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Trouble in the Peaceable Kingdom

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At the end of the first week in January the morning low was minus thirteen, and there was ten inches of new snow.  In the backyard a dozen or more chickadees and two small woodpeckers were chasing seeds around in the two feeders.  The Red Squirrel was busy chasing chickadees away from the rear feeder, and half-a-dozen cottontail rabbits were hopping back and forth between both feeders gleaning sunflower seeds that had fallen from the platforms above.  From time to time one of the rabbits, responding, perhaps, to the dictates of the long-eared clan’s social structure, would chase another in circles around the yard.  This kind of thing goes on all day long, and it’s possible they are just running for fun.  I have no way of knowing.  All seemed peaceful in the backyard.

I was on my way to the kitchen to pour a mid-morning cup of coffee when I happened to see my dog coming on a dead run past the front of the house.  He had been lying on the south side of the log pile across the driveway soaking up what little warmth emanated from the sun low on the southern horizon.  The only time he runs as hard as he was running when he passed the front of the house is when he is chasing magpies away from his food bowl.  Other than that nothing ever happens around the house to inspire such an expenditure of energy.  The food bowl, I knew, was empty, and sitting on the back porch.  The dog disappeared into the backyard.  I poured my cup of coffee, and went outside to investigate.  By the time I got to the back of the house the dog was sitting in the weeds at the south edge of the yard.

IMG_0018“What the hell is going on?” I asked him.  He stared toward me for a a couple of seconds, then turned his gaze toward the willows beyond the creek.  I was walking toward the spruce trees to see what I could tell from the tracks in the snow when I saw a cottontail rabbit lying a few feet from  the corner of the white shed.  It was still alive, but just barely.  It quit breathing as I watched.  

I turned to the dog, and said, “Did you do this?”  He knew he was going to blamed for something, I suspect, and just sat there with the mournful look dogs affect when they think they are going to catch hell whether they deserve it or not.  I was having a hard time believing this dog of mine had raced for thirty yards to catch a rabbit to which he had never paid any attention to begin with.  When the rabbits began to infiltrate the yard four or five years ago he managed to kill and eat a couple of small ones.   We had a short talk about such behavior, and after that he left the rabbits alone.  The dog, I think, is unusually malleable, and over the years the rabbits became accustomed to his presence, and paid him no more attention than he paid them.

The tracks in the fresh snow did not reveal much.  There was a long trench a few inches deep and about five inches wide that ran for about thirty feet past the clothesline to where the rabbit lay, but there were no dog tracks close to it.  There were no tracks at all, in fact, except for a number of rabbit and bird tracks which crossed the trench at irregular intervals.  Everything, except for the long trench, looked as I would have expected it to look out there on a snowy morning.  

I looked at the dog, and said, “I can’t believe you did this.”  He yawned, and looked back toward the willows.  The rabbit, who looked as if he were just stretched out in the snow for a  short nap, did not have a mark on him, at least as far as I could tell.  I was about to reach down to turn him over when a small movement by the door of the shed caught my eye.  I looked over to discover a weasel poking his head out to see what I was up to.  At that point, I knew what he was up to.

I passed the dog on my way back to the house to fetch a camera, and said, “You can relax.  You’re a good dog.”  He yawned again, and turned to stare off across the creek.  The dog had obviously seen the weasel pulling and pushing the rabbit toward the shed from where he had waylaid it thirty feet to the north.  Seeing rabbits cavort about in front of you is one thing, seeing the weasel with rabbit in tow was quite another, and the dog was hurrying to investigate when I saw him fly past the house.

Weasels—known as ermine in the winter when their fur turns from light brown to snowy white—have been around here forever.  In times gone by they were trapped for their beautiful pelts, but just as often were killed because they were a constant threat when people kept chickens.  One weasel could raise of good bit of havoc in any chicken coop.  With the advent of modern agrarian monoculture some thirty to forty years ago, farmers and ranchers started buying their food at supermarkets like everyone else, and chickens went the way of the milk cow and other myriad creatures that inhabited the barn yards of almost every farm a hundred years ago.  The weasels stayed, and since their fur is hardly worth the effort of skinning them no one gave them much thought.   

