Deer season's been going on now for a week and a half. The only place that I can walk with impunity is on our dirt road, and even then I have to wear copious amounts of blaze orange. I'm suffering from a bad case of cabin fever so yesterday when it poured rain on top of five inches of fresh snow, I figured I'd risk a hike in the woods: no one but a total idiot or an escaped convict would venture out in weather like that (I leave it to you to decide which category to put me into).
When I got up to the big field, the snow was still as it had fallen -- untracked and fluffy -- although every new print left an indentation of mush. There'd been no apparent animal movement since the snow fell: the summer residents have all finally gone into hibernation and the full timers -- the foxes and coyotes and deer -- were all holed up, huddled under thick hemlock branches waiting for the front to pass.
The dogs sniffed here and there, as relieved as I was to finally be let loose in a stimulating environment. I'd only gone about ten feet into the field before the snow at my feet opened out into a mouse run: a tunnel through the snow about three inches in diameter, perfectly cylindrical, the underside etched with the hieroglyphs of movement.
I wish I knew more about these under-snow highways. Snow had only been in place here for five hours but already there were tunnels every thirty or forty feet. Do the mice work as the snow falls to lay down this system of tunnels? Do the routes follow the same trails they utilize during the summer? Once the tunnels are dug, do the mice stay exclusively within those established tunnels, or are they constantly digging new ones?
I very seldom see mice in this field -- the vegetation is thick and tangled -- but judging from the number of snow tunnels, I assume a healthy -- perhaps astronomical -- number of individuals.
We crossed the big field without encountering any evidence of hunters, human or otherwise. The mouse tunnels in the snow turned my thoughts to my last dog, a big yellow of indeterminate lineage, although her oval footprints and oversized teeth hinted traces of coyote blood. Of all the dogs I've known, Ivy was the only one who really understood her position in nature. In Ivy's world, there were four kinds of animals: those that she hated, those that she feared, those that she ignored, and those that she ate.
At the top of the list were raccoons: Ivy carried a deep-seated vendetta in her heart against all raccoons. She terminated with extreme prejudice any raccoon she encountered, and she would not rest until the creature was certifiably dead. It didn't matter how big or old or feisty the coon was: Ivy would kill it. Some mornings involved emergency trips to the vet for stitches, but Ivy always emerged from the fight better than the coon.
When I saw my first bear with Ivy -- a huge sow with two cubs -- I worried that the dog might assume that the bear was just a big coon -- the two species eat virtually the same things -- and generalize her aggression toward the sow. My concern was unwarranted. Ivy wasn't stupid: one peek at that enormous bear and she looked up at me as if to say, "I don't know about your plans, but I'm getting out of here as fast as my coyote-shaped paws will take me."
In the canine hierarchy, Ivy placed herself above coyotes -- despite their shared blood, she knew that she was bigger and tougher than any coyote -- but below wolves. Once, on a long hike along the Moose River in northern Wisconsin, Ivy suddenly became very agitated, putting her front paws on my chest, feigning, and whining. She only relaxed when I interpreted her body language as reluctance to continue on with the hike. When we returned to the trailhead, we met a DNR official who told me that a pack of wolves had recently moved into the area.
As far as prey, Ivy was practical: she didn't hunt for the challenge or thrills or to impress with the size or difficulty of the kill. She was an efficient hunter with no wasted movements or prolonged chasing. Her preferred game was mice.
Even after she'd moved into our house and abandoned the feral lifestyle of her early years, Ivy still regularly hunted and ate mice, probably to maintain her edge in case she ever found herself in need of a meal. She'd walk the big field twenty yards ahead of me, to all appearances an average dog, distracted and unfocused. Suddenly, out of the blue, she'd snap into a four-legged pounce. The change was always abrupt, lightning quick, almost frightening: an eye-blink transformation from eager companion to killer. She'd never come up from the pounce without the limp body of a mouse secure in her jaws.
Ivy's been dead now for eight years: she survived bears and wolves and subzero temperatures but not a midnight collision with a speeding pickup. I wonder if the mouse population in the big field has rebounded since then or if her predatory niche has been filled by another, a fox or coyote. I wonder if during the long nights in the snow tunnels the older mice tell stories to the young ones, stories passed down for generations, immortalizing forever in the mouse community those snapping yellow jaws of death.
Causes Louise Young Supports
articulation of indigenous rights (organization: Cultural Survival)
sustainable, renewable, and independent energy sources