The Bighorn Sheep in My Yard

Wild Kingdom* out my window.

There are bighorn sheep in the cliffs across the road from my home. I often hear them clattering around in the rocks, creating mini landslides. I’ve also seen them quite often.

Last year, they’d show up pretty regularly across the street in my neighbor’s yard. By regularly, I mean around midday every day. For weeks. I even had the misfortune of seeing my neighbor outside, buck naked, taking photos of them when I was watching them through binoculars and movement caught my eye.

They were gone for quite a while. Sure, I’d hear them up in the cliffs and the sound would often get Penny all worked up. Despite numerous helicopter rides with me, her hearing remains excellent and she often hears them before I do.

A few weeks ago, they started showing up again. A pretty big herd of mostly females. One time, they even put on quite a show for some weekend guests who’d come with their RV. We sat up on the deck having a late breakfast while they grazed on weeds in my neighbor’s yard.

Bighorn Sheep
It wasn’t easy to take photos of the sheep at the road; the sun was right behind them.

The other day, they were on my side of the road. I watched them, fearing that they might start grazing on the willow trees I’d planted alongside the road last year. But they seemed more interested in the weeds than the trees. Good.

Penny and Sheep
A cropped cell phone picture of Penny facing off with one of the sheep.

On Thursday, I was working on some shelves in my garage when Penny started barking at something. Turned out that she was near the end of the driveway, facing off with one of the bighorn sheep. I managed to get a photo with my phone before the sheep bounded off. I mean that quite literally — it ran off with a hopping motion that was actually quite funny to see. But what really surprised both Penny and me was that the sheep wasn’t alone — are they ever? There were at least a dozen more in my front yard, hidden from view by the tall weeds and my shed. They took off after their friend, running across the road.

I took a break and went upstairs for some lunch. I ate out on the deck. The sheep had moved into the road about halfway down my property line. Some of them were actually lying down in the road. I live on a dead end road and there are only three occupied homes beyond mine, so there isn’t much traffic.

Cathedral Rock Traffic Jam
Seriously? Lying down in the road?

Eventually, however, one of my neighbors went out. Even though they obviously saw the sheep — how could you possibly miss a herd right in the road? — and they drove slowly, the sheep moved.

Into my yard.

As I watched, they came closer and closer to my home. I know they saw me up on the deck watching, but they didn’t seem too interested. They came to the north side of my place, the side that faces the Columbia River and Wenatchee Valley. They were nibbling on the tops of the native grass and weeds that grow wild there. (I have 10 acres and the vast majority of it has “nature’s landscaping.”) They came closer and closer. At one point, one of them was right at the edge of the gravel drive, not 100 feet from where I watched from the deck.

Herd of Bighorn Sheep
My Nikon was handy and I’d popped the 70-300mm lens on it when they first came into the yard. They were so close that I had to zoom all the way out to capture this group of the herd. This is 70mm from my deck, uncropped. A handful of others didn’t fit in the frame.

They were beautiful. And healthy. Adult females mostly, with a few youngsters.

Another shot from my deck. This was shot at 300mm and is not cropped. They were close!

This is the video I Periscoped. It’s a shame it saves a downsampled version of the video.

I took pictures, of course. Lots of pictures. And video. I did a live broadcast on Periscope and another on Facebook. I wanted to share my experience with my friends. (I guess that’s what this blog post is about.)

I’d left the door open and when I saw them looking down at something, I followed their glance. Penny was out there, sizing them up. I didn’t want her scaring them off so I called her, softly. She seemed to debate whether she should come. But then she trotted back into the house and up the stairs. She joined me on the deck to watch them and stayed quiet.

And then they just left. After about 20 minutes grazing in my side yard, one of them headed off purposefully and the others followed. I watched them go. They crossed my driveway and then the road and headed back up toward the cliffs.

Did they come back yesterday when I was out hiking and hunting for mushrooms with a friend? I don’t know, but I bet they did. And I bet they came back today when I was out doing helicopter rides in Quincy. Tomorrow, I plan to get some work done at home. Maybe I’ll see them again.

I hope so.

* Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom was a television show about animals that originally aired from 1963 until 1988. I grew up watching this show. A new version began airing on Animal Planet in 2002. Learn more here and here.

Night Stalkers

Caught in action!

Game Camera
Game cameras like this offer an affordable way to keep a record of visitors while you’re gone.

Last winter, I set one of my game cameras up on my unfinished deck. I’d found an animal turd on a piece of plywood outside my living room door and wanted to know where it had come from. So I set up the camera — and promptly forgot about it for six months.

Eventually, I got to work on the deck and the game camera was in the way. I brought it inside, where it languished on the windowsill beside my desk for a while and then brought it downstair to the big desk in my shop. I thought it had been turned off, but it hadn’t. It took pictures whenever it sensed movement until the batteries finally died.

Today, I pulled out both game cameras, put in new batteries, and prepared to set them out to see what they might capture while I’m not looking. I pulled both SD cards out of the cameras and had a look at their contents.

One camera included video shot inside the garage of my old Arizona house back in 2013. I’d set up the camera after I realized that someone — in all likelihood, my future wasband — had attempted to break in through the garage window beside the front door. Fortunately, we’d put a bar there years before that prevented the window from opening more than a few inches for ventilation. When I noticed it, the window was open and stuck hard half off its track. Since I did a lot of traveling that last season home in Arizona, I thought it might be a good idea to set up some kind of surveillance for while I was gone. Game cameras in the kitchen and garage were a good solution. Fortunately (for my wasband), the only activity they captured was me and my friends coming and going.