  The weasels didn’t need the chickens to begin with, of course, since they have been around for millions of years, and eat everything from shrews and small birds to squirrels and rabbits.  They are known as earnest predators though they are probably no more so than any other critter that must hunt in order to survive. Their long sinuous bodies allow them to flow over the countryside like snakes, and because of of this they have long been thought of as sneaky.  Most predators are sneaky, of course, but weasels have been a special object of human antipathy for centuries.                

A couple of years ago a Long-tailed Weasel began hanging around an old building that serves as my shop.  There are a number of dilapidated outbuildings within a hundred yards of the house, and I was never sure which of them he actually called home, but he was frequently around the shop when I went out to start a fire in the woodstove.  I wondered if his presence had anything to do with the rabbits who were around the same buildings, but I never saw any signs of interaction between the two species.  What went on when I was not watching, or where I could not see, I was unable to tell.  If the weasel was preying on the rabbits, however, it was having no effect on the rabbit population.  By the end of 2009 it was my impression that there were more rabbits around than there were at the end of 2007.

IMG_0001Now I was sure, at least, that one weasel had killed one rabbit.  I figured this weasel would not easily abandon his prey so I went to the house to get a camera with a long lens, and returned to the backyard to see what might happen.  The weasel was already pulling the rabbit to the edge of the concrete block step below the shed door.  He saw me coming, stood up on his hind legs to watch me approach, then grabbed the rabbit by the neck, and started to pull it up onto the concrete block.  There is a gap between the blocks that serve as the foundation for the shed, and the weasel could easily have gotten the rabbit through that opening and safely under the shed.  The rabbit proved too heavy for this tactic, and the best the weasel could do was get the head onto the block.  He stopped to watch me as I took several photographs.  

Then he grabbed the rabbit to pull the head down into the snow again, and began to pull it into one of the cavities in the step block.  This, too, proved unsuccessful, and he could only get the rabbit into the cavity as far as the shoulders.  The weasel scurried through the cavity to emerge on the other side of the block where he stuck his head up to watch me.  Frustration was getting the better of him, I guess, and he disappeared through the gap in the foundation to think things over.  I backed off a few feet, and after about a minute he reappeared to try once again to force the rabbit into the cavity, but the rabbit just was not going to fit, and the weasel went back under the shed.  He stuck his head out four or five times to watch me with a two inch long hunk of rabbit fur hanging from his lower jaw.

I decided to help him out a bit, and pulled the rabbit about ten feet out into the yard, thinking the weasel might take it off in a different direction.  Within thirty seconds he slithered through the snow to grabI MG _0031 hold of the rabbit, and started back to the shed with it.  He was back to the steps in less time than it had taken him to approach the rabbit.  I was amazed at how quickly this little predator could move the considerably larger rabbit along.  All I could see was rabbit fur and a weasel head plowing a trough through the newly fallen snow.  

Again he tried to force the rabbit into the cavity of the concrete block with no better results than had been achieved five minutes earlier.  I grabbed the rabbit by a hind leg, and drug it to the middle of the yard nearer the house.  The weasel bounded off into the spruce trees before running underneath the shed.  I backed away from the rabbit, and after a couple of minutes the weasel bounced through the snow to grab it again by the neck.  This time the way was clear to the house, and away the weasel went, alternately dragging and pushing the rabbit to the front of the house where they disappeared under the porch.  Finally the meat was out of the woods.  The dog was still sitting in the weeds from where he had watched the entire performance, and the birds, the squirrel, and three rabbits under the rear feeder were still doing what they had been doing before all of this happened.  All seemed peaceful in the backyard.            

It is all too easy for me to think of my backyard as a kind of peaceable kingdom.  The antics of the various creatures that are out there every day entertain me, and viewed from the kitchen window they often seem like the goofy, happy creatures one might see in a cartoon.  I enjoy it when the Red Squirrel runs out the branch and jumps onto the rear feeder to scatter  birds off in every direction.  Sometimes I hear my wife laughing when she is alone in the kitchen, and when I ask her what’s going on she will tell about something like two rabbits chasing each other along the edge of the spruce trees where the squirrel charged out to run them both off.  We are easily amused by such stuff.  It is entertainment.

