Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Owls and Snakes and Sam, Sam The Happy Hound

Someone once said “Nature abhors a vacuum” and from what I could tell about her housekeeping skills, so did my ex-wife. There are times I’ve wonder exactly why some of the creatures around my property do what they do and from a human perspective it doesn’t make sense at all, but looking at it from the point of view of wildlife, perhaps it does.
The first time my property flooded my backyard became littered with dead Cottonmouths. The previous couple of years Bert and Sam had lived in peace with the venomous snakes but one night I wound up having to make an attempt at killing one before it took a shot at Bert, and from that point on the mutts declared war. For two seasons they were able to come in the backyard and not get killed by dogs, and they learned that. The third season was the wet one, and coincidently the same season I tried to kill one. Since then they haven’t come in the yard in any kind of numbers. Somehow they have learned when dogs are going to kill them, a concept that seems to have escaped armadillos.
You might think dogs are at a disadvantage against a venomous snake but you would be very wrong. A snake has one thing, and one thing only and that’s two very small fangs that cannot get through very furry parts of a dog, like Bert’s neck. Most dogs are bitten through ambush and accident, and on the leg which is a serious bite. A dog attacking a snake that gets zapped on the nose is going to suffer but because the blood vessels in the face do not run deep, the dog has a very good chance of living through it. Conversely, a snake hasn’t got the endurance a dog has. After a couple of minutes of trying to keep a dog away from him, a snake is going to tire, and one of the strikes is going to take a split second longer to recover from than it normally does. The dog is going to rush in, grab the snake by the neck, and shake it to death in a matter of seconds. As dangerous as it sounds, I have seen this too many times to count and have never seen a dog get bit. Against a pair of dogs accustomed to hunting as a team there isn’t a snake on earth I would put money on winning. This isn’t to say a dog cannot be killed by a snake, it’s just the odds favor the larger, faster, and warm blooded predator in this case.
So why on earth would a Cottonmouth come into the yard to begin with? I couldn’t figure that one out for a while. But as the pond was flooded the water in the pond was deeper, presenting a home for gators, which eat snakes. As the pond spread out it became wider and more shallow in the area around it, present a better hunting ground for pond birds, which eat small snakes. My back yard was, for a time, the lesser of evils. Now there are fewer snakes using Sam’s hunting ground as a refuge which if nothing else I’ve said is convincing, the fact they would take their chances elsewhere should.

For the longest time I couldn’t figure out why a large barn owl was tormenting the mutts. At first he was just running them around the backyard, and largely I thought it was an accident, until I figured out why it might benefit an owl to have a dog, or two, chase him. The owl will land in one of the trees close to the house, get the dogs excited, then fly out into the woods, which are still fenced in, and the dogs give chase. The owls then lands somewhere near, in a tree, hoots a few times, and the dogs, once again give chase. Then the owl flies outside the fence leaving the dogs rushing back and forth in the fenced in area, which is more than an acre, looking for the owl.
So how does this doing anything for the owl?

The dogs’ frantic search for the owl tramples the underbrush and any prey animals looking to hide there get flushed. The owl knows the dogs aren’t watching where they rush, and so they aren’t as likely to pick off prey the owl may have chased inside the fence to begin with.

I’ve seen Sam and owls use each other to scare up rats. I lit a large bonfire before dawn one day and the rats that had been hiding in the brush had to make a run for it or fry. Quickly, they realized Sam was there, and just as quickly they realized he wasn’t everywhere at once. Several made it to the fence and as I listened I heard the hooting of owls as they closed in. They knew the fire would chase rodents into the dark, and they knew nothing small and furry was staying inside the fence. This was before the Loki Mutt, and honestly, rats are beneath Bert’s notice. Sam had a field day. For every one that made a break for it and lived, another was pounced on by Sam, who flirted with getting burned a couple of times. For each one who made it into the shadows, another made the squealing Death Song of a rodent feeling death by air. I heard the sound of something small in the underbrush, and the hiss of a raptor missing its prey, and a rat charged back into the light, and Sam nailed it instantly. Like birds and tuna chasing tiny fish into a bait ball, Sam and the owls were herding the rats into a tight circle of death.
Nature abhors a vacuum. Where there is life there is prey, and some predator will fill in any emptiness. We human would do well to remember we do not exist safe within the safety of the fire, or outside the dark of the night.

Take Care,
Mike

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