Dawn Cat
One of my two barn cats looks out over his domain just before dawn last March.

The other camera was the one I’d put out on the unfinished deck last year. It was set up for motion triggers images. And what it caught kind of surprised me: my barn cats hanging out on the supports for the deck. Keep in mind that the only way they could get up to the deck was to climb at least ten feet up one of the posts. There was no ladder, overhanging trees, and no staircase.

Barn Cats
Here’s a shot with both cats. The surface they’re on was approximately 3-1/2 inches wide 10 feet off the ground.

Glowing Eyes
The cats spent most of March 27 up on the deck. According to my calendar, I’d just come home from a trip to California the afternoon before.

I found about two dozen photos with one or both of the cats in them. In most instances, they were either walking right past the front of the camera’s lens or sitting on one of the 2 x 10 beams that support the deck.

Nowadays, I think I have just one barn cat: the black one. Although I saw Black Cat just last night on the pathway between his “safe place” in the shed and my front door, I haven’t seen Gray Cat for months. I’ll likely get one or two new barn cats in the spring. I got them to keep the rodent population down so the snakes wouldn’t have anything to eat and it worked like a charm — I didn’t see a single snake within 200 feet of my home or garden. This is, by far, the best way to control snakes and rodents. Best of all, since they’re not really “pets,” they don’t take much care. I can provide enough food and water in their shed to keep them satisfied for a month since they supplement cat food with rodents and their water with the chickens’ water.

As far as cameras and security goes — without revealing too much, let’s just say that I don’t rely on game cameras for security anymore. I have a far more sophisticated system with live cameras I can access from anywhere. Of course, none of that really matters when my house-sitter has a Doberman and knows where I keep my shotgun.

And I never did find out where that turd came from…

My Barn Cats

Low maintenance rodent control.

Rodents are a fact of life in rural areas. They were in the garage — and sometimes in the house! — when I lived in Arizona. They were in my hangar there, got into my RVs, and made nests in my cars and motorcycles. Here in Washington, they’ve gotten into my RV and Jeep. I’ve never seen evidence of them in my shed or big garage, but they must be there. After all, rodents are a fact of life.

When I say rodents, I’m mostly talking about mice. Sometimes they’re adorable little mice the size of my thumb. I’d catch them live and release them far away. Until I started catching multiple mice each day. The novelty wore off and I resorted to traditional snap traps. Can’t use poison because I can’t worry about Penny eating it or poisoned mice. And the sticky traps are downright cruel.

Image of a vole from Wikipedia by user Soebe.

Here in Malaga, we also have voles. They dig up the ground and, if they get into your garden, can kill your plants from the roots. That’s one of the reasons my planters have chicken wire bottoms — to keep the damn things from getting in from below. Penny successfully caught and killed one last year and I suspect she’ll do it again this year.

While I normally wouldn’t mind rodents outdoors — after all, they are part of the ecosystem — they tend to attract snakes. And while I don’t mind non-venomous snakes like bull snakes, I do mind rattlesnakes. I killed three of them in my immediate yard last year. It’s unfortunate, because I really don’t like to kill anything, but I don’t want to worry about Penny or my chickens — or me, for that matter — getting bit.

That’s where the idea of “barn cats” comes in. The Wenatchee Valley Humane Society (WVHS) has what it calls a Barn Buddy Program. They capture feral cats, find homes for them, spay or neuter the cats, and hand them over to their new owners. The cats are strictly outdoor cats and owners are not expected to do much more than give them safe shelter and a steady supply of food and water.

The way I saw it, if I had cats to reduce the rodent population I might be able to reduce the number of snakes that come around in the summer months.

And it was a nice way to help out some cats that would likely be euthanized if not taken. Indeed, the WVHS does not go through the expense of neutering a cat unless an owner is already lined up for it. The reason: they only keep these cats, which are otherwise unadoptable, for about a week. Once a home is lined up for a cat, the WVHS sends it off to be neutered prior to handing it over to its new owner. It’s important to note that in the wild, if not neutered and given a safe home, these cats are only expected to live a few years.

I got my cats around Christmas time. Note that I said cats — plural. The WVHS prefers that you take at least two because they are more likely to stick around if they have company. The cats I got were a 1-1/2 year old black cat I named Black Bart and a 6 month old tabby I creatively named Kitty. I picked them up from the vet in large plastic kennels, set them up in my shed with a heater, food, water, and litter box (as instructed) and let them roam free inside for the required 3 week acclimation period.

My shed is small — just 6 x 8 feet. It’s full of garden and beekeeping equipment. There are shelves on one wall. There’s a hollow overhang over the door. The cats quickly learned to climb up onto the shelves or overhang when they heard me coming. Not only was it safer for them (in their minds) but it was also warmer since heat rises.

Kitty on a Shelf
Here’s Kitty, up on the top shelf in my shed.

After three weeks — and a few weeks before I went away for a vacation in Arizona — I installed a cat door on the shed. This would give them the ability to go in and out at will. When I knew they were using the door — cat paw prints in fresh snow was a dead giveaway — I removed their kennels and returned them to the WVHS for someone else to use. I also bought a feeder that would hold 10 pounds of dry food and a water dispenser that would hold a gallon of water.

It wