A Tale Of Bantams and Bobcats

—Bunny Bowen

The recent trapping of a bobcat in our neighborhood took me back to a childhood experience in Virginia. We lived on two acres in a part of Roanoke which had built up following World War II. There were still some wooded areas, a few old farmhouses, and some blocks built up more densely with small GI Bill houses, where people took care of their lawns and gardens.

About the age of ten, I decided to earn my Girl Scout poultry badge. My father built a sturdy chicken coop in the back yard, and I acquired a pair of bantams. They became pets, and were allowed to range around the yard. Soon we discovered a nest fashioned from a straw bale in the garage, and in time Queenie hatched out a brood of eight adorable little chicks.

Queenie, Prince and their chicks (all named, of course) ranged further and further, but retired to the safety of the pen at night. My mother began to get a few calls… “Do you have chickens? There are chickens scratching up my flowers, eating the seeds I just planted in my garden!” She would go and shoo them back home.

One day, a chicken hawk swooped down and snatched “Astrid” from the front yard. My dad was angry—“We ought to shoot that old hawk.” (He’d raised bantams and homing pigeons as a kid.)

I was sad, but somehow, even at ten, I understood that the hawk was wild, that it flew over my neighbors’ yards as well, and that it was just doing what a hawk does. It kept down rodents and was part of the grand balance. Nobody had to tell me that, I just knew. And of course, dad didn’t shoot it.

Eventually, the chicks grew big enough to fly and they began roosting at night in the neighbor’s tall Doug firs. Of the seven chicks, five were roosters, so early every morning their crowing echoed for blocks.
Finally, my long-suffering mother had enough of the neighbors’ polite complaints, and she called the county agent, who knew of a 4H kid out in the country who needed a project. When I came home from school, the bantams were gone.

Fast-forward half a century to present-day Placitas.

When we moved here in 1975 we planted a native landscape intended to attract wild birds. A stray cat showed up, but the day I caught it with a quail chick in its mouth we let it indoors and adopted it. Pepper lived to be 21. We’ve had other cats too, but all indoor cats. You see, our garden benefits from the lizards and birds. A well-fed domestic cat kills those, but is usually indoors at night when mice and packrats are about. Our dogs have always been medium-sized, and fenced, so not much help with rabbits.

As the years passed, we had more of a problem with trespassing cats (cf. my bantams) and the nesting birds and lizards decreased while packrats, mice, and rabbits increased. Coyotes didn’t seem to keep them down, either. I pretty much gave up on a garden.

Then, about five years ago, things changed. Suddenly there were fewer rabbits, and we began seeing bobcats. One day I watched a mother with two kittens cavort in our side yard for nearly an hour. The next morning there was a freshly killed jackrabbit in the yard, which “mom” soon retrieved for the kittens’ breakfast. A few weeks later, we heard a great horned owl, and then found one of the kittens dead. It appeared to have the kind of damage an owl would cause, though the mother probably protected the mortally injured kitten from being eaten by the owl. Predator became prey, in this case.

In short, with the bobcats came a better balance between prey and predator. To those who see them as a threat to small pets left unattended outdoors, I would suggest:

1) keep small pets indoors unless you can be outside with them

2) if they must stay outdoors while you are away, then build them a safe pen or run with top and sides (as we did with our poultry here in Placitas)

3) please keep them on your property, lest neighbors consider them pests (like my bantams became)

4) should they become victims of natural predators, like my little bantam chick, don’t blame them for acting out their part in the ecosystem.

We all need to consider the consequences of our actions. If I leave poison outside to “get rid of” rodents, I then poison their predators. If I kill every snake out of fear, I can expect more rodents. If I trap coyotes and bobcats, I remove predators from the system and have to deal with too many rabbits and rodents.
And so do my neighbors.

For those who wish to live in a very controlled, sterile neighborhood, there are plenty of urban areas nearby. But since we choose to live in an area with hawks, owls, rabbits, lizards, snakes, bobcats, coyotes, vinegaroons, and yes, tarantulas, please let’s work together to live in harmony and balance as part of the natural environment of this beautiful community.

Let’s learn about the native plants and animals and the web of creation. We are all part of it.

Reprinted with permission from the Sandoval Signpost