Tender lambs… such a temptation.
Last week I came home to see the sheep standing alert in their group, mothers next to their lambs, lambs obedient and oddly quiet. Of course, my ears stood out from my head, trying to pick up any unusual sound. I scanned the pasture and woods edges. Tension was vibrating in the yard.
I saw it then, just in the moment when the hawk let out one of its signature cries. Oh, that perishing, beautiful sound of the Red Tail Hawk. It’s a magnificent bird, that can sweep a small animal off the ground in a brief snatch. We saw it take a songbird right off the feeder on our window one day. A burst of feathers, a cry of alarm, a shadow of wings — it was all so immediate, so complete. No one could have moved in the moment of attack. No one could have been fast enough. The garden fell silent in the instant, and stayed so for half an hour afterward.
This hawk was poised on a fir limb over the pasture. The lambs were in the yard with the ewes. We were all aware of one another.
As I contemplated what to do — there is not much protection to be offered in the moment of a raptor’s stoop — as I worried about that, a band of crows came from the further woods, yelling like hoodlums. They beset the hawk as a mob. It’s called mobbing, this behavior of crows against predator birds, but it was more like watching a gang mugging. I could hear the thumps as they hit the hawk. One crow followed another. Disorderly. Loud. The Red Tail yelled back. If it’s possible to detect anger in the voice of a bird, it was there. It clung to its limb for an impossible interval. I’ve seen hawks driven off by crows before, but this one was determined to stay. It fought back with wings and beak and talons. But there were a dozen of the crows, and only one brave hawk. One hunting hawk, waiting for a moment over my flock of sheep. For a short time I was a spectator cheering for my enemy. At last the hawk gave up. She lifted herself on her grand wings and beat off to the west, the murder of crows trailing behind her, calling insults in the way teenagers do when they have won.
I was relieved to see her gone. What could I have done against her? But I confess to only grudging gratitude toward the crows. They are their own kind pest around here. Last spring, when they arrived, they pillaged our hen house without mercy until we managed to arrange a bird netting curtain in such a way the hens could pass under it, but the crows were shy. They robbed us of eggs for six weeks of the best laying season before we thought of that.
So the hawk was gone, the crows cheering themselves into the afternoon sun, and the lambs were safe for a day.
Yesterday afternoon, around 4 o’clock, I stepped outside and looked eye-to eye with a coyote. She was standing at the corner of the sheepfold, looking around here and there, uneasy to begin with, and then suddenly wary when I appeared by the gate. Me, too! This was not what I wanted to see at the fence.
She was pretty, to tell the truth, silvered and ruffy around the neck. I’m certain she has a nest of pups back in our woods, hungry tummies waiting for dinner. She is probably hungry herself, looking for something to take the edge off the grumble in her belly. Something to fill her teats with milk. But my sympathy stops when I contemplate that the dinner she is looking for is lamb chops from my lambing pens.
Once again I was helpless, standing there looking into the golden stare of a predator.
In this event, the sheep were anything but quiet. Every sheep on the place was bawling. The lambs stood close beside their mothers, but all of them were hollering at this woods dog. I don’t know how other breeds of sheep confront a coyote at the fenceline, but these Jacob sheep were ready to take it on. “Come on! Just give it a try, you dog.” I do not welcome the thought of my sheep standing off a coyote inside the pen. I’ve seen the destruction coyotes can leave behind. Last year we lost a flock of just maturing Bronze Turkeys to a dawn coyote raid. A few years before that, it was a beautiful pair of breeding Toulouse Geese. This coyote was dithering with uncertainty. She looked from the sheep to me, to my fat Yellowcat in the barn forecourt, back to the sheep… I called Yellowcat, “Kitty, kitty, kitty…” until she came to my side of the fence.
It’s a lesson to be learned, I suppose. As we delight in the increase of our flock by the arrival of a new crop of lambs, somewhere out in the woods another kind of mother is tending her own clutch of offspring, somewhere in a treetop nest of sticks, a raptor mother is dropping regurgitated prey into the throats of her babes. I understand it. But I can’t be impartial in the matter. They may be magnificent in their way, but they are not mine.
The coyote mother made her way back into the woods yesterday. I had no way to hunt her. We depend on the mothering instinct of the ewes, to keep their young ones close. I might think I possess them, but these lambs are not mine, either. I hope they stay vigilant and strong-willed, my Jacob sheep.
This is part of a bounty hunter’s display, photographed around the turn of the 20th Century. Coyotes have been successful even in the face of aggressive hunting by bountymen. They must receive the wisest of teachings from their mothers, to carry on among us the way they do.