Have you ever killed anything?
That's a serious (and not the usual tongue-in-cheeky rhetorical) question, demanding a serious answer. And I’m not talking about a flea, or a bad idea in a marketing meeting, or your spouse’s dreams. I mean something red-blooded, breathing, looking you straight in the eye, and then, bam, dead. And how is completely relevant – running over a vole in your driveway with a large, fancy SUV doesn't count, especially if you swerved onto the front lawn and tore up the tulips trying to avoid it. And while we’re on the subject, have you ever seen an animal kill another animal? Rip it to pieces while it was still alive, howling?
When I was living in New York City I had a friend who was raised on a farm in central Illinois – they grew soybeans one year, fallowed the field the following year, corn the next, and so on. But they also raised sheep, some cattle, and chickens. They the prerequisite large vegetable garden that kept them from starving, or going to the grocery store more than once or twice a year. I had never been on a farm, not a real farm anyway, and I remember 2 things that really struck me when I went to visit his.
If I recall correctly almost all farms in Illinois, at least way back when, were 640 acres, and were divided into four 160-acre fields. The house was always in the middle so that it was equidistant to all the fields, with a long, long driveway, which struck me strange since back home in Massachusetts all houses in the old days were placed close to the road - the road at that time was the internet, and they didn’t want to be too far off it.
But the first thing that struck me was that with the Hammersteinian corn as high as an elephant’s eye you couldn’t see anything – not the road, neighbors, nothing. It felt like total isolation. When I walked into the farmhouse, it seemed small, claustrophobic, dark. I was living in NYC at the time, and I had just put in two skylights at great expense to bring more sunshine into my apartment. When Mark took me up to my room on the second floor, I looked out the window and it was like I instantly understood a million mysteries and songs all at once. The wind was gently rippling the tall tassles: amber waves of grain. Of course – from this height, the tablelands were the ocean and all the metaphors and similes applied, and were perfect.
I also immediately understood the small windows, too: when you’re out in the wide-open fields all day you want to come home to find your close comfort and belonging. From my room, I felt like I was on the bridge of a ship, and since the land was flat as far as the eye could see (the highest elevation in the county was 48 feet), the sea illusion was almost uncanny. I would recommend reading Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres if you want a fabulous farmland fable a la King Lear.
Anyway, Mark and I were at a typical Brooklyn party one night when some crunchy salmon fishcake started babbling on and on about the natural world, and cute and fuzzy animals and why couldn’t we get back to nature? Mark turned to her and said something like: "Back to nature? I’ll tell you what nature is – it’s all about killing, morning, noon, and night. Killing all the time, everywhere, all the time." She looked at him in horror, because other than this outburst – his outfit, haircut, address, expensive Gucci eyeglasses – essentially all his liberal bona fides had been in perfect order. “Killing” she said.
“Yes, killing,” Mark said. “Every morning I would get up with my 4 brothers, and we would go out and shoot as many rabbits as we could. If we didn’t, they would decimate our vegetable plot and then we wouldn’t have anything to eat. We’d shoot just about any other varmint, too, except coyotes (the smartest animal on the farm, according to my buddy Ben Hunt), because they eat groundhogs.”
Groundhogs are the bane of every farmer’s existence – each individual whistle pig does at least $50 worth of damage every year to crops. Raccoons, my personal nemesis, account for the majority of the damage to the corn crops, in the millions of dollars, with deer slightly less.
“And then,” Mark said, “we’d hook the pesticide rig up to the tractor and kill millions and millions of rootworms, potato beetles, fusarium and blight. Millions.” The trendy snowflake was aghast. “And then when it was time to butcher the lambs that we were raising, we’d dispatch maybe 1,000 in a weekend, easy. They were docile and dumb as a 2 x 4, and we’d lead them into the makeshift abbatoir we’d set up in one of the barns like, well, lambs to the slaughter. Gutted carcasses would go out the back and onto the truck to market. Blood, and bleeting, and sweat and guts – you’d better have your boots on or you’d drown in the muddy murderous churn. So if you want to know what getting back to nature will get you, that’s a taste.”
Which came first?
I thought about this when I moved to Connecticut and wanted to expose my children to at least a small circle of life. I decided chickens were the best way to do this since they were small and manageable and cheap. We bought 5 chicks to start from Farmer Holbrook up in Bethel, and made a little coop with laying boxes and the whole nine yards. We each got to name one. I named mine after my wife's old boyfriend, and I'd go out and kick it once a day just for, well, kicks. The kids loved the experience, especially when the chicks finally became hens and started laying – we’d go out every morning and it was like Christmas day after day.
Ben Hunt brought this all back to mind at the Black Cat Grille the other day when we were having lunch – he had written a series of blog posts about how the lessons he learned and learns on his gentleman’s farm in Redding apply to managing risk and discerning trends and successfully investing in the markets. His most recent article was about how the smartest animals on the farm weren’t dogs or pigs, but coyotes. He went on to describe the cruel game coyotes played with his dogs, and their ruthlessness when it came to killing, and their legendary cunning, but how ultimately, they failed at the meta-game of suburban survival since they not only didn’t know how to play it, but they didn’t even know it existed.
