A little after midnight, both dogs leap at the window, growling furiously. For a moment, I think Hunter (the lab mix) is going to go right through the glass. I run to the kitchen to open the door and let them out before even checking to see what they are so upset about.
Wait. Back up a bit. It’s Friday evening and I come home to discover the chickens missing. I look around with the flashlight and see no evidence of predators and start looking around the coop, in bushes and in trees.
Here, chickee chickee. Here, chickee chickee.
Two appear from under the coop which I quickly catch and lock inside. Kneeling down with a flashlight, I can see the feet of the other two, but they aren’t budging.
Do you know how many things there are out here that would love chicken for dinner?
Reasoning with them doesn’t work. Even as I list the predators for them.
Weasels, mink, raccoons, foxes, dogs, coyotes, bobcats, cougars . . . and you know, I’m not so sure that the tracks all over around this coop aren’t bobcat. You may have taken over her old home, you know.
They coo at my voice, but refuse to move. I give up on catching them, but not on getting them through the night alive. So I bring the dogs down and walk them around the coop several times. The plan is to let the dogs out every time they bark, following with a flashlight. They’re pretty much allowed out anytime they want, anyway, but now the stakes are a little higher. We’ve only been here for a week, and all evidence suggests that the wild things that lived here before us have not yet ceded their territory.
Fast forward several hours. They’ve already been out twice, chasing who knows what. Maybe just barking for the pure joy of it for all I know, but if there is any chance of them getting to the chickens before something that would actually do them harm, I don’t mind. Hunter is lunging at the window and I’m grabbing my jacket as my daughter says,
There’s something out there, mom. I see something like a dog.
The dogs race to the door and push past me as they round the corner and take on the intruder at a full run. Make that intruders. Hunter is immediately on the heels of one coyote, chasing him across the road, across a cornfield, across another road and I finally lose him in a line of trees. Copper is doing his best to keep up as the rest of the pack disperses.
Yes, pack. A whole pack of coyotes (at least ten by my daughter’s count) had been lounging in my front yard only moments before. Mouse watched them lope up to the yard, not twenty feet from the window. Some sat and stared back at her, some sniffed around, some even lay down. None were in the least concerned about us or the dogs lunging at the window.
Until they were released.
I heard Copper’s trail call every few minutes, each time further off in the distance. I grew concerned at just how far they were running. And while Hunter may give a single coyote a bit of a challenge, he is no match for a pack. Not to mention the little beagle. When would the coyotes decide they were on their own turf and ready to fight for it? Once I could no longer hear the barking, my anxiety grew. These coyotes were bold, unlike the ones I am familiar with from other places we have lived. If it weren’t for the night time yipping, I’d never have known any were present at all.
But this pack was lounging in my yard, in the open and nowhere near cover. When my daughter looked at them through the window, they just looked back.
Finally, Hunter comes trotting up our road, tail held high as he keeps pausing and looking behind him. He is significantly faster than Copper, but he rarely goes far without him. Copper, however, doesn’t appear. Hunter trots to the top of the hill, turns and waits. I haven’t heard Copper’s bugle in some time, but Hunter begins to prance and lowers his head in a play bow. Out from behind a snow drift comes those flopping little beagle ears and both dogs bound to me, overwhelming me with affection.
They are keyed up, and unharmed. They bear no evidence of anything but a hard run. But they are excited. Copper comes in with an energy that seems to set everything around him abuzz. For the rest of the night, he alerts to everything, even the sound of the heater kicking on. He is tracker dog extraordinaire. After all, that little beagle just took on a pack of coyotes and won.
And the chickens made it through the night. And I . . . well . . . I awoke with a little greater appreciation for the role of the family dog out here where he has a job to do, as well as for the wild things all around us. There are all kinds of things I know are out here, passing through our property on their nightly hunts. I know it even without the tell tale tracks in the snow. But it is different to know something, or even to see evidence of something, than it is to see it for yourself, to confront it and to drive it back.
I think about them sometimes during the day, the coyotes which contribute to significant livestock losses out here, as well as the cougars which seem almost a thing of myth. Everyone talks about them, and sightings, though rarely confirmed, occupy more than a few conversations over coffee. Then one gets hit on I-80 in Gretna and you know. You know. It isn’t just talk, like a rural version of the urban legend. Because there is no way mountain lions are strolling along I-80 if they are not experiencing population pressure out here.
Sometimes the hair on the back of my neck goes up in the evening as I lock up the chickens. It is almost as if I can feel something watching me from just beyond the shadows. Hunter’s low growl as he presses himself protectively against my leg and watches the hedge on the property line makes me hold my feed bucket a little more like a weapon, but I stop to stare into the darkness. Because these wild things that lurk in the shadows were as much a part of why I wanted to move out here as the ability to raise the chickens and goats I will have to work so diligently to protect from them.