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Monday, March 17, 2014


Animal Behavior is fascinating. As the wife of a rancher, I've come to understand that we can learn from watching nature and observing animals. It's more than oohing over Bambi; living alongside nature can be intimidating, exhilarating, or tragic.

On the ranch we get to witness both the unusual and the ordinary in animal behavior. We have a natural preserve that runs through the middle of our ranch, a piece of property and slough that the family has maintained for 100 years or more. There we witness a myriad of animal interactions: from eagles and herons and geese, to otters and muskrats and even a beaver or two.

Every spring we have a new batch of goslings up and down the slough.

If you are lucky to be there at just the right time, you can see some unbelievable behavior. One time my husband witnessed an eagle that, in mid-air, dove at a Canadian goose flying with its flock. It knocked the bird out of the sky and it tumbled to the ground. The eagle quickly swooped down to claim its prize. He also watched as an eagle watched, circling round and round, until a duck paddling on the surface of the water, went "under" and came up -- timing it perfectly to fly down and swoop him up. The duck couldn't react to get away quickly enough to get away.

We had chickens for years and I had one favorite banty, Henny Penny, who would nest anywhere. One year I rescued a dozen duck eggs and she sat on them and hatched them...the amazing part was that as the "chicks" got bigger, they would wander into the small pond I made for them and swim around. Poor Henny Penny would raise her "skirts" and step into the water -- squawking at them as they swam around her!!

Another time, as we rode down the lane, we watched a Blue Heron perch on the edge of one of our water troughs, "plucking" gold fish from the tank. We keep gold fish in the tubs and tanks because they are helpful in keeping algae to a minimum. Obviously this heron found a convenient round of appetizers that day!

An old pine tree, was home to over 20 heron nests....but later fell down in a wind storm.

For a writer observing such moments is an opportunity to see and know what few truly get to experience, and I've often commented to my cowboy/ranching husband that his relationship with animals and wildlife is something awe-inspiring. He handles animal life and death as part of his every day work and thus encounters the miraculous and mundane that makes him all the more philosophical and wise. Not an ivory kind of life do we live, but a raw and very real one that demonstrates the beauty and the devastation found in nature.

There are the tragic nights when we bring in a young cow that is struggling to give birth, when the calf is too large or turned back and even after an hour or more of pulling, the calf slips away from all of us. There are the frustrating moments when we find an orphan calf that's been abandoned because it's a twin, but then, as we take it home and bottle feed it, there's the satisfaction of knowing you have saved a life.

This calf survived a long and arduous birth, but got up and was soon nursing contentedly.

We've had some delightful encounters with animals over the years. One episode involved a domestic old gray goose -- a leftover from a larger group my husband's family had raised -- and a pair of Canadian geese. The three geese were part of the ranch before we were married. Big and intimidating when approached, these geese found their home with the pigs. We used to raise pigs commercially and had a field full (fully range raised). Whether they stayed because the pigs had access to water or not, we never knew, but they served as immediate alarms for the pigs...squawking and honking if you came too close.

Baby pigs -- curious and intelligent!
At night the geese nestled down among and alongside the pigs, and even had to "run through" the "little chute" when we worked the pigs -- honking all the way. There was also a pair of Canadian geese, who had originally been rescued by my husband's mother, that lived for several years out in the pig pens, too. They had to have been siblings as they came from the same nest of eggs, and, traditionally, Canadian geese do not "mate with" their siblings, but these two finally nested. Sadly the eggs never hatched I have always found it intriguing that Canadian geese also mate for life.

Even when flocks of visiting, migrating geese and ducks flew by -- or landed temporarily -- these geese remained put, at least for five or more years. They certainly did not see themselves as wild waterfowl although no one could get near them. Eventually the pair moved out further and further so whether they were finally killed off or flew off, we don't know for sure. But the old gray goose lived to be well over 20 years old.

