When you raise animals around the farm, you expect there always will be some crossing of the paths between the domesticated versions and the wild ones. There is no way to effectively seclude one from the other.
The pigs that find their way home after the fair or as 4-H projects will slop their feed around enough that possums and raccoons can slip by under cover of darkness and swipe a meal, while birds work the edges of the pen during the day to supplement their diets. The pigs do little but eat and sleep, and seem to care less that someone is stealing a snack while they snore.
It's essentially the same approach with the chickens, since their organic feed and free-range set up means pumpkins and tomatoes from the garden and apples and pears off the ground in the orchard all find their way into the large yard around the chicken house. The chickens eat just about any table scrap as well, and thus keep the garbage disposal from even needing a tune-up.
But all of these treats are just too tempting for the wildlife that share this plot, and the tracks left in a fresh snowfall will tell us skunks, raccoons, possums and even an occasional coyote will wander by, just to see what food might be available. If they leave the chickens alone, we usually invoke the no-harm, no-foul-on-our-fowl clause, and allow these other critters to eat for free.
Ground sparrows and wrens like to hop into the chicken house and help themselves to a little cracked corn, but when that happens it only means the lone rooster is not doing his job. Starlings are the bird world's ultimate freeloaders and they show up regularly, but the rooster seems much less tolerant of them and their noisy manner.
Mice are a fact of life when you have barns and animals because animals need feed, and mice show up wherever there is feed. My theory is the mice come in the same bag as the feed, although I've never been able to prove that. A few traps set with peanut butter seem to keep the mice in check much better than these over-fed and constantly napping blobs of fur my son calls cats.
Everything appeared to be working fine in this odd balance of animals - domesticated and wild - until another party showed up. A fresh tunnel next to the chicken house was clearly too big for a mouse, and too small for a ground hog or a skunk.
All it took was one super XL trap and a dab of that irresistible peanut butter to find out the next morning that rats had moved in and upset the balance of nature out by the barn.
Over the years, we've had deer, wood chucks, possums, skunks, raccoons, pheasants, a hawk, countless other birds and those ever-present mice all show their faces or leave their tracks in the area around the chicken house, and it was no big deal.
But one rat shows up, and it is time to call out the cavalry.
There is something about rats that make them universally repulsive. They are associated with everything filthy and diseased and awful. Mice are thieves that some consider a bit cute. Rats are thieves that everyone finds revolting.
They are found on every continent on earth but Antarctica, because man and his food are not there and rats only live where people live. They are the most prosperous and successful mammal on the planet, after man.
But no dirty, creepy rat was going to move in and disrupt this chicken house. We had to draw the line. It was like that hilarious diatribe from Blazing Saddles, except that we said "we'll take the starlings and the skunks, the mice and the sparrows, but we don't want the rats."
A few well-placed traps wiped out the rats in a matter of days. Order was restored in and around the chicken house. Any remaining rats in the region clearly were scared off by this offensive, and quickly returned to the sewers of New York City, from whence they likely came.
The ordeal was another reminder of the logical way things work with our wildlife in the outdoors. Cute and cuddly, or creepy and disgusting, animals go where the food is. It just makes sense, even though sometimes we refuse to accept that.
Matt Markey is the A-T outdoors columnist.
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