Temporary Truce

For years, I’ve considered our family to be in a more or less perpetual state of war with the local raccoon population. They’ve found ways to kill so many of our chickens, ducks, and turkeys … if I see a raccoon on the property, I tend to shoot first and ask questions never.

Until this past Sunday.

The weather here in Michigan has been unseasonably warm for mid-February, so my eldest daughter and I were able to get out for a wonderful 45-mile bike ride. We returned around 5pm or so, with about an hour of daylight to spare.

Before putting our bikes away, we gazed out over the property. Several of our ducks were still out in the pasture, splashing around in a flooded drainage ditch, having the time of their lives.

Then both of us spotted something just beyond the ditch: a smallish, dark-colored animal moving around. At first, I thought it might be one of our barn cats; she frequently goes out to the pasture to hunt field mice. “It’s not walking like a cat,” my daughter observed. I agreed. It was too far away to tell for sure, but it also seemed a bit too big to be a cat.

I decided this was worth checking on — especially since the animal could be stalking the ducks. They were so happily splashing in the drainage ditch, they seemed oblivious to all else. We hastily put our bikes away, I exchanged my cycling cleats for Muck boots, and then I grabbed the shotgun and a few shells of 00-Buck. Still wearing a cycling jersey and Lycra shorts, I then trotted out to the pasture. Our 14-year-old son, realizing something involving guns and wild animals was afoot, immediately stopped shooting baskets and trotted after me.

The noise we made with the gate evidently alerted the ducks that something was up, and they immediately abandoned the drainage ditch. As the flock waddled back toward the barn, I was relieved that at least none would fall victim to predators today. But I still needed to see if this intruder was in fact a predator — and take appropriate action if so.

As my son and I drew closer, it became clear that the animal was not a cat. It was too big, not carrying itself like a cat, and didn’t have a coat like any of our cats’ coats. Surprisingly, it was so intent on digging in the mud, it didn’t even notice us approaching. We drew to within 25 feet or so, and I chambered a round in the shotgun. At last, the animal looked up and I could see its face. Even more surprisingly, it just stared at us and did not run away.

I still couldn’t tell exactly what it was. It looked sort of like a raccoon, but not completely. The coat, and its coloring, didn’t seem quite right. The eye rings were evident, but not well defined. Its tail was tucked under it, so I couldn’t check it for rings.

Maybe I could convince myself it was a raccoon, but I wasn’t really sure. It didn’t look as clearly coon-like as the others we’d encountered (or even seen as road kill). If it’d stood and begun walking, I could’ve gotten a good look at its feet — and at its gait. That would’ve given me a much better signal. But the thing wasn’t moving. It just sat there, staring at us. Being in the middle of the pasture, I didn’t even have the option to pick up a rock to throw at it.

I drew a bead on the animal, but ultimately could not bring myself to squeeze the trigger. The way it looked at me, with its completely non-threatening demeanor, I just couldn’t kill it — especially since I wasn’t absolutely sure it was a raccoon.

But if it wasn’t a raccoon, what was it? My son and I went back to the house. I changed clothes, unloaded the shotgun and put it away, and jumped on the internet to search for “Michigan wildlife.” A long list came up, with pictures, but nothing really matched my memory of the thing. I looked at pictures of raccoons. I could see a resemblance, but also differences.

I returned to the pasture, this time with a camera — and my usual concealed carry pistol, in a holster. Much to my surprise, the animal was still in the same spot. I drew even closer than before, but it still didn’t run away. I took a few pictures. This is the best one:

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Now, you might look at this and say, “Oh, that’s a raccoon!” Mrs. Yeoman Farmer did, when I showed it to her that evening. But trust me: when I was there, looking at the thing in person, under the fast-approaching twilight, it was ambiguous enough to raise questions. MYF and I decided it’s probably due to it being a yearling, emerging from its first winter with its first winter coat. Besides, I never got to see it walk around.

Standing there in the pasture, looking at how small, nonthreatening, and pathetic the thing was, along with some nagging doubts about exactly what kind of animal it was … I decided I just couldn’t shoot it. Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age, or because we haven’t had a coon attack in a while. Regardless, I simply couldn’t bring myself to put a bullet in this animal.

When Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I discussed it later that evening, she had an additional thought: given this little raccoon’s behavior (lethargic, just sitting there in the open for so long, not running away), it’s quite possible the thing is sick. We decided that if it were to show up again, it would be a good idea to dispatch it. I commented that if it were still out in the pasture now, in the dark, after all these hours, it definitely had something wrong. I grabbed the rail-mounted tactical light for my pistol and went out in the pasture to take a look. But by then, there was no sign of the raccoon. I shined the light all over the field, and even into the trees. No beady little eyes reflected anything back.

I wondered where the raccoon had gone, where it was now, and if it were healthy or not. Having been face to face with the little guy, and having looked into its eyes, I realized I didn’t really wish it any ill. As I walked slowly back to the farmhouse, under the stars and the moonlight, I even hoped it gets to enjoy a long and happy life — far, far away from our farm.

Goodbye, Mr. Ringtail

Longtime readers of this blog know about the many battles we’ve had with raccoons over the years. They’ve killed more poultry than I can count, and have done all kinds of damage to our chicken pens. I’m not even going to attempt to track down all of my old blog posts about raccoons and link to them here.

Raccoons are especially bad news for us in the Spring — and it’s almost Spring. Spring is when we’re putting out young chicks and turkey poults in poultry pens. Spring is also when raccoons have litters of hungry little ones to feed, and litters of hungry little ones they need to teach how to hunt and kill. A couple of years ago, our poultry pens got hit on multiple nights in a row, and from the amount of activity it was clear that we had multiple predators.  The would tear the pens open, and then chew the heads off of bird after bird. They wouldn’t even bother finishing one bird before moving on to the next.

It was war. I reinforced the pens with heavy duty wire mesh. The raccoons dug under the bottom of the pens and killed again. I laid long plywood strips on the ground, encircling the perimeter of each pen, and weighted them down with heavy rocks. And I started setting traps. That did the trick; the killings slowed, and we managed to nail the “ringleaders” over the next couple of nights. Once we took out the mother coon, that was pretty much the end of the raids. At least for that year.

The bottom line is: when we see an opportunity to take out a raccoon on our property, especially around Spring poultry season, we don’t let that opportunity pass by.

Which brings us to last night. A little after dusk, I crossed the driveway from the house to my office building. Just outside my office door is a very large pine tree. Standing under it, about to open the door, I heard an unusual noise coming from above: claws on tree bark. All the lights were off, so I couldn’t see what exactly was making the noise. We have a lot of barn cats, and they frequently climb trees, so “it’s just a cat” was my first thought.

But something about the tone and cadence of the scratches didn’t sound right. It just wasn’t quite “cat-like” enough. I flipped on the exterior floodlight, and took a good look up the tree. Sure enough, about 15-20 feet off the ground, a big raccoon was slowly making his way up the trunk. He froze, probably temporarily blinded by the floodlight, and I knew I had limited time before he scrambled away.

I may have had enough light, and a clear enough shot, to take him out with my concealed carry pistol. However, whenever possible, I try to avoid discharging a handgun or rifle on an upward trajectory. What goes up must come down, and a bullet can travel a long ways if it misses the target. Besides, my hands were full; I’d been carrying something that I needed to set down anyway. So, I dashed into the office and grabbed my tool of choice: a 12-gauge shotgun. It’s an ancient, Remington Model 11, recoil-operated autoloader that I keep in the office for property defense. I quickly loaded three shells of 00-Buckshot (“Double-aught buck”), and was back outside before Mr. Ringtail could climb more than a few more feet.

