An ecological dilemma


It took the power of two flashlights to discover the source of the metallic screech that had been keeping us up nights. There, on the top of a telephone pole, sat a chunky juvenile great horned owl, plaintively calling for its parents to come feed it.

But then my attention turned to the ground below the pole, where our two young cats played a game of tag and wrestle in the light beams, oblivious to the menace above.

"Come on, you dumb cats. " I said, trying to gather them in the dark. "You'll end up owl food."

It's funny how you can develop an attachment to animals that are ecological menaces. Earlier that day, one of the cats had brought me the remnants of a songbird; It was so far eaten that I couldn't identify it, but it was likely one of the dozen or so common species -- juncos, sparrows, flycatchers, orioles, meadowlarks -- that show up in various stages of decay on our back porch. Any bird that has tried to nest within a hundred yards of the house has seen its offspring meet a similar fate, either consumed in egg form, or as fledglings that fluttered too close to the ground on their maiden flights. Our home is a killing field.

So I ask myself: So what if an owl snatches a cat in the dead of night? It would give the birds a fighting chance to reproduce, while meting out some feathered justice to the cat. That would make ecological sense, but it's not so simple. My daughter brought home one of the cats a couple of months ago -- a half-starved, feral bag of bones she found mewing helplessly on the center of the road at the end of the driveway. After weeks of dropper feedings, luxurious purring naps on the bellies of various members of the family, augmented by increasingly intense games of hide and stalk, Squash has blossomed into a sleek and lovable teenager, with a somewhat violent streak.

We have recently turned him into an "outdoor cat," a status whereby we, the caretakers, are supposed to stoically accept that he could die any moment from any number of calamities. That's what happened to the last three cats that made our small ranch their home: They just disappeared. Though we sometimes speculate that they are now living lives of luxury as indoor cats at a neighbor's house, the truth is probably more gruesome: The swift snap of a coyote's jaw or the crushing grip of a great horned owl's talons has sent them to the Great Beyond, or at least given them a new place in the food chain they were so fond of disrupting.

I know from the ecology courses I took in school that this is the way it is supposed to work: Our cats keep the mouse and bird populations in check until they themselves become sustenance for larger wild predators, which then keep the cat population in check. Still, I can't seem to maintain the dispassionate view of a scientist. One moment I want to strangle the cats, and the next I want to take out the shotgun and blow that young owl away.

Owls aren't the only birds I have occasionally felt like wiping out. Last summer, I grew six acres of corn. After I'd patiently irrigated the field for weeks, juicy little ears began to form on the rapidly maturing stalks. I was thrilled. Then a flock of several hundred blackbirds discovered the banquet.

I yelled at them, spun around the field on a four-wheeler and threw rocks until I lost the feeling in my shoulder. Occasionally I succeeded in scattering the flock out of the field, but, like a single, determined organism, it always came back, often flying in beautiful flight formation. As my rage grew, so did the flock.  By August, several thousand birds were feasting on the corn. "You could get a cannon," my spouse suggested. But that sounded like too much work, and I just gave up.

Now, I have decided never to grow corn again, a decision that has improved my attitude toward blackbirds. I can marvel at the way they mass in late summer, and quietly chortle as they descend like feathered locusts on fields belonging to other people.

It's been a week since I discovered the owl, and my cats are still alive. Apparently, the owl's parents are finding enough mice to keep their offspring happy. Still, I know it's just a matter of time before my heart will be broken again. But for now, I'll stop fretting and just enjoy watching the cats play in the grass, where they stalk and kill every living thing they can get their paws on.

Paul Larmer is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He is the magazine's publisher and executive director in Paonia, Colorado.

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