Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Bling! What to do with a banded dove

Dove season starts Wednesday, and I think most of us hunters would be thrilled just to get a limit of these tasty little birds.

But what if you get a little extra somethin' somethin' in your bag, a little bling on the bird's leg?

That's simple: Report it! Just read the number off the band (you'll need reading glasses if you're over 40 like me), and report it at reportband.gov.

Hundreds - if not thousands - of volunteers all over the country spent their summer trapping and banding mourning doves so that we can learn more about these birds. The data we collected when we trapped them was only the first part of the equation - when and where the birds meet their end is when all the data comes together, but only if the band data gets reported.

If you're really lucky, you may get a reward band, which gives you cash for reporting it. We haven't put reward bands on doves in California for four years, but while most doves live short lives, it's entirely possible that some will live four or more years. (We learned during our banding training that someone once recovered a 32-year-old banded dove - astonishing!)

So, what else should you do with your banded dove? Eat it, of course!

I know a lot of people like to breast out their doves, but I strongly recommend dressing them whole, which takes about 2.3 seconds per bird, so you don't waste a bit of that tasty meat. (Really, the legs are the best part.)

To dress a dove, pluck the body and legs, clip off the head and wings with kitchen shears, clip off the tail to open the body cavity, then insert two fingers to scoop out the innards. Rinse, and you're done.

To cook them ... well, you know me, Boyfriend does all the cooking in our house, so I recommend you click over to his dove recipes.

My favorite - shown in the photo here - is Grilled Dove a la Mancha. The short version is that you salt the bird, stuff the body cavity with bay and sage leaves, paint the skin with bacon fat, grill, paint some more, dust with smoked paprika and serve (click through to the recipe for complete details). It tastes so good you'll never want to breast out this little bird again.

Have a great season!

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Nugent deer poaching case file: What it says, and what it doesn't say

The news accounts last week of the Ted Nugent deer poaching case left many hunters wanting more information. Because I live within an hour of where the case was prosecuted, I decided to go check out the case file myself.

In case you missed it, news broke last week that Nugent had pleaded no contest to two charges stemming from a TV show he did about hunting blacktail deer here in Northern California. What got the most attention was the accusations that he'd killed a spike buck (neither antler forked), and that he'd hunted over bait. Although both of those things are entirely consistent with Nugent's style of hunting, neither is legal here in California. Read more...
In discussions here on my own blog, and on others as well (Hog Blog, Thinking Hunter and Othmar Vohringer), some of the biggest questions I had were these: Would Ted Nugent knowingly televise a hunt if he knew he'd done something illegal in it? While hunters are responsible for learning the laws of the lands where they hunt, did this case also point to a failure of Nugent's California guides to let him know he was doing something wrong? And what happens to a guide who participates in an illegal hunt?

My take at the time was that Nugent would not knowingly put an illegal hunt on television. He's pretty wacky, but he couldn't possibly be that stupid. Could he? I also thought any guide who'd let an illegal hunt happen on his watch should have his guide license revoked.

So what did I learn from the case file? First, it does not appear that either of the men working with Nugent on the hunt is or was a licensed guide. Neither of them is on the state's list of licensed guides. But one of them - Mitch Moore (whom Nuge referred to on the show as "camera dude") - is a taxidermist and I'm pretty sure there isn't a taxidermist in this state who doesn't know that a buck has to have at least three points to be legal.

Here's the part of the case file, though, that really caught my eye. In the investigation summary by Lt. John D. Laughlin (himself a lifelong hunter), he describes Nugent's "Spirit of the Wild" episode featuring his blacktail hunts:

Generally, when hunters take pictures or video of game they have taken, they take some pains to display the antler size or characteristics; in other video I have seen of Mr. Nugent on his television show, he almost always follows this general pattern. With respect to the spike buck on the video however, after the deer is dead, Mr. Nugent approaches the buck, partially conceals the upper portion of the antler and describes it, in part, as a forked horn buck; unlike the other two deer shown being taken on the 02/09/10 television show there is no close up of the spike buck's head. (Click on the image to see the actual excerpt.)