I’ve had a lot of experience with coyotes, and most other predators, and their signature methods and means, and thought I would share some of these modus operandi with you. Um, modi operandi? But before I forget, you can read Ben’s magnificent blog here: www.epsilontheory.com if you want to find out what meta-game coyotes are losing. I'll give you a hint: it’s against the Fairfield County moms wearing expensive riding boots (not because they’re horsewomen, but because they’re fashionable) in their Range Rovers. After reading him for several years, and becoming good friends, I’ve coined a term that I call the Hunt Paradox: you’re so much smarter after reading his stuff because it’s so informative, interesting and deep. But you’re also so much dumber because you now realize how much you didn’t know you didn’t know.
Our chickens were free range – we’d let them out of the coop during the day, and then they’d go home to roost at night, hence the idiom. One morning I was washing dishes at the kitchen sink when I almost didn’t see a red-tailed hawk swoop down out of nowhere and with talons terrible crash-dive into one of the chickens in the backyard. Feathers flew all over the place like a down pillow had exploded. It was almost comically art-directed, a Three Stooges skit transposed.The hawk then took the chicken up to a low branch in the apple tree and proceeded to eat the whole thing, right in front of my eyes. I was spellbound – able to see, witness, really, for the first time a bird evolve from a dinosaur, a velociraptor a couple of million years removed. The hawk then dropped the carcass and flew away. What also came to mind was the expression “death from above” – the chicken never knew what hit her.
A year or two later I came home to an uproar, pulling into the garage just in time to see a red fox slinking away with a white chicken in its mouth. He paused for a minute, and against the manicured green lawn looked like a William Carlos Williams poem, unrhyming but still magically alliterative. And then he was gone. When I was cutting the grass that weekend I saw the feathers and remains where the fox had had his dinner. For the next month I tried to catch that cunning John Worthington Foulfellow, but he lived up to his reputation and always managed to out-fox me. I had every intention of strangling that thing with my bare hands. About a month later I was coming home from the laundromat and I saw him dead by the side of the road, crushed and dirty, flies hovering. I actually felt empathy, even though I had been trying to kill him for months – that wasn’t the right way for him to die.
Another time I was chaise-lounging on the terrace when I saw one of the chickens, a Rhode Island Red high-tail it past me like the 5:10 to Albequerque, and when I turned around, I saw a six-foot long black racer slithering after it. The chicken got away, but the next day I found her dead in the coop. I thought it was strange that the snake had killed it – I couldn’t imagine how. I asked my next-door neighbor Sal, an old-school Italian who had lived here his whole life, and he took a look. He said the snake didn’t kill the chicken, a fisher cat had. I had never heard of a fisher cat. Have you?
From Wikipedia: The fisher (Pekania pennanti) is a small carnivorous mammal native to North America. It is a member of the mustelid family (commonly referred to as the weasel family) and is in the monospecific genus Pekania. The fisher is closely related to but larger than the American Marten (Martes americana). The fisher is a forest-dwelling creature whose range covers much of the boreal forest in Canada to the northern United States. Names derived from aboriginal languages include pekan, pequam, wejack, and woolang. It is also called a fisher cat, although it is nota feline.
It’s disconcerting but fascinating to see instinct in action, or almost in action, and not know what’s going on exactly. I was splitting wood one day when the neighbor’s german shepard came into the yard, which he never did because he has an electronic fence around his, but nonetheless he somehow managed to escape. He went right after one of the chickens, and finally after much hullabaloo grabbed the bird. The chicken was squawking and flapping its wings wildly, but the dog, Max, I think his name was, didn’t quite know what to do next. He looked slightly puzzled, and just stood there. He then clamped down a bit harder and started to head for home, chicken in mouth, where presumably he’d figure things out, when I grabbed him by the scruff of the butt and freed the bird, slightly worse for the wear, but alive. I told him to go home – there’d be no supper for him tonight.
Opossums, groundhogs, rabbits, skunks and squirrels aren’t interested in chickens. Neither are deer, obviously, or bears. Coyotes are, but they are the skittishest animals I’ve ever seen. There was a three-legged one who lived in the nature preserve behind the house and I only saw him twice out of the corner of my eye, fleetingly, in ten years. I’ve heard packs of coyotes howling from time to time, which I’ve written about in another blog post, and the sound is astounding and so, so loud. From the Adirondack Almanack:
When people hear coyote howls, they often mistakenly assume that they’re hearing a large pack of animals, all raising their voices at once. But this is an auditory illusion called the “beau geste” effect. Because of the variety of sounds produced by each coyote, and the way sound is distorted as it passes through the environment, two of these tricksters can sound like seven or eight animals.
