Trophy Mule Deer Buck On High Alert While Quietly Feeding During A Colorado Winter Snowstorm. Photograph By Michael Patrick McCarty
Hard to Hide Those Antlers

 

A small Herd of Cow Elk Weave In And Out of the Falling Snow During a November Storm in the Rocky Mountains. Photograph  by Michael Patrick McCarty
Out of the Storm

 

Michael Patrick McCarty

 

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In The Eyes Of A Pigeon

By Michael Patrick McCarty

 

a vintage photo of a boy watching his homing pigeons exercise their wings after being released from their catch pen
Come Home Soon!

A willing and observant person can gather some extraordinary insights about the natural world in the most unlikely places. It can happen in the short time that it takes to blink an eye, no matter if that eye belongs to you, or to something else. Nature abounds with beneficial lessons and the teachers of true meaning are everywhere. I just happen to gain some of my clues from the clear-eyed and attentive stares of my backyard pigeon flock. You can learn a lot from an otherwise ordinary and common creature.

I spend a fair amount of time with this captive audience of one hundred in their outdoor aviary. I am their provider, and their lifeline from the outside lands. I supply them with their daily ration of grains and clean water, irregardless of the weather or the many other duties or time constraints I may have. I fill their pickpots with grit and minerals. I break ice from their bowls in the winter, and suffer the same stinging snows and biting winds of the day. I clean their flypen and pigeon-house, and keep a sharp eye out for the telltale signs of distress or disease. I study them closely, and through it all, they watch me too.

I am a constant in their lives, and a spoke in their wheel of life. I have come to know of them and their world just a little bit, and they of me. It could be said that they would rather prefer that I was not involved at all, but I am a necessary intrusion they must tolerate, at least for a brief time.

Yet, they wait for me each morning and afternoon, the anticipation building as I drive up to the entrance doors. They mill about excitedly as I approach, ready to perform just for me. I touch the door handle, and they begin their wild jig, dancing like ecstatic puppets on hidden strings. They hop about and swirl their wings like crazed whirligigs, or slap their wingtips smartly as they launch from their perch for a short flight across the pen.

They chant their pigeon talk and coo even louder as I step in through the inner doors, to become completely surrounded by frantic birds, eager to fill their crops before the other’s. They push and shoulder for each speck of grain as if their life depended on it. Perhaps they bicker and fight to establish or maintain some imperceptible pigeon pecking order, or maybe just to remind themselves that life can be a struggle. You would think that they would know by now that their will be enough food for all comers, but it is a wild ritual that they simply must abide for reasons known only to the pigeon.

We have repeated this madcap scene a few thousand times and more, the pigeons and I. It has become routine, with little deviation from the usual suspects. That is until yesterday, when our normal interaction abruptly and inexplicably changed.

It was immediately obvious when I pulled up in my truck. The absence of sound or flashing wings struck me first, and what pigeon heads I could see sat on top of outstretched necks, alert, with searching eyes. They crouched in the classic manner of all prey, with feet tucked under their bodies, coiled and ready to spring out and away from impending danger.

A close up photo of a common pigeon with eye

The birds stood frozen and paid me little mind as I entered and searched the ground for an animal intruder. I investigated the pigeon houses and the nest boxes and found nothing. I checked every nook and cranny of their limited world and came up empty. I paused to scratch my head, and ponder this puzzling circumstance.

Hand on chin, I stared at the closest pigeon and wondered, determined to discover just why he would not fly. And then he cocked his head, and I saw his eye focus on something high as he grounded himself more tightly to his perch. At that moment I spied a wide, dark shadow moving across the dirt floor, and smiled. I knew exactly what belonged in that kind of shadow, as did my fine feathered friends. All I had to do was look up, to see just exactly what it was that had struck such all-consuming fear in their hearts.

I had no doubt that the shadow maker was an eater of birds, but there were several possibilities in this category. A red-tailed hawk maybe, or a gleaming eagle from the nearby river. In this case the black shadow belonged to an animal of equal color, with a distinctively naked neck. It was not what I expected to see.