We also had a pair of nesting owls that settled in every spring for at least five or six years -- right in our "backyard." Our yard is large and we have some enormous trees, so it wasn't surprising that the pair of Great Horned owls would take up residence. Each year we would hear them, and they would often scold us if we came too close to the tree where they perched. They always raised two chicks, but the hard part was that one of the two birds always fell to the ground eventually. We never had the chick die, but it was so fluffy and without flight, that we would rescue it and place it in a protected place (where the ranch dogs and cats would hopefully not discover it!). Unbelievably, the parents would take turns watching from other nearby trees -- swooping down when no one was there to feed the abandoned chick. Finally the chick grew enough real feathers to fly, and one day, without warning, he'd be gone -- as would both male and female and remaining chick.

One year, however, the owls got to the nest "too late" and a pair of red-tailed hawks flew in and ransacked it, claiming it for their own! We watched as the two pairs of angry birds sat across from each other, 60 feet in the air above our heads, and screeched at each other. This would go on until the owls took flight. With other large trees we know that they found another place to roost, but they never returned to the original nest. We would see the owls at a distance, but with the hawks right there, ready to intimidate, the owls kept their distance. Again, like the owls, whenever we stepped out of the house, they reminded us that they were there!

The second of two trees (right edge) that stood 110 feet this tree the mother Horned Owl would watch her young chick. The diameter of the tree is at least six feet around.

Last year we had to cut down a huge portion of two of our largest trees so that now we have neither the owls nor the hawks close at hand; the trees had been hit by lightening a time or two and posed a threat, so we had to cut down over 40 feet of each!

But as my husband assured me, eventually they will become the giants they were. Until then I have to watch my home-building birds from a distance.

Coming this spring, Globe Pequot will be releasing the anthology, ANKLE HIGH AND KNEE DEEP, edited and contributed to by Gail. The anthology is a collection of rural and ranching reflections and memoirs from 40+ woman authors as well as photographs from life in the country. For more about Gail's other books, visit her Prairie Rose biography and link. Be sure and check out her release from Prairie Rose, ACROSS THE SWEET GRASS HILLS, available as a download or trade paperback.


  1. Wonderful post Gail! I love the intrigue and subtly of watching wildlife. Thanks for sharing your experiences.

    1. Thank you Kristy! If I were smart I'd become a better photographer!!! I have not gotten photos of half the things I see :-)

  2. Gail, you have seen things some of us will never be able to experience, just in your everyday life. I enjoyed hearing about these experiences of yours. I had no idea that geese would settle down and sort of "adopt" piglets like those of yours did. That's truly amazing. BTW, those piglets are just adorable. I would want to make pets of everything. LOL Ankle High and Knee Deep sounds like it's a sure winner. Lots of good stories, in there, I know!

    1. The pigs are fun -- although we don't raise them commercially any more... it's so much work and we've expanded our cattle herd to such numbers that we can't do it all :-) Yes, ANKLE HIGH AND KNEE DEEP is going to be a wonderful collection of stories!

  3. I could listen (or read) animal stories all day. I love them. Life depicted on TV doesn't have the same impact that seeing it in real life. I saw a hawk swoop down and grab a squirrel once. The squirrel was kicking and screaming in the hawk's claws. It was a horrible sight.
    Your life sounds so interesting with all its adventures with animals. If your experiences translate over to your stories, well, they can be nothing less than awesome.

    1. Thank you, Sarah! Some of the things we witness are hard to see, but you learn to understand that nature is not "gentle" much of the time! I think we are often naive and unprepared for what life close to nature can mean, but the rewards and blessings far outweigh the disappointment or dismay!

  4. I grew up in a farming community and can so relate to this post, even though it has been many years ago. I think there are just some things that never leave you. Thank you for bringing back some interesting and sometimes fun memories.

  5. Thank you....I'm glad the post rekindled the warm memories of your childhood. Raising children in the country has been so rewarding and I'm thrilled that our two sons have returned to the ranch to raise their families....and our daughter and her husband return as often as they can. Plus our daughter has joined in (with my sister-in-law, my two daughters-in-law, plus two nieces) to go into business for ourselves, as Jenner Family Beef (check us out at!). It's been a great new venture and a way to expand our umbrella of business.

  6. Beautiful place. Thanks for sharing your life with us. The trees will grow and the owls and hawks will be back. If not in your generation, then for the next.

  7. Hi Nancy! Yes, for sure -- the birds always return :-) We have so many around that I never get tired of watching them...