I cannot for the life of me find this video on the Internet, which seems bizarre. But I did find this screen shot of the show from a raging debate about the show on the Jesse's Hunting & Outdoors forum:


Yeah, it looks like a spike buck, but the shot is so grainy you can't really tell. Is that grass in the background, or a fork in one of the antlers?

Or does it matter, given the behavior the warden describes? Not showing the full antlers seems pretty odd - like Nugent knows he's got something to hide, which seems to address that big question I had: Would Nugent knowingly put an illegal hunt on TV?

Yet Nugent was not convicted on the spike buck charge. He pleaded no contest - which means, "I'm not fighting it, but nor am I admitting guilt" - to charges of baiting ($1,225 fine) and failing to follow the California rule that you have to find some sort of officer to countersign your deer tag after killing a deer ($525 fine).

"Camera dude" was convicted of and fined $700 for unlawful possession of animal part(s) taken in violation of the Fish and Game Code (not sure exactly what, but the search warrant evidence inventory from his house does include "6 x 8 deer antlers"). Ross Patterson, the guy whose family property they hunted, was nailed on the baiting charge too, getting hit with a $1,225 fine.

The baiting violations, for what it's worth, appeared to be pretty clear. "The video on the 02/09/2010 television show depicts deer licking the dirt, which deer do not normally do," Lt. Laughlin wrote in his investigation summary. He also noted that Nugent's show is sponsored by C'Mere Deer, a product that bills itself as a "revolutionary deer attractant."

It's worth noting that C'Mere Deer's own website says "some states' game laws may prohibit the use of an attractant. We encourage each individual to know their local and state game laws to ensure if it is legal to use C'Mere Deer products where he or she desires to hunt or apply it."

But what about the spike charge? Why no conviction there? That's one of the things that really riles up hunters here because we can easily hunt for days without seeing a legal buck. The idea that we have to pass on spikes, and that maybe Nugent didn't, really grates on our nerves.

The problem is that the case was resolved with a plea bargain - it did not go to trial. Does that mean the state's case on the spike buck charge wasn't strong enough? Or was the state eager to resolve the case at minimal expense, even if it could've gotten a conviction on the spike buck charge?

We may never know the answers.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The ultimate women's hunting class

If you're a California woman who wants to give hunting a try, it's time to sign up for the very best women's hunting class I've ever heard of: California Waterfowl's Women's Hunting Camp. It's Sept. 25-26 at the Birds Landing Hunting Preserve, near Suisun Marsh in the Bay Area.

What makes this class so great? Read more...
Convenience. You take care of the hunter education requirement, shooting instruction, licensing and your first hunt all in one weekend. It took me about two months to get from hunter education to my first hunt. If you're a procrastinator, this is your dream - no room for procrastination at this camp.

Low risk. Cal Waterfowl can provide a shotgun if you don't have one, so you don't have to make that huge investment before giving hunting a try. (Yeah, it was with some trepidation that I dropped $1,000 on my Beretta 391 before having ever fired a shotgun at anything, much less game.) If you try it and decide you don't enjoy hunting, you haven't wasted money on a gun you won't use.

Affordability. This weekend costs participants $175, plus paying $15-20 for the online hunter education study that you have to do before you get there (this advance study is required no matter how you do hunter ed). This fee includes license ($41.50), upland game stamp ($8.40), shooting instruction (costs you at least $50-60 an hour elsewhere), and an actual hunt (one hunt club I know charges $80 for a hunt in which you can take up to three pheasants, and that's on the cheap side).

Impact. You will be set to hunt after this, and you will meet other women who want to hunt, or who already hunt (like me - I'll be there). That proud duck hunter you see in the photo above? That's Alison, a grad of last year's camp, and my new duck hunting buddy.

So, ladies, what are you waiting for? You need to sign up ASAP - Cal Waterfowl can't leave registration open until last minute because of the advance hunter ed study requirement.

Click here for forms and instructions (scroll down to find this event), and here to register (make sure you click on the women's event - $175.)

If you'd like to talk with someone about it to learn more before signing up, contact George Oberstadt at Cal Waterfowl, 916-648-1406, Ext.142. Tell him I sent you! UPDATE: George is also happy to have you call his cell, 916-275-0961.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010


Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Nuge nabbed for deer poaching in Cali

What. The. Hell.

