Miss Houdinis Close Call

Author Photo
By Pam Tinnin

I’m back after a long absence from blogging – extra responsibilities here at Laurelwood and in my other work. Then Christmas week arrived and most things were put on hold except absolutely necessary chores – feeding and watering stock and chickens, water problems, and bringing in wood. We had company most of the week, an old friend from San Diego for five days plus nine around the table for Christmas dinner. Now we feel like we’re more behind than usual, but as an old farmer from Kentucky told me, “What don’t get done today, will be waitin’ there tomorrow.”

So yesterday we were back at it. Before leaving for errands in town, I cleaned the chicken coop and pruned the antique rose bush, the one supposedly a long ago gift from Luther Burbank himself. While I worked, I thought of how a few days before Christmas, one of our young hens managed to elude an early death. I’ve named her Miss Houdini because she, too, is an escape artist. Usually that’s not a problem because when you find her wandering, she comes right to your feet and squats to be picked up.

On Monday before Christmas, I was inside making cookies when my visiting son asked what the chickens were fussing about. I blithely said, “Oh, one probably just laid an egg.” Jubal wandered over to the kitchen sink for a drink and suddenly shouted, dropped the glass, and ran outside yelling, “Red tail hawk.” I stumbled after him, also yelling. Miss Houdini was huddled under a tree in the midst of a tangle of limbs, holding tight to a branch, a large array of feathers scattered on the ground all around her.

The hawk was making another pass, trying to snatch the hen when Jubal threw a large wood chunk. The bird made a wide, sweeping circle about a foot above the yard, rose over the redwood trees and disappeared to the north. Except for looking a bit bedraggled with somewhat skimpy feathers, Miss Houdini seemed no worse for wear. Once back with her coop mates, she briskly fluffed up her remaining feathers and seemed to strut a bit with the excitement of her adventure.

Predators are a part of life here. We have coyotes, weasels, raccoons, bobcats, foxes, and occasionally, a mountain lion. Eight summers ago we lost five market lambs to a cougar, four in one night, one a week later. The lambs were killed so near our house that the federal trapper warned us not to go out at night. Because we have three drive-through gates on our road, that was impossible – stop, get out, open the gate, get back in, drive through, get out, close the gate. On the nights I returned to the ranch after dark, I played country music really loud on my car radio, hoping the noise would keep danger at a distance.

Eventually the trapper caught the young female a mere 50 feet from our back door. I mourn the animals we lose to predators, but I also love the wild creatures and recognize that they are only following natural instinct. Besides, we are the invaders, the ones who continually push the boundaries of wilderness farther and farther back.

So how do we protect our animals causing the least harm to the wild ones? For us, it was a matter of predator-proofing our largest barn and barning our sheep at night. (We put heavy wire stock fencing over all openings.) We thought our hens were well protected inside a pen constructed of cyclone fencing sunk in concrete and several layers of chicken wire covering the top. Sad to say, we learned the hard way that they were not safe and secure. One morning not long ago I found half of them dead, eviscerated by a weasel. Now they, too, are put in at night inside a wooden coop with doors and windows closed

But the richness of our days includes all these experiences, whether joy-filled or the ones that leave our hearts heavy. Living in close relationship to the natural world is nothing less than a wonder. After we completed Christmas dinner, feeling full and somewhat dazed, I was glad when someone suggested a walk. Five of us made our way to the upper end of the ranch, walking the mile from my mother-in-law’s door and back.

When we reached the highest point, we stood there gazing south towards San Francisco, 90 miles distant and hidden behind several ridges. One of our Christmas guests, a first-time visitor, asked, “Do you realize how lucky you are to live here?” Certainly most of the time I do and even when I’m too distracted by work and the responsibilities of all that needs to be done, something will remind me.

Those times come when I least expect them. Just below our driveway one night, a fox crossed the road in the light of my headlights, looked back once with shining eyes before lightly springing over the berm to disappear in the darkness. In my first winter here, when it snowed, my husband taught me that an old car hood makes a fine sled, me squealing like I was 12 again. Standing in the yard one warm summer evening I saw the northern lights, my first and only time to see that rare and mysterious sight. Lucky? Fortunate? Blessed? Oh, yes…

Published on Dec 31, 2013