Out here in the sagebrush-covered landscape abutting the Ruby Mountains, I watch the changing colors that appear as different flowering plants bloom, die back, are replaced. At first, in early spring, it was the yellow of mule’s ear stalks and the red-orange of Indian paintbrush, all contrasting with the pale grey green of sagebrush. Then came tiny blue flowers that my sister said were wild chicory creating a blue haze across the yard. Daisies, red Oriental poppies, and white-pink peonies followed. Along the fence lines there were dense clusters of small pink roses, primrose or wild rose, I don’t know which. One day I saw a patch of wild iris in a cow field, delicate white and lavender. They were gone a day later. Violet red clover appeared next, along with another small, unnamed blue flower, and lupines, both yellow and purple. They are small buds, not like the wonderful fields of larger lupines I cherished when driving the canyon highway that took me to the Yuba River in Nevada County years ago. Recently, another group of colors suddenly appeared: butterflies. The one that intrigued most was a tiny pale blue one, like the pale blue ones I once watched drinking water from a puddle on the bridge over the south fork of the Yuba River.
There are birds, mostly thieving black-billed magpies who raid the chicken coop of its eggs. Northern harriers, kestrels, red-tailed hawks, and turkey vultures are here, too. The best bird is the western meadowlark that sings mostly in the early morning and at sunset. They are hard to see but wonderful to listen to. And, another of my favorite birds, the northern flicker flits among wooden fence posts and telephone poles. All of these flowers and birds are the benign “wild” life here. An invasive white flowering weed called white cap threatens livestock and there is a concerted effort by the state to get rid of it.
I haven’t been up in the Lamoille Canyon for a while–ever since I came back with a tick that slowly climbed up my jeans and eventually began a trek across the rim of my reading glasses! I had been sitting by a creek, amid new spring grass and rocks, ignorant of ticks. The heavy precipitation of the past winter has made for a bumper crop of ticks out here. I miss the canyon but now that it’s summer, there are many people there on weekends, when I might have access to a vehicle and could drive up there, so I wait until fall or winter again, to explore.
What isn’t benign are the other critters that call this place home: coyotes, raccoons, and mountain lions in particular. Once, while on a walk, I discovered mountain lion tracks not far from the house, on the dirt road. There were two goats living here then and everyone kept telling us that the mountain lions would get them eventually, although there are plenty of mule deer for the cats to pursue and eat. The mule deer gather in the yard at sunset and I’ve seen larger herds of them in the pastures near town. We gave the goats away.
Instead, we continued to live with eight hens and a rooster. I’d never been around chickens and the rooster was an entirely new threat because they are hard-wired for aggressive behavior toward anything or anyone considered a threat. He never got me but he tried several times, even when I was scattering scratch feed as a treat. I read up on how to deal with roosters and felt I lacked the courage to pick him up and carry him around in an effort to assert my “alpha” status. Instead, I studied him. Advised against looking him in the eye, I stared into that beady, bright jewel. I watched him feign disinterest in my presence by pretending to forage, always looking at me sideways. I made sure he was never behind me and I usually carried a big stick to push him back, gently but firmly, when he attempted to fly up and get me with his threatening spur.
I watched the way he protected his flock of hens, herding them into bushes for cover when the shadow of a hawk passed overhead. He was always present, always on guard and ready to fight or at least strike at the hand that fed him. There was a small coop that really was not adequate to keep out predators even though my sister had been lucky for a year and nothing ever harmed the chickens. The rooster would crow whenever there was something threatening at 3:00 in the morning. And, he would crow whenever I walked away and he believed he had “won” a battle.
But, one night about two months ago, the benign co-existence with predators turned deadly. We never heard the rooster crow and knowing a rooster will fight to the death to defend his harem, we figured he was the first one dragged from the coop and killed. We knew nothing of what was going on in the dark until the morning arrived and I only counted five hens. I searched for signs of what had occurred but found little: no bodies, no blood, no paw prints in the iced and puddled ground around the coop. I found small groupings of feathers and identified each color with a particular hen except the white one who left no trace. We believe a group of coyotes got them for coyotes take their prey without leaving any sign; there was no other explanation. I was sad that the rooster died for as nasty as he could be, he was also gloriously beautiful to look at with his russet mane of neck feathers that fluffed up when he wanted to attack, the blue-green of black tail feathers when the sunlight struck. I missed his jeweled red eyes that always watched.
The next night another hen was taken, again with no sign. My sister and I had no means to fortify the coop and so we loaded a wheelbarrow over the torn chicken wire, leaned heavy wooden pallets against all possible openings, and boarded up the small entry to the coop with sheets of wood and a stack of logs. It was a bit absurd but we didn’t know what else to do. Since my bedroom window is closest to the coop, I found myself unable to sleep soundly, waking at every sound and peering out the window to try to see what made any noise. It was now two days since the massacre and four hens remained. I saw the biggest raccoon I’ve ever seen approach the coop and I banged on the window to startle it away. I didn’t even know there were raccoons here since there are so few trees.
But it wasn’t a raccoon that killed the first groups of chickens. I read that raccoons are vicious killers that will kill all the chickens, even if not eating them, and only eat parts, leaving carcasses and feathers, a mess. We’ve continued to guard the chicken coop these past two months, knowing that there are still predators who can prevail. The remaining hens are targets for hawks and without their ferocious rooster rounding them up whenever shadows pass overhead, I watch to see if they will huddle out of sight on their own. They are free ranging on the acre here during the day but have somehow managed to remain alive.
My brother-in-law works on the other side of the state and only comes out every few weeks. He scoffed at our overly protective efforts to keep the chickens safe in their coop at night and removed all the wood and wheelbarrow, put down new frames of chicken wire and marked the perimeter of the coop, having been told that human urine would discourage predators. We shall see. But for now, I named the survivors and study them instead of the rooster. They are Boo, Ruby, Skeeter, and Skitter-Scatter. The latter is the perfect example of Chicken Little if only she had a voice to cry that the sky is falling. I like the chickens and must outwit the magpies that steal their eggs. Now, the chickens have taken to hiding their eggs and I am lucky if we get one each day, instead of three. One chicken is peculiar and I’m not sure what it is, a delayed male or what since it does not lay eggs and has small spurs, unlike the others.
I miss the rooster and I miss the noisy conversations I heard each morning when the chickens gathered outside my window. I wish I knew what they were saying. There is an egg song each chicken has for when she’s laid an egg, but I don’t hear those much now, either. I wait and watch, wondering if they will make it through the summer into the hawk season in fall when hawks are migrating. I wonder, too, how I will make it as well. There is beauty here and I appreciate it while I can, but these times are not benign and a healthy respect for the landscape attends every encounter, as do my observations of a rural population that is clinging to a western way of life that may be past its time.