I remember reading about this on a forum a couple months ago: Ted Nugent did a deer hunt in California and put it on his TV show, and Cali hunters were all abuzz because the episode showed him killing a spike buck (illegal here) over what looked like bait (also illegal here).

I didn't see the show, but apparently a couple California game wardens did, and now comes the news that Nuge has pleaded no contest to misdemeanor poaching charges. Read more...
Dude! What were you thinking???

Of course, some of the first comments I read on the Sacramento Bee's story (before stopping in disgust), criticized the Bee for picking on Nuge, and "Kalifornia" for having such restrictive laws. Way to show your inner caveman, guys.

The fact is, the rules are the rules. We're all responsible for knowing the rules before we hunt. And someone who's going to televise his hunt is doubly responsible.

(And not for nothing, but one of the reasons we have restrictive rules is that this is not whitetail country. Our deer are NOT that abundant. In fact, we've seen a decline in parts of our blacktail population over the past 20 years.)

Now, I can see how Nuge would get into this bind: This is the way he hunts all the time. That doesn't excuse him for not familiarizing himself with our laws, but it does show that the hunt was nothing out of the ordinary for him.

What boggles my mind is that his guide, who does live in California, not only let those violations happen, but let them happen on film. That's just flat out stupid. If you live in this state, you can't not know that it's illegal to bait, and illegal to kill spikes.

The larger problem is that this contributes to the non-hunting public's impression that we're all a bunch of poachers. If a guide and a rock/hunting TV star break laws brazenly, then what must the ordinary hunters do?

Sigh.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Monday, August 16, 2010

Wow: Rebecca O'Connor IS good luck!

Normally I don't put much stock in good luck charms, but my friend Rebecca O'Connor has forced me to reconsider my skepticism.

It started last spring when Boyfriend, Rebecca and I went to a duck dinner with our friend Jim, his son and his son's friend. When the festivities began and the emcee started pulling raffle tickets out of the barrel, our table started winning guns.

First Jim. Then Jim's son. Then Jim's son's friend.

Rebecca looked at me coyly and said, "I'm good luck."

Yeah yeah yeah. Read more...
Then Jim won another gun, and then I won a gun. Boyfriend won one after that too, but for reasons I'll never understand, he swapped it for a nice bottle of tequila instead.

Does good luck follow Rebecca? Not necessarily - there's always that table at every duck dinner, the table that wins tons of stuff. I wasn't convinced it was Rebecca.

Then one day late last month, she came over to our house for a spur-of-the-moment dinner.

Dinner hour is right when the dove-banding action gets hot around here, and I did not cease my front-yard trapping and banding activities just because company was here. Besides, Rebecca's a falconer - she gets the obsession with birds.

I'd been trapping about one dove a day since my banding had gotten rolling, but that evening, something crazy happened.

It started normally enough: Doves started working my traps, and when one went in, I went out and banded it. It was a little young-of-the-year dove.

I re-set my trap and went back inside and I'll be damned if 20 minutes later I didn't have another youngun. I clamped a band on its cute little leg, re-set the trap and went back inside.

And 20 minutes later, I had yet another dove, this one a beautiful mature male.

When I came back into the house, Rebecca reminded me that she was good luck. This time I believed her.

"You can't leave until sundown, when it's too late to trap," I told her.

Twenty minutes later, I was on the verge of a record fourth dove walking into the trap when we spied one of the neighbor cats, Allie, putting a stalk on my babies. I flung the door open and shouted, "Fly away!" The birds left, the cat looked deflated, and Rebecca laughed at me and announced she was seizing the opportunity to go home.

Well, after that, my dove action ground to a halt. I got four birds in the next five days, then NOTHING. I'm even seeing a fair number of un-banded doves (read: not educated about the trap) in my yard, but they've just become incredibly wary.

Oh my God, not only is Rebecca good luck, but she takes it with her when she leaves!

So now I'm left trying to figure out what to do.

Should I invite Rebecca over for dinner this week so I can get a few more doves before the trapping season ends at sunset on Friday?