The Turkey Vulture, or Buzzard as it is sometimes called, is quite common to the American West and many parts of North America. A six-foot wingspan casts a long shadow across the land, and he covers a lot of it as he travels. That great red and bald head is immediately recognizable from afar, and known by all. His sentinel like posture and hovering demeanor create and perpetuate his iconic image. It is a form often associated with death, and it is a meaning not entirely lost on my domesticated, but anxious, pigeon flock.

The Vulture is classified as a bird of prey, after all, even though he finds most of his meals by smell after they are already dead. I suppose that it is a distinction utterly lost on the brain of a pigeon.

His generic name is Cathartes, which means “purifier”.  It is an appropriate name, as the Buzzard is the sharp-beaked “tearer”, and recycler of flesh and feather. He is part of nature’s cleanup crew, and a perfectly ordained sanitizing unit. His kind is often referred to as “carrion eaters”, as if it were a derogatory term used to define the sordid parameters of their defective character. Nothing could be father from the truth.

I, for one, am a defender of this homely yet beautiful animal. The manner in which he makes his living should not be used to demean or degrade his standing in the larger scheme of things. His shadow may strike terror in the souls of countless scurrying and furtive creatures, but he has not come for them. Not now. He is where our lifeless bodies might naturally go, may we all be so lucky. There are far worse fates to suffer than those borne through the belly of a bird.

Still, it makes me wonder about the sensibilities of the pigeons in my charge. None of this buzzard business should be of any concern to a bird so far removed from a natural environment. It may be true that their only protection from flying marauders is a thin, nylon mesh that forms the roof of their cage. But what of it?

Most of my birds have never known anything else than the limited boundaries of the aviary. They were hatched here, reared by their parents and brought to adulthood without having to worry about danger and death from above. They have never enjoyed a truly wild moment in their lives, and I doubt if the thought of escape and a different kind of life has ever occurred to them.

Likewise, their parents have grown up in much the very same way, as did their parents, and their parents, and so on and so on. In fact their domestic lineage goes back for thousands of years, to the days when the first man-made his first hopeful departures from the relative safety of the caves. They are mankind’s first domestic animal partner, and their history is our history. One would think that very little of the wild would be left in the soul of a pigeon. On the contrary, it would appear that the thin margin of safety above their swiveling heads provides little comfort.

It makes me wonder about the level of domestication in the so-called domestic pigeon. How much wild is left in an otherwise non-wild creature? What does he remember of his life on the cliffs? Is it some latent genetic memory, or something else that keeps him looking skyward? Something tells me that there are some wild yearnings left behind, and that it might not take them very long to surface if given some small opportunity.

Truth be known, the story of the vulture and the pigeon is a tale as old as time and one not so easily forgotten. Each has something to tell us in their own way. Their interactions remind us that the primordial spark of life burns on as brightly as ever. They beckon us to live fully while we are alive, no matter the circumstance or the crosses we bear.

They tell us that danger is but a heartbeat away, though we try to deny it by surrounding ourselves with shallow and petty distractions. The realities of life and death lie closely behind the delicate veil, no matter how hard we may try to separate and protect ourselves from the natural world with the cages of our own clever designs.

The Turkey Vulture occasionally wishes to feel like a master predator on the wing, and a hunter of live prey. Perhaps he flies over our birds to feel the power of his blood and history. He dares us to be watchful, yet hopeful, lest we gain the finality of his steady gaze. We all must eventually return to replenish the elements of the earth. We are needed, we are welcome, but perhaps not today.

The great purifier embraces the rising thermals and circles ever upward, hanging on the edge of consciousness to remind us that a little bit of wild remains in the most cowered and tamed of the earthly realms below. We shall all have plenty of time to rest, and to watch, in our time.

 

Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura) riding the air currents while searching for prey or carrion and something to eat
Patience Is A Virtue For a Vulture

By Michael Patrick McCarty

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A Skunk Is A Down Low Odiferous *Weasel (But That’s O.K.)

 

By Michael Patrick McCarty

 

 

A striped skunk on the prowl in green grass, ready to spray if threatened.
Giving Pause to Both Man and Beast

 

Just about everyone with a most basic understanding of the natural world knows to stay away from the back-end of the black and white critter called skunk. Forget that little fact and they will be quick to leave an indelible impression upon your person. Or ask any family dog that has disregarded that squared up stance and upturned tail and suffered the indignity of a well-aimed spray. Unfortunately, this is a minor inconvenience when compared with the real damage often inflicted by their front end.

