Monday, April 18, 2011

Nature, struggle and the irrational impulse to take sides

Something was different at Lake Natoma on Sunday.

It wasn't just that the grass had gotten a lot taller, though that certainly had a huge effect on my weekly hike. The wild oats were up to my waist in places, and I could hear from the way they rustled in the wind that they had already started to dry out - a first step toward painting the hillsides gold for the summer.

I was more than a little bit nervous as I tried to find my deer trails in this stuff - it's plenty warm enough for rattlesnakes to be a concern. So I abandoned all attempts at stealth and made as much noise as possible to avoid catching one by surprise. I hear that never ends well.

The funny thing was that despite making all kinds of noise, I kept catching game by surprise.

When I rounded a corner at the top of one hill, there were two toms with enormous, ground-scraping beards about 20 yards ahead. They boogied into the grass and down the hill, their blood-red heads bobbing through the grass so obviously that I could have killed them both easily, had I been able to carry a shotgun.

A hundred yards beyond that, I startled a hen turkey, though she was further ahead than the boys, and she hightailed it out of my range pretty quickly. Fifty yards beyond that, I startled a dove that sat on a well-worn path just a few feet in front of me - how could he have let me get so close?

And so it continued. This was obviously the day we should have gone turkey hunting with our friend Evan, not last weekend. Something was definitely in the air.

For the final stretch of my hike, I connected to a well-traveled asphalt bike path and I hadn't gone more than 100 yards when a shape under an oak tree caught my eye. A turkey shape. Ten yards away.

I stopped and stared. It was definitely a hen turkey. Her wings drooped a bit and her eyes were closed.


Then she took a step, very slowly, eyes barely open. Then another.

Something wasn't right. To test my theory, I stepped off the bike path into the shade of the oak, maybe seven yards from her now. She didn't move. I sat back on my heels and watched.

Something was really wrong - there's no way a hen turkey would let me get this close. She looked like she had been poisoned. Who would poison a turkey? I didn't think turkeys would even eat the kinds of poisons that people leave out for mammalian vermin.

I watched some more.

That's when I heard the sound to my right. I instantly had a pretty good idea what it was. Most sounds come from a single point, so when you hear a sound that comes from many points along a line all at once, what you have is a snake in the grass.

I looked away from the turkey and quickly zeroed in on a part of the body slithering past me - away from the turkey, toward a pile of branches next to the bike path, almost close enough to touch.

Body: Not huge.

Head or tail? Saw the head first, its tongue flicking rapidly.

I was pretty sure I recognized it, but I'd need to see the tail to confirm. Wait, wait, wait ...

Yup, rattler. Not the biggest I've ever seen, but I counted five or so beads on the rattle, so it was pretty mature. And did I mention how close it was? Yeah, close enough that it could've struck before I knew what happened if I had provoked it, intentionally or unintentionally.

So I just sat there and watched.

And then I wondered: Was it fleeing the scene of the crime?

I can't imagine a 5-year-old rattler choosing a turkey for a meal. But here I had a turkey that looked like a victim of poison, and a poisonous snake slithering from the scene.

And it upset me. Watching that hen was like watching an animal I've just shot: I put myself in her head, fighting the losing battle. "Sweetie, you are doomed," I thought, sadly.

Then I wondered whether she'd laid eggs yet. I'd come across lots of empty shells during my hike, so I knew birds of some sort were hatching (or being stolen and eaten). If she had laid eggs already, would this rattlesnake have cost her her whole family's life?

That got my maternal instincts going. "Protect babies, at all costs." That's serious genetic coding right there. Not that it did anyone any good.

It was easy to see, in that moment, how non-hunters view us and what we do. I knew, rationally, that if in fact that rattlesnake had bitten this turkey, that it was just how life works. We all feed off of each other. We all cause pain.

But no amount of logic was going to keep me from taking sides, because one animal in front of me was suffering, and the other was not. Despite the fact that if I had encountered this hen in the fall in a place where I could hunt, I might be celebrating having killed her instead of mourning the end of her life.

I don't know that there's any grand message to take away from this. It is what it is.

Perhaps it's just a simple reminder that, to many people, even to those who intellectually understand and accept what we do, we hunters are the snakes in nature's life-and-death struggle.

Does it mean we shouldn't continue playing a role that we have played for hundreds of millenia? Nope. We are what we are.

I guess it just means we shouldn't be surprised by how others see us.

© Holly A. Heyser 2011


The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Philosophizing to one side - could you have eaten the Turkey?

Do you ever eat Rattle Snakes and is the re a season for them?


Phillip said...

"You knew I was a snake when you took me in..."

Tender hearted woman

Can't really imagine that snake hit the turkey, but I guess it could happen. But beyond that, yeah, nature isn't always pretty, but she's not always a bloody mess either. Sometimes the violence is so subtle most people wouldn't even notice... like the aftermath of a snake bite.

Holly Heyser said...

SBW, I wondered about that, and I don't know. But this being a hen, if I found her dead, it would've been a bad idea for me to haul her out of the busy park - hens are legal only in the fall.