But wait. What if Rebecca is only good luck for any one person three times - should I waste that third time on dove banding? I mean, I'll need a lot more luck when I go blacktail deer hunting in October with my buddy Phillip from the Hog Blog. Maybe I should invite her deer hunting instead.

Or maybe duck hunting!

I went out with Rebecca once last winter when she was hunting ducks with her peregrine, Anakin, and I can tell you I did not give her good luck that day. (The feathers you see here in Anakin's mouth are the remains of the consolation prize of the day, an already dead something-or-other fished out of Rebecca's pocket - yum!)

But maybe if I get Rebecca in a blind on my turf - the land of shotguns - maybe I'll have one of those epic days. Hell, I might even have to hand her the shotgun.

Or, I could take her with me when I buy a lottery ticket. Then I could buy a duck club!

Hey, Rebecca, you busy this week?

© Holly A. Heyser 2010


Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Fall gear lust: Hunting stuff for women, waterfowlers and crazy people

It's time. The light is changing ever so slightly, the breeze is taking on a more earnest feel, and the first leaves have started diving off the trees and whirling around in the yard.

Yep, it's time for all the fall hunting catalogs to arrive!

I actually have a stack of unread hunting magazines and catalogs about two feet high, but for some reason - maybe the weather? - a couple new arrivals caught my eye yesterday, and I found all sorts of intriguing stuff.

The first thing I noticed wasn't something I necessarily needed, but I immediately thought of Jody at The Hunter's Wife. It would be the perfect revenge for the horrible way Mark scared her the other day. Behold:

What, we hunt cows now?

No, silly, it's the Confidence Cow Decoy! The photo in the Cabela's catalog is even better than this one, because it's got a hunter in a field holding his gun and a bunch of dead geese, with a fake cow standing behind him.

I guess the idea is that you can hide behind it, or move closer to unsuspecting waterfowl while holding it in front of you like a shield.

But me, I'm thinking it would be really cool to just put it right outside my office at school.

Finally a power tool for me!

What, you don't get it yet? It's a bird plucker!

Plucking ducks is one of my least favorite tasks, but I refuse to skin them or breast them out, because Homey don't cook that way. And seriously, I don't believe in wasting yummy skin or meat.

I've hunted at clubs with pluckers and I've always been told they were expensive, but this thing costs $30. Does it work? I have no idea. But I salute the inventor.

Meeting the need for speed

I did a double-take when I saw the newest steel shot from Remington: Hypersonic Steel, advertised to fly out of your barrel at 1700 feet per second.

As is always the case with interesting new shotgun ammo for waterfowlers, the stuff is 12 gauge only at this point. Lucky for me, I just switched to a 12 gauge this year - woot! I may buy a box of this just to check it out. At $20 to $28 a box it's not the cheapest, but it's still cheaper than my fave, Hevi Shot.

And now for the chick stuff

In the four short years I've been hunting, it seems the selection of women's hunting clothing has grown exponentially. Here are just a couple highlights for fall hunting:

Prois Eliminator series

As a member of the Prois field staff, this waterproof jacket is the item I'm looking forward to most this year.

I don't need it for deer hunting - for the most part, our deer seasons in Cali are over before it gets cool, much less wet. I'm getting this for duck hunting.

I know, I know - it's not a duck jacket. But there are precious few duck jackets out there for women, and I heard from one of my friends at Prois that this one works well in the marsh.

Cold-weather Cazadora Waders

All right, ladies, when Cabela's unveiled the Cazadora women's waders last year in 3mm neoprene, all the waterfowling women in the colder regions of the country said, "Not warm enough!"

This year, you get your wish - the same Cazadora waders design, but in 5mm neoprene with cozy 1000g Thinsulate boots. Click on the photo for more details.

And if you're a mild-climate duck huntress who hasn't gotten the original Cazadora waders yet, the good news is they're on sale for 25 percent off - $160. Just click here. (And yes, the name is not a coincidence - I helped do product testing on these waders two seasons ago.)

More upland and shooting clothing from Filson

Filson has really expanded its women's hunting line since it was introduced back in 2008. One new item this year is the SPF30 women's shooting shirt. I don't have it yet, but I have its non-SPF predecessor and love it - it's very well designed for maximum movement, with pleated elbows and back. The construction is also very strong.

