Monday, March 12, 2012

Pets versus wildlife

Although adult sandhill cranes are capable of defending themselves from many predators including dogs, they are less likely to nest and raise young in areas where domestic pets run loose.

Simply Living
March 12, 2012

Insistent bellowing drew me away from dinnertime preparations.

Sandhill cranes have a distinctive call when threatened. Their vocalization — a continual stream of guttural trills performed with uplifted heads — signals danger. As soon as I heard the sound, I put dinner on hold and ran outdoors.

It was almost dusk and the two cranes that spend every evening on a small island at the north end of the lake were not where they usually were at that hour. Instead of nestling in for a night of quiet repose, the gray-feathered beauties were about 300 feet away trumpeting their territorial claim in a tremulous staccato.

The birds were in intensive defensive mode and I didn't need to see the threat to know what was causing their alarm. My son had stopped by a short time before with a young dog adopted from the pound that very day. While I was fixing food, my son, husband and Chewy, a brown mixed breed similar in size and color to a coyote, were taking a walk around the lake. The dog, delighted with his sudden luck in not only having acres of space to explore but also a plethora of wildlife to chase, set his sights on the cranes.

Let me step back a bit to explain that I've always had a fondness for canines. Throughout my childhood, my best friend was a shorthaired white mutt named Happy. When Happy died, a collie-mix named Phoebe filled the void. I was in college when Phoebe passed on but a few years later the first of three successive terrier mixes — each named Dibs — fulfilled my need for canine companionship. Our own children were almost all grown when our last Dibs — a jolly 13-year-old who spent most days outside — had an unfortunate encounter with an alligator. A few months later, after both of our elderly cats died, my husband and I decided to take a prolonged break from domesticated animals.

The resulting hiatus coincided with an increase in wildlife on the property. Without a resident dog or cats to chase them away, populations of mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles could safely proliferate.

Around the same time, I underwent a transformation that I found freeing. For the first time in 30 years, I didn't have young children or domesticated animals to take care of. I could concentrate instead on nurturing the environment and enjoying the antics of the burgeoning wildlife populations.

This leads back to the incident with my son's new pet. The unleashed dog did what any recently rescued canine might do — he demonstrated his boundless energy and appreciation of his newfound freedom by chasing birds. Fortunately, sandhill cranes are quite capable of defending themselves. By the time I rushed outside, Chewy was beating a path away from the bellowers. I don't know if the cranes' vocalizations scared him off or if another sighting or scent diverted his attention. What I do know is he came when called and I was able to bring him into the garage until my son arrived with his leash.

I know firsthand how much love and companionship pets can provide. I also know the deep sense of pleasure and pride derived from a life interwoven with the natural meanderings of wildlife. I'm glad my son adopted a young dog to keep him company but I'm also glad my life has turned in a different direction.

Fast forward a few days. It's dusk — the hour when the sandhill cranes arrive for their evening repose. The long-legged birds have settled onto their island perch without any surprise encounters with frisky pups. The night is calm. No bellowing warning cries fill the air.

Making acres of land inaccessible to unleashed dogs and outdoor cats can't ensure the safety of wild animals — they have plenty of natural obstacles to overcome — but it can level the playing field. When I gave up pets, I gained wildlife. Rather than losing valuable connections, I extended their range, scope and depth.

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