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About five years ago, I mounted a 500 Lumen tactical flashlight to the barrel of the shotgun (Sportsman’s Guide still caries them, for about $35). This is an extremely useful addition. It’s nothing fancy, and can be bolted even to a pre-WWII shotgun like mine that doesn’t have an accessory rail. The light sits to the side, so it doesn’t interfere with the shooter’s sight down the top of the barrel.

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It puts out a very bright light, and the lithium batteries are still going strong despite sitting with very little use since 2011. My only complaint about this particular light is that it slips from “steady” to “strobe” too easily. Sometimes the recoil shock alone is enough to make it switch modes, even without hitting the power button. If I were in the market for something new, I might choose something different. But for the little that I use this light, and for the price, I can put up with the annoyance.

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Back outside, I disengaged the safety and drew a well-illuminated bead on the raccoon. He was a little higher in the tree now, and there were some branches in the way, but the shot was still clear enough. I knew at least some of the nine pieces of buckshot would reach the target. I squeezed the trigger, and the raccoon’s reaction told me he’d definitely been hit.

From the amount of blood he was losing, I knew his wound was not survivable. If I did nothing, he’d be dead within a half hour. Still, much as I dislike raccoons, I don’t like seeing any animal suffer needlessly. I’d started this, and it was my responsibility to finish it the right way.

The problem was, he’d managed to drag himself behind some heavier pine branches. I no longer had a clear shot up the trunk. I circled around and around the tree, looking for a new angle through the branches. The 500-Lumen light definitely helped. It didn’t take long before I’d found a relatively clear way to light him up. I drew a steady bead, squeezed the trigger again, and it was over in an instant. The raccoon immediately fell from the tree. From the looks of the wound, he was dead before he even hit the ground.

Begun, the Spring coon wars have.

 

Fortified

Every spring, the most frustrating battle we fight is with raccoons. They’re coming out after a long winter, many have litters of young to feed, and they’re all hungry. And our young birds make the perfect prey: small, utterly helpless, and delicious.

For the last two weeks, we’ve had 56 baby birds in a secure brooder in the barn. It’s a 4×4 foot plywood box, two feet tall, with half the roof also of solid plywood. The other half is chicken wire, to allow fresh air, but even that wire is securely tied down most of the time to keep it cat-proof. (Think Sylvester and Tweety Bird; the barn cats love to hover on top of the brooder and gaze longingly at the young chicks inside.) Inside the brooder is a heat lamp, high protein (21%) poultry starter feed, and a two gallon watering fount.

Most of the birds themselves (40) are cornish cross chickens, the most common commercial meat breed. They’ll be ready to butcher at 8 weeks. The other 16 are a light-colored egg laying breed; with the light-colored feathers, they’ll be easy to distinguish from the black-and-white Barred Rocks we raised last year. If we didn’t alternate colors, and always raised the same egg-laying breed, we’d never be able to tell how old the mature hens are. After two years, their productivity drops dramatically and they need to go in the soup pot. By staggering the breeds, we always know which batch of hens is due for butchering.

Anyway, we tend to move the chicks out to pasture pens at 10-14 days of age, when they’re feathered well enough to do without the the supplemental heat. We make the call as to the exact day based on the weather. If it’s sunny and warm, and no rain is forecast, they can go out as early as 9 or 10 days. (Birds we raise in the summer go out very early.) But if it’s in the mid 40s or 50s and dreary, as it is this week, we give them a few extra days to feather up.

Yesterday was moving day. Our pasture pens are 4-foot by 8-foot, two feet high, with solid plywood running the length of each long side. The frames are 2x2s or 2x4s, but we tend to use the former a lot more than the latter; 2x4s are overkill, and make the pens too heavy. I used to cover the short ends of the pens with chicken wire, but the raccoons (remember the raccoons?) would simply rip the wire open. I’ve since covered all those short ends with an additional layer of small-mesh wire material. The smaller holes do unfortunately keep more insects out, but that’s a tradeoff we’re willing to make for raccoon protection. The tops of the pens consist of a full sheet of plywood, ripped in half. One half is screwed down to the frame; the other half just lays in place, weighed down by a couple of large rocks and/or by a bucket of chicken feed, until I need to open the pen to tend to the birds.