The only shortcoming is that the shooting patches are just patches of fabric - there's no sleeve for inserting a recoil pad. Given that recoil-pad inserts are all over the newest Filson catalog, I'm hoping they'll get around to adding that feature to this shirt.

* * * * * * * * *

OK, so now you know what I did last night when I should've been sleeping.

What can I say? I'm ready to get rolling with fall hunting, but it's August, so catalog window-shopping will have to do.

To read my gear review disclosures and policies, click here.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Monday, August 9, 2010

Think plants aren't sentient? Read this book and think some more.

This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill - the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill - you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.

- Morpheus to Neo, the Matrix

That's one of my favorite lines from my favorite movie ever. I love it because the protagonist, Neo, is about to find out how things are really working on his planet, and he will never be the same after his journey down the rabbit hole.

In an odd way, I feel like I've been on the same journey ever since I started hunting. I have devoured book after book in search of understanding. Why do I hunt? Why do I love hunting? Why do I intensely crave an old way of life that hunting evokes? What is it that we're missing in lives of such obvious abundance?


One book leads to another. Earlier this summer, I read Lierre Keith's Vegetarian Myth, which is an indictment not just of the vegetarian/vegan diet, but of agriculture itself, a system that has led to overpopulation and a host of degenerative diseases that were entirely uncommon among hunter-gatherers.

Keith extensively quoted Stephen Harrod Buhner's Lost Language of Plants on the subject of plant sentience, in part to prove her point that you can't eat without killing something. Just because plants don't have faces doesn't mean they're not worthy of respect.

Even though it was clear to me that Buhner's book had absolutely nothing to do with hunting, I was so intrigued had to get it. And now that I've finished reading the book, it's safe to say I see the world very differently.

Before I go any further, though, I need to warn you right now that this book requires a very open mind. It frequently comes off so hippie-dippie that I can practically smell the patchouli wafting from its pages. If you know me, you know I'm not prone to buying into anything hippie. I mock the endearing naivetes of the 1960s, I hate going to Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, and I never liked the Grateful Dead.

But...

But this book is amazing.

The overarching theme is that humans' relationship with plants used to be a close one: We relied on plants for medicines and spiritual insights and we did pretty well with that. But modern science has displaced plant medicines, flooding our bodies and the environment with a sea of refined and potent chemicals that actively hurt our health. Meanwhile, the plants that can help us are pushed further and further to the edge - to the edge of our memory, and sometimes over the edge of extinction.

Buhner's take is that plants, though they are not blessed with locomotion or an obvious sense of speed, are quite sophisticated in their production of chemicals. They produce chemicals to help themselves and other plants. They produce chemicals to attract and help insects. They produce chemicals that can alleviate our ills (the ordinary kind that preceded the degenerative ills of civilization).

Moreover, he contends, they produce chemicals very specifically in response to these needs. If a need is determined, plants can move chemicals from one to another to another across a network of intersecting plant roots and mycelial threads (think mushroom roots). For example, researchers have studied what happens when you girdle trees - cutting away a ring of bark around the trunk. If they're isolated and disconnected from other trees and plants, they die within a year. If they're in a network of trees and plants, they live for years longer.

Still with me? The rabbit hole goes deeper.

Buhner points out that the old cultures that had close relationships with plants share common stories about plants. For example, when you ask the healers in these tribes where they got their knowledge of which plants offer what medicinal benefits, they say consistently that it was the plants who told them.

Sometimes this communication happens in dreams. Which sounds really crazy until Buhner points out that identification of the double helix structure of DNA came to its discoverer in a dreamlike state.

Other times, someone with a need will be drawn to a plant that has something the person needs. Which sounds really, really crazy until you think about insects can be drawn to very specific plants by infinitesimal amounts of aromatic chemicals put out by the plants.

So maybe it's not crazy?

Buhner paints a picture of plants as largely benevolent parents (parents because they preceded us by hundreds of millions of years) that work actively, and deliberately, to take care of us and everything around them.