IMG_0026It is not entertainment to the creatures themselves, however, and I know this.  They don’t get paid for doing the stuff they do.  What are antics to me are not to them, and they are not capering around the backyard for fun.  Most of the interactions I observe are efforts on the part of the creatures to secure their personal space.  Being able to maintain adequate personal space assures any animal of a certain degree of access to resources.  The Red Squirrel is a solitary creature, and appears to desire a large personal space.  The rabbits appear to need less than the squirrel, and the birds less than the rabbits, but all of these creatures need a certain area within which they feel free to seek their own well-being.  This area is usually a fluid thing, and changes are to be expected as circumstances are altered, but in nature access to resources is quite simply the name of the game.  Whether one is a rabbit or a human being, maintaining one’s personal space in order to access those resources is always of utmost importance.  

So, it is a jungle out there, you see.  One creature is always in the process of intruding on another’s space.  One creature wins, and another loses, though most of the time these triumphs and losses are short-lived.  There are always more dominant critters, and many more that are on the lower end of pecking order, but in the endless ebb and flow of interactions it all seems to balance out.  The more dominant creatures are forced to spend much time protecting what they feel is theirs––witness the amount of energy the squirrel expends protecting his space––and the others are therefore liberated to move in and out of open spaces as opportunities arise.  It has been suggested by some biologists that costs and benefits may more or less balance one another at each level in a dominance hierarchy, and evolution may in fact favor the hierarchy rather than just those at the top.  Whatever the case, in any group of animals, be they small or large, smart or not so smart, there is always a lot of squabbling going on.  When I see this kind of thing happening among humans I am dismayed.  When I see it happening in the backyard I am amused.  I understand what the humans are up to, but not the birds, the rabbits, or the squirrel.    

Since the birds, the rabbits, and the squirrel have no interest in eating one another their interactions, I suppose, could be described as relatively benign, but the possibility of predation can never be ignored, as the rabbit discovered.  The weasel accessed a resource by intruding on the rabbit’s personal space, and the rabbit became a resource.  Such is life in the peaceable kingdom.  It never ends.  Something is dying somewhere all the time, and something else benefits.  I suppose if I had to see a weasel kill a rabbit in the backyard every couple of days I might be dismayed, but that doesn’t happen.  It is likely I will not see such a thing again.  I only witnessed what I have just described because of my dog to begin with.  If not for him all of this would have escaped my notice.  The weasel would have dragged the rabbit out of sight leaving only the long track in the snow for me to ponder. 

This morning I saw the weasel bounding through the snow to the white shed where he disappeared through the gap in the foundation beneath the door.  I suspect another rabbit may be on his mind, but it will not be easy for him to kill one.  The rabbits who will feed on sunflower seeds within a few feet of me when I am in the yard have learned to tolerate me, but even when busy feeding they are always alert.  Any number of predators would rank them near the top on their list of favorite foods, and the rabbits know this.  Their long ears pick up the smallest of sounds, and their bulging eyes located on the sides of their heads allow them to see above them as well as to the sides and behind them.  Once danger is perceived they are off like…well, a bunny.  They can run to beat hell, or at least a lot of predators, so being sneaky, as I mentioned earlier, is a necessary attribute for any hunter.

Still, I suspect it is the rare rabbit that dies of old age.  Like most animals they just run the same spectrum of risks day in and day out until they are killed.  Around here, if a weasel doesn’t get them a coyote will, or a fox, or an owl, or a hawk.  It’s a jungle out there.  We are born, we live, and we die.  A single entity is gone, but life itself goes on.  As long as it does not happen in my personal space today, then I am content.  In that, I am like the birds, the rabbits, the weasel, and the squirrel.  Tomorrow is another story.




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One Response to “Trouble in the Peaceable Kingdom”

  1. Paulette Epple May 12, 2012 3:20 am #

    Hi Bob,
    I am an Audubon friend of Annie’s and she sent me the link to your website. The first story I had to read was about your rabbit-killing weasel. One day last year after a late winter snowstorm we saw what seemed to be a dead cottontail levitating through the deep snow. Once in a while a weasel would pop his head up to look around and then disappear under the snow to pull his rabbit through a trench much as your weasel did. When the weasel came to a fence of 2×4 inch weld wire he couldn’t get the rabbit through no matter how he pushed, pulled, or tugged. He was persistant but was not going to be successful. So like you, my husband went out and gave him some help. He tossed the rabbit over the fence and soon the weasel came back and finished dragging his prize to the neighbors yard. The photos you took could have been of the drama here in our yard.

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