Group yip-howls are produced by a mated and territorial pair of “alpha” coyotes, with the male howling while the female intersperses her yips, barks, and short howls. “Beta” coyotes (the children of the alpha pair from previous years) and current year pups may join in if they are nearby, or respond with howls of their own. And once one group of coyotes starts howling, chances are that any other alpha pairs nearby will respond in kind, with chorus after chorus of group yip-howls rippling across the miles.
Which brings me to my personal and professional nemesis: raccoons. They are the Nazis of the night – methodically genocidal with a brutality that’s actually quite impressive from a certain angle. The first experience I had with raccoons was when I went out to get eggs one morning with the kids – I could see as we approached the coop that I had forgotten to latch the door and there was silence inside. I sent the kids back to the house and went into the coop. The first thing that came to mind was the Manson murder depicted in the movie Helter Skelter, which I made the mistake of watching alone one night when I was about 12 and am still psychologically recovering from to this day.
All the chickens were killed; all the eggs smashed. One chicken’s guts were eaten through the Parson’s Nose, or pygostyle for all you biologists out there. But everything else was basically just left for dead for no reason – not hunger or defense or territoriality – just for sport. I thought what a brutal MO: kill and wreck everything with extreme prejudice, and then walk away. I declared war, and took extra precautions to protect my flock, especially making sure they were secure every night. They were.
Since everything’s fine for the time being, I think I’ll go off topic a little and tell you what happened when one of the chickens turned out to be a rooster. All of the stories you’ve heard about “cocks” are absolutely and beautifully true. Have you ever heard a cock cock-a-doodle-doo? In real life, I mean. They don’t do it once or twice at sunrise to wake you up romantically like in the movies. The cacophony starts about 3 a.m., and continues for hours. And it’s loud. Really, really loud. It makes Foghorn Leghorn sound like he’s telling you a secret. I’m not kidding. It’s super unbelievably loud. And the trumpeting continues throughout the day. It doesn’t end, ever.
And they strut. They hen-peck the others into submission, and I don’t mean a light love tap – I’m talking about an aggressive beak jackhammering on the top of the victim’s comb and the plucking out of feathers that spurts blood all over the place. The pecking order is absolutely Darwinian and hard to watch, but irresistible in a train-wreck, rubbernecking sort of way. I can now imagine the glazed-eyes attraction of a cock fight.
At one point we had about 7 chickens and way too many eggs, so my neighbor Sal, who I mentioned previously, would come over and take some for himself. I later found out he would then sell them to his 90-year-old mother, but that’s another story. I met her once, and she asked me if I was the one who had the cockerel. I didn’t understand the word at first, but then said yes. I thought she was going to complain because the town has a sound ordinance. She looked at me and said with a smile: “I haven’t heard one of those in years.”
Anyway, we had to take Henry behind the woodshed, so-to-speak, because the noise started to get ridiculous, and sure enough the hatchet on the stump and the running around with the head cut off really happens. I made the classic French coq-au-vin slow-cooked in a crockpot out of him and it was another delightful and delicious cliché come true.
So, back to Rocky and his rag-goons. Since there wasn't any trouble for a long time, even though one night I chased him up a tree with a clamming rake – you don’t want to know the details of that fiasco – I let my guard down and began to feel harmonious, one with nature in a naïve, Rousseauian way. Anyhow, it was spring and we had just gone to the farm to pick up some chicks which we brought back and put in the coop. We had the automatic waterer and a heat lamp and special pellets for them and the whole shebang. I kept the coop door closed and didn’t let them out at all – Farmer Holbrook told me to keep them safely locked up for about 2 or 3 more weeks.
One morning I went out to check on them and I didn’t hear any cheeping as I approached. I had built a small outdoor pen, enclosed with chicken wire (what else?), and as I got closer I could see they were all right up against the fence, dead. I couldn’t believe it – I checked the coop door and it was locked. I took a harder look and figured out what happened: one of the raccoons had gone to the other side of the enclosure and scared them to this side, where his buddy reached in and strangled them all to death. And then just left them there. That’s nature for all of you Disneyfied romantics in a bloody nutshell– a bunch of baby chicks with their necks wrung by two indifferent, mischievous and malevolent raccoons.
You’re probably thinking is he going to finish the blog with such a gruesome, unhappy ending? No, I’m not. Just to put this carnage into a bit of perspective, there are 22 million chickens killed per day for food worldwide, so my unfortunate few don’t even register a bleeping blip on the radar. 22 million is a lot of chook chook chook if you know what I mean. Per day.
To answer my own rhetorical question: yes, Rocky and his black-masked friends met timely or untimely ends, depending on how you look at it. We always honor the wildlife we hunt, whether they be fish or fowl, by eating every part of them. Raccoons are the exception. We put their lovely, fur-coated carcasses out in the woods and heard the coyotes yipping with glee that night.