Now, as mystical as some of this sounds, a lot of this book is deeply rooted in science (and yes, it's footnoted). In fact, there are a couple terrifying chapters that portray how grotesquely we're screwing up the balance of the planet, not just with the obvious things like industrial pollution, but with the enormous amount of chemicals and crap we put into our waste system - the pharmaceuticals we urinate, the hair products we rinse off, the antibiotics.

Especially the antibiotics.

The stories he tells about bacteria are terrifying. Apparently, when exposed to modern antibiotics, bacteria have a mind-boggling capacity to produce substances - self-replicating plasmids - that not only make themselves resistant to antibiotics, but that they can rapidly share with other bacteria that have never come in contact with said antibiotics.

Here's a fun story Buhner tells: Six groups of 50 chickens were placed in cages on a farm, four cages in a barn, two just outside. Half the chickens were given antibiotics in their food. Within 36 hours, those chickens' feces contained antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Not long after that, the chickens that didn't get antibiotics also had feces with the antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Within three months, all the chickens had fecal bacteria that were also resistant to three other antibiotics they'd never been given.

After five months, a nearby farm family that had no contact with the chickens had feces with bacteria resistant to the original drug given to the chickens. A month after that, the family's fecal bacteria were resistant to five other antibiotics.

A similar study that took place over a longer term found that after about two years, the antibiotic-resistant bacteria had moved into the entire surrounding community of humans.

Plant medicines don't cause bacteria to develop resistance to so much at such a terrifying rate. That's something we've caused with our attempts to improve on nature. Yay humans!

So, uh, yeah, we're really messing up. And Buhner's chapters detailing what we're doing wrong are really, really depressing.

Fortunately, the book takes a very positive turn and even recommends some specific -albeit weird - steps people can take to reconnect with plants.

If you wanted to pick a bone with Buhner, I think the strongest argument you could make is to attack his contention that plants respond to our needs deliberately, with sentience.

I can totally buy that plants contain and produce a wide variety of chemicals that have been vital to our existence, and that our decision to replace them with refined chemicals is the height of arrogance. Plant fertilizer is a good example: Someone decided plants needed nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus, and nothing else, so that's how we fertilize plants, taking away the myriad other substances in soil that actually served important purposes as well (The Omnivore's Dilemma addresses this topic beautifully).

I can even buy that plants have ways of directing us to them through means we don't understand yet - sending out minute quantities of chemicals that meet needy receptors in our brains.

But are the plants saying, in their own plant way, "Holly, you look like you've got PMS. Come on over here and make a tea from my leaves and you'll feel better"? (I wish!) Or when I tell a plant that my shoulder is hurting, is it going to say, "Hey, I'll get right on it and pull the appropriate chemicals from all my friends"? Because that's kinda what Buhner says, although he doesn't put it in the goofy quotes like I did here for emphasis.

While I have a really open mind and I can't rule it out, I'm not yet convinced that plant intent is knowable.

But I've pretty much decided it doesn't matter. If plants have the ability to address our needs, and if our quest to "improve" on nature harms that ability and our health, who cares if the communication between plants and us is deliberate or merely part of the way life on earth simply works? The end result is the same either way.

That's why this book has made such a profound impression on me. Hunting has already changed the way I view animals, teaching me that they are worth so much more respect than our society gives them. This book has opened my eyes to the fact that plants are worthy of even greater respect. I'm pretty sure I'll look at them differently forever.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Plant communications are like stones in water. The ripples they create move throughout ecosystems; they wash up against us. That we take plant words in through our nose or our skin or our eyes or our tongue instead of our ears does not make their language less subtle, or sophisticated, or less filled with meaning. As the soul of a human being can never be understood from its chemistry or grammar, so cannot plant purpose, intelligence or soul. Plants are much more than the sum of their parts. And they have been talking to us for a long time.

Do you think it possible to dissect a human being,
render it down into its constituent parts,
feed them into a machine which measures such things
and determine from that
its ability to paint or create great music?
No?
Then why do you think
that once you have done this with my body
you know anything about me?

- Stephen Harrod Buhner

© Holly A. Heyser 2010

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The summer of my funny animal friends

What a strange little summer it's been.

Our days have been consumed by a project: Boyfriend has been writing a book and I've been shooting and editing photos for it.

But our nights have been punctuated with an unusual level of wildlife visitation around our suburban house, and not just with the dove trapping.

It started one night while I was lying on the floor of our Opium Den watching Harlequin the Great Black Huntress eat from a bowl of cat food we keep inside for her.

I was ... oh. Yes, we call our den the Opium Den because we've cultivated a sort of dark, decadent feel in there - it's the place where all great parties end when it's down to the last few guests. And yes, our kitties like us to watch them eat. But that's not the story here.

I was lying there watching Harlequin eat when I rolled over, casually glanced out the sliding glass door and saw a giant rat tail hovering above the door mat. Read more...
No, we don't normally keep hovering rat tails on our deck. That's the point. This was not normal.

I used to raise pet rats, and I knew if this were attached to a rat, it would be an awfully big one. Curious, I scooted over a few inches to see what the tail was attached to, and there I saw an opossum, contentedly drinking from the water bowl we leave out for Harlequin.

She ... I think it was a she. If possums are anything like rats, you know right quick with one look at the backside if they're boys. Anyway, her coat didn't look great - the hair was a bit sparse over her rump. But she seemed grateful for the water, and probably grateful not to be a vaguely three-dimensional grease spot on the road, so I didn't disturb her.

When she was done, she turned back toward the glass door, just inches from my face, sniffed a bit, and trotted off.

We've caught her visiting the water bowl at least twice since then, and we watch like little kids, happy for the chance to see an animal we normally see only when it's been hit by a car.

She's not the only visitor we've had, either. Twice in July I looked out our back door around sunset to see the most adorable little skunk waddling across the grass, looking for little grubs as it wiggled its way toward the back fence.

We later found out that a mama skunk had given birth in the neighbor's garage, and subsequently died there, so we had a lot of unguided juveniles in the area. (And yes, the neighbor had quite a smelly mess to clean up.)

Just the other day, I saw Skunkbaby again. I'd been up late, editing photos the day before our deadline to get everything to the publisher, and I happened to go into the Opium Den in time to see a black, fluffy tail outside the glass. Possum-girl isn't the only one who likes Harlequin's water apparently. Guess this explains why we've had to fill the water bowl much more often this summer.

Now, I know skunks and possums are two of the most disdained wild critters out there, but I actually enjoy getting the chance to see them just the other side of a big hunk of glass.

That said, I am a little perplexed about why we might be seeing them so much this summer. Obviously, the water bowl is an oasis for all outdoor animals. But in the six years we've lived here, this has been the wettest year, with rain coming through June. You'd think the water would've been a bigger draw long before this year.

Who knows.

One thing I can say for sure is that this summer, more than any other in my life, I have been exploring our (humans') relationship with animals, plants and the planet, doing lots of interesting reading, and never have I felt a stronger kinship with animals.

The dove banding project has accentuated it.

I've handled 16 doves, some repeatedly, because they're quick to forget the trauma of banding and they'll go right back into that trap the very next day.

I've rescued a trapped blue jay, who promptly rewarded me by clamping hard on the flesh between my thumb and index finger. Ouch! Wow, very different from doves. As my uncle Ken said, "Blue jays are not pacifists." (Makes me respect Harlequin all the more when she's able to nail one.)

And, speaking of cats, I've disappointed more than a few of them by scaring my doves away (I know - "my doves," like I own them) when the cats put a stalk on the doves. It's actually pretty funny - I'll fling open a window or door and shout, "Fly away! Fly away!" and the doves will say, "Huh? What? Oh shit!" then take off, and the cats will look at me with contempt.

Sorry cats, but one, I'm not banding the doves just to have them get eaten by cats, and two, I feel responsible for the doves, because I'm putting out enormous piles of seed that they can't resist.

On the whole, I guess I feel grateful and privileged to be developing a more well-rounded relationship with wild animals. Not just eating them without having a clue what they looked like alive, like most First World people. Not just hunting them and only handling their bodies when they're bloodstained and lifeless. But actually getting to know them a bit more.

And I like it.

© Holly A. Heyser 2010