A grasshopper, a chicken and a coyote walk into a bar.
I don’t know the punchline, but I feel like I’m living the joke.
Moving to the country has thrown me into daily contact with the animal kingdom for the first time. Woody Allen once said, “I am at two with nature,” an apt description of my previous state.
It started with pack rats. I was surprised to learn they are actual animals, not just a nickname for humans with hoarding tendencies.
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When I heard about pack rats chewing through a neighbor’s truck wiring and found evidence of rodent nests in outbuildings, I acquired barn cats. Almost everyone here sets out cat food and water to attract the feral felines that roam our town’s abandoned houses and the trees along the creek.
Just this week I flipped on the light in the garage to find a barn cat dining on a freshly killed pack rat. I grinned and said, “Good kitty!” Never would have predicted that a couple years ago.
Wild cats, like their city counterparts, are indifferent to praise and are equally unmoved by my cries of “Bad kitty!” when I find them licking feathers off their paws. In an ironic twist, a 1-year-old tom I named Cat Stevens, after the pacifist singer/songwriter, has turned into a serial songbird assassin.
But he is just doing what comes naturally, performing his role in a vast and complex food chain I am only beginning to understand.
Take the grasshoppers. When they surged in waves into my garden last summer from a neighboring horse pasture and chewed my pole beans down to the stems, the locals said, “Get chickens.”
But packs of coyotes lurk in the surrounding prairie. I asked: Won’t the chickens attract the coyotes, which can kill the cats that eat the rats?
The locals said, “Get a dog to protect the barnyard. Or a donkey.”
By dog they don’t mean a citified pet that goes to professional groomers and wears a raincoat. They mean a hybrid dog you keep around for work and companionship, but lives mostly outdoors.
As much as I’m gone for my job, I’m not ready to take on a dog (or a donkey) but I am going to try chickens. I’ve ordered six chicks from the local feed store where I buy birdseed and cat food.
I’m going to construct chicken-wire tunnels around the garden, so the chickens can patrol for grasshoppers during the day. I’m also building a coop with nesting boxes where I can keep them (hopefully) secure at night.
And if Wile E. and his buddies get too close, I might employ another tried-and-true animal management tool country people use: a gun. A friend who raises goats says firing a shot into the air when the coyotes start to sing is enough to keep them at bay.
I’m game. Because at the end of the day — literally, that is when the coyotes get active — I am at the top of the food chain. I’ve just never had to act on it before.