And yes, you can eat - and I have eaten - rattlers. But just once, and it didn't taste great. My mom refused to cook it, so my dad had to, and he was only minimally proficient in the kitchen.

Hank also seems disinclined to cook rattlers, but if I ever have to kill one, I really hope I can persuade him. I don't think there was anything wrong with the meat; I think my dad just didn't know what to do with it.

Phillip: The evidence is definitely circumstantial at best. But if that wasn't what happened, it was at least a hell of a coincidence.

I've sent a link to this post to a turkey biologist who may have more ideas - hope to hear from him soon.

Tamar@StarvingofftheLand said...

Funny how our minds work, isn't it? When we don't have a dog in the fight, there are so many factors that influence our side-taking. In general, I think we root for the prey to escape, but there are mitigating circumstances. If the mama bear is trying to feed starving cubs, all of a sudden we root for the bear. And you're absolutely right -- it's all emotional.

When we're the predator, though, our self-interest trumps all the other considerations. Feelings, shmeelings -- we want dinner.

I liked this post a lot.

Al Cambronne said...

Great post. Fun to try and reconstruct what happened from evidence at the "crime scene."

I think it's time, however, that someone stuck up for the poor snake. It might have been minding its own business, relaxing in the sun after a long, hard night shift of hunting and eating mice, when a gigantic, turkey-shaped shadow loomed over it...

Only natural that it would lash out in self-defense. After it realized what had happened, it probably felt tremendous remorse.

Or was it only a coincidence that the turkey and the snake were in the same spot?

Hmmm. Might make a good TV show. "Follow the clues on an all-new episode of TSI..."

Holly Heyser said...

Tamar: Thanks! I'm a total fair-weather fan in terms of which team I back. I was watching an awesome show on the Discovery channel Sunday night called "Human Planet," and in it, they showed Inuit hunting for auks using nets on really long flexible poles. Not only do I totally want to hunt divers that way, but I was totally rooting for the human.

Al: Here's the funny thing: I LOVE snakes! I was also born in the year of the snake.

The scenario you suggest is what I was thinking - snake was probably sleeping in the shade quietly and the hen pecked too close to it.

But remorse? LOL...

ReneeV said...

Like you, living on the American River Parkway provides for a ton of nature along the way. In on run from my house down to the river (one mile) I came across a dozen turkey, 6-8 deer, squirrels, doves, jack rabbits and geese. Boy, was my dog on alert! One of the turkey looked old, maybe a hen, white and was limping along. I felt bad for it, for soon it would become coyote dinner.

Ryan Mathis said...

Great story Holly! Turkeys live a hard life and can succumb to many types of mortality. Getting poisoned by a snake may be one of those rare occurrences. Snakes are more likely to take their toll on turkey populations by predating on eggs rather than adults or juveniles for that matter.

It is more common for surrounding home owners to inhumanely poison turkeys and pigeons by adding rat poison to chicken feed.

Aside from age, predators and injury - there are a myriad of diseases that wild turkeys can fall victim to as well.

Without taking that hen to the wildlife investigations lab in Rancho Cordova for a necropsy, we can only speculate.

Holly Heyser said...

Renee, I can see how your dog might go bonkers in that situation! I've seen quite a few limping turkeys - funniest ever was at the freeway offramp at Lake Natoma. Cars were coming off the freeway as a group of turkeys was crossing the road. Just when they seemed to all be across, a gimpy one darted into the road in front of a motorcycle cop! But disaster was averted - no one got hurt.

Ryan: Thanks for weighing in. I know there's a homeowner that puts out birdseed in the area where I walk (it is, in fact, where I usually see the turkeys), but I think if it were poisoned, I'd be seeing a lot more dead birds, so I'm hoping that's not it.

I figured egg predation made more sense too.

And I REALLY wanted to grab that girl and take her someplace to get help, but I can't imagine anyone wanting to spend $100s-$1,000s to save a turkey that might be sick and dying of quite ordinary natural causes. I sure don't have that kind of money.

But what about SBW's question: Can you safely eat an animal that's been bitten by a rattler?

Peebs said...

I was very lucky at a very young age to see the other side of the story. I was crossing a bridge over a seasonal creek near our house when a rattler started buzzing like mad below me. I ran home and told my dad he went out with mom and soon she came and got me. A rattler and a kingsnake in the dry bed were locked in full battle and was something to watch the king won and ate the rattler (took hours) but I had to watch it all. You have to be careful this time of year with the rattlers they are undenning very hungry and very tired they will strike and not even rattle. I had a horse step on one in the spring and it didn't rattle just snaked off. (snicker)

Holly Heyser said...

THAT'S AWESOME!!! I once saw two tarantulas fighting, but that doesn't hold a candle to a rattler/king snake fight.

I know I need to be careful on these walks. I love going off the main trails, but I can really see the risk in that now...

Mbeck said...

Rattlesnake taste like Alligator and we all know what Gator taste like......Chicken, Kinda.
Both take to Marinate well and will generally take on the flavors that you introduce. I'm thinking they might respond well to Sous Vide. I'd go for an Asian barbque for the the trial run.