Skunks possess powerful forelegs which they use to burrow and scratch about for food. Digging and the churning of earth is really what a skunk is all about. They are also great fans of a free or easy meal and a frequent backyard visitor. A poultry dinner is top on their culinary hit parade, and they are notorious nighttime raiders of the barnyard and chicken coop. Their tunneling skills are legendary and deviously effective, much to the chagrin and unmitigated consternation of small animal breeders and poultry keepers for hundreds of years.

I was reminded of their penchant for tragedy when I entered my pigeon keep a few days ago. The telltale signs of the obvious break-in were written plainly on the ground, as was the bloody aftermath. Once again, the scene screamed of dastardly polecat, and the wind held the last remnants of that unmistakable and musky perfume.

I soon discovered that my favorite bird was among the casualties, and it hit me like a primordial punch to the solar plexus. He was the biggest of our Giant Runt’s, and he had always been scrappy and bold and proud. I had bred him down from a successive line of top-notch parents and he had never let me down in the squab producing department. We called him “the bomber”, and I had always looked for him first amongst his comrades.

Skunks have an uncanny ability to make it deeply personal in some unpredicted way. We have probably lost more birds of various kinds to them than any other predator, though I have worked hard to stem the tide. Once locked on to a target they can become incredibly determined, often working for several days to accomplish their clandestine mission. You have a full-fledged skunk problem when they do, because they will not give up without a fight. They can be incredibly bull-headed about it all. Once joined in battle they generally need to be forcefully persuaded, often with hot lead,  to see the error in their ways.

They are also extremely good at pointing out the errors in yours. An unwanted entry means that you have not done your job as an animal husbandman, whether you care to admit it or not. It means that the cage or coop is not built as well as it could be. Or perhaps that small repair you have put off has returned to haunt you. In the end it is your fault and your’s alone, although I cannot say that the acceptance of such responsibility can make one feel much better.

It would be easy to hate the skunk out of  hand, but I refuse to accept such an easy fix. A skunk is a skunk after all, and he is just doing what he was designed to do. They are a necessary and vital component of a healthy ecosystem. Perfect in form and function, they are more than beautiful in their own way.

Still, I am sad for the loss of our pigeons and it will be some time before I can stop myself from looking for the big guy. I have no doubt that he faced his end as best he could, with dignity and noble character. In my mind I like to picture him wedging his body in front of his mate, staring his adversary down and delivering a solid shoulder punch or two before being overwhelmed. At least I’d like to think so.

It makes me wonder what other beastly trials and backyard tribulations take place under cover of the dead black night.

By Michael Patrick McCarty

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Skunks can have devastating effects on waterfowl nesting success, as well as on upland game and song bird populations. If you would like to learn more about the dynamics of predation, we recommend that you pick up the classic work titled “Of Men and Marshes” by Paul Errington. It is a fascinating and eye-opening read. We often have a copy for sale. Please email for availability.

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— *Historically, skunks have been classified in a subgroup within “the weasel family”, or Mustelidae. Biologists began to understand that they had been misidentified all along. They were assigned new classification in the late 1990’s, and now belong to the family Mephitidae. So you see, they never were a weasel, after all.

—Weasel (Informal) – a sly or treacherous person.

 

minka2507 / Pixabay

 

 

A photo of a skunk caught in a havahart live trap at night
Caught Red Handed – And Probably Only Once

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A Little Tussle Among Friends

Take a look at this short video of two mule deer bucks doing what young bucks do, although they are probably still new to the game and may not be completely sure exactly what makes them do it. The November rut is a ways off yet, but it helps to get some practice in beforehand. Just getting shed of some nervous energy, I suppose.

The clip is courtesy of Dave Massender of Glenwood Springs, Colorado. Dave recorded this little bit of fun from his office window, and the deer were sparring in his backyard. Clicking antlers is a sound not heard near often enough.

Many thanks to Dave. We should all be so lucky to have such an interesting backyard!

Posted by Michael Patrick McCarty

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