 

Note also the raccoon trap, baited with ground corn, set just in front of the pens. (We used to bait the traps with chicken or other meat, but we ended up catching barn cats every time. Corn is ideal because raccoons like it, but cats don’t.)

The Yeoman Farm Children helped me haul two pens from one garden area, where the birds had been last year, to the area where Mrs. Yeoman Farmer wants them this year. She identified a substantial swath of ground, currently covered in weeds, that won’t be needed for planting until late in spring. That will give the chicks several weeks to clear the weeds, all the while getting fresh greens in their diet as a supplement to their high-protein grain — and dropping lots of nice fertilizer onto the garden beds. It’s the perfect “tractor” system. We let the chicks mow down everything growing under the pen, then move the pen one length onto a new patch. And so forth. When they’re really little, it takes the birds several days to clear everything; later, they’ll easily clear the 4×8 area to bare ground in a single day. We would ideally let the chicken manure break down for a longer time, but MYF intends to use this area for squashes this year; squash goes in late, and isn’t as sensitive to “hot” manure as — say — tomatoes are.

Last year, with MYF pregnant and largely out of commission, we reduced our garden planting substantially. We had a large, 24 foot-by-50 foot patch where pens could be moved all spring and summer. The pens with various batches of birds went around and around that area, wiping out every new little clump of weeds almost as soon as it appeared.

When MYF was finally able to inspect the area last fall, she was blown away by how completely the birds had devastated it. And by how much manure the birds had provided. After a winter of sitting and breaking down, it’s going to be an excellent garden bed this year — once we clear out the weeds that are already coming up thickly in that nice, fertile soil.

Back to this year’s birds. Each pen is twice the size of the brooder, so all 56 chicks could have easily fit in a single pen with plenty of room left over. However, they grow so fast, that pen would’ve become crowded quite quickly. Instead of catching half the birds and moving them in a couple of weeks, it was much easier to simply divide the birds while I already had them caught now. We put 20 Cornish cross and 8 layer pullets into each pen, and they should have plenty of space for the next eight weeks. (Once we butcher the meat chickens, we’ll turn the pullets loose in the barn with the other layers, and then move these pens to some other vacant garden plot and use them for turkeys.)

But then, learning from experience, I added some additional fortifications against raccoons. Last year, we lost more than two full pens worth of baby birds to multiple raccoon strikes; the most frustrating was the night when a raccoon wiped out a pen of very expensive baby turkeys — and only THEN turned to the grain in the trap and got caught. After the first couple of strikes, I’d added the steel mesh. So, the next raccoon simply dug his way UNDER the side of the pen, came in, and massacred everything he could find. What to do about soft garden soil? Feeling like I was back in a Cold War arms race, I hit upon the ultimate defense: a foot-wide strip of plywood, laid flat along every edge of every pen, and weighed down with large rocks. (One sheet of plywood, ripped into four equal strips, sufficed for each pen.) At last, success! Moving each pen was now a bigger production, but we didn’t lose a single bird to predators the whole rest of the year.

I was tired yesterday, and thought about saving some of the plywood strips for today. Especially since all the big rocks also needed to be moved. But as evening approached, I thought better of it. I’d simply seen way too many dead birds, and had invested way too much time and effort into the current batch. So, I put in the extra 15 minutes of toil and made sure every pen was fully fortified against the enemy. (Yes, this really does feel like war sometimes.)

Over the course of the evening, all the way up to midnight, I made a number of trips out to the garden to check on the birds. All were fine. No sign of any predators. But still, this morning, I held my breath as I went out to make my first inspection. To my great relief, everything was exactly as I’d left it the night before. Every bird was alive and active. And while it would’ve been nice to have caught a raccoon, even the trap was undisturbed.

And so it goes. I’m just happy that another season of poultry production is off and running, and that we’re just six weeks away from our first backyard barbeque feast.