Bring one home! It is easier to beg forgiveness that to ask for permission. I would guess at that point he may take one for the team!

Josh said...

Holly, most likely that snake bit in self defense. Turkeys eat snakes, and she might have just gotten too cocky about her capabilities. Esp. if the snake were mature, it would have been loathe to waste venom on anything other then food.

Holly Heyser said...

You know, if she'd died while I was watching her, I would've looked for signs of a bit, just out of curiosity. I'll definitely check back on her this weekend, but easy meat doesn't stay in one place that long in nature.

Anonymous said...

The only time I've eaten rattlesnake, I enjoyed it with a little bbq spice. The fellow who shot it was skinning the snake. We were in camp watching one of the ground squirrels bouncing around the camp area. The wind shifted slightly. He gave a blood curdling shriek and dived for his burrow. Those guys sure don't like snake smell.

Yesterday on the way home from work, I saw a fence with about eight buzzards sitting on the fenceposts. Looked like they were waiting for something to die.

The grim side of the cycle of life.


Ingrid said...

Holly, if you encounter a situation like that again, call a local wildlife hospital. They will tell you whether or not to intervene and/or what to do. That's one of the services we, on the rehab side, provide. (I carry a list of wildlife hospitals in any area where I'm hiking, traveling, etc.)

At my hospital, we accept all manner of injury. Sadly, as Ryan wrote, there are significant numbers of animals that come in, poisoned by humans. Rodenticide, avicide or lead-poisoned animals are a heartbreaking scene I would pay to never see again in my life. That would have been my first speculation too, even though it could be a number of problems.

Ingrid said...

p.s. Meant to add (before I mucked up the send function on my mobile) that it really is tough to know what exactly happened to that poor turkey hen. The environment can provide good clues (e.g. Road and cars nearby?) but even someone like me, who's rescued a lot of animals -- I'd have to rely on the staff expertise at the hospital to diagnose (or necropsy, as Ryan said). Even then, as you wrote, making the call on whether or not to intervene can be tough -- and really painful (emotionally).

Oh and -- if a wildlife hospital accepts an animal you bring in, there is no charge. (Donations are accepted, though.) Just check to see which species each place takes.

**Not saying any civilian should try to rescue a large animal themselves. And don't handle rabies vector species. Animal services or trained person only. Dammit, all the disclaimers! But there was the sweet man who brought in an injured eagle and didn't think about his wardrobe choice (short-sleeved shirt) in the frenzy of it all. There's a reason we take animal handling classes. An adult turkey would not be easy to handle without good technique.

Holly Heyser said...

I don't think she was lead-poisoned - at least not based on the videos I've seen of lead-poisoned birds. I've never witnessed the effects of other poisons, because I usually spot those animals when they're dead. (We have a household in our neighborhood that puts out a LOT of poison. I'm guessing they live next to the family that never spays or neuters cats and thus has a large colony.)

I'm of two minds about this. If it was snakebite, I'd be loathe to interfere with nature. But if I see an animal harmed by human invention (cars, fences, etc.), carelessness or malice, I'd be tempted to intercede. I've found a directory of California rehabbers and I'll keep their numbers handy in the future.

As for this girl, she still had the gumption to trot away a short distance if I got within five yards (then go back into a stupor). I suspect she would've either led me on a big chase or beat the crap out of me with wings and beak if I'd come close to her.

Ingrid said...

Hey, great list. Here's another one with a few extra resources:

:: I'm of two minds about this. If it was snakebite, I'd be loathe to interfere with nature. But if I see an animal harmed by human invention (cars, fences, etc.), carelessness or malice, I'd be tempted to intercede.

We get all manner of injury at a hospital, so I'm a bit less discriminating about the nature of the problem. That's just me. The two biggest issues I ponder before taking any steps toward rescue are, 1) Is this animal functioning reasonably well (i.e. is the stress of capture/transport the best thing for her)? And, 2) Can I safely rescue this animal without further endangering her life, my life, or others' lives? Sometimes the issue is quite clear (an animal simply can't move). Other times, it's murky.

One of the most common injuries for birds is human-caused indirectly: "cat caught." It's a significant cause of mortality for protected song birds. If you rescue a cat-caught bird, always take it to a vet or rehab center. The birds need antibiotics from cat puncture wounds, even if you don't see any of the punctures.

btw: What sorts of poisonings are your neighbors doing? They could be in violation of law, depending on what they are using against whom.

Holly Heyser said...

No idea what poisoning the neighbors are doing. Just that I've found a dead cat in one neighbor's yard, and the neighbors with the cat colony found their favorite one - a cute little boy who was too gregarious for his own good - dead on their front lawn. And some other neighbors had a baby skunk die under their porch - they had to rip up the floor boards to get it out.

I assume what they're doing is illegal. Personally, I find it reprehensible - leaving out poison is just too indiscriminate. I am grateful that our one indoor-outdoor cat is very wary and would be very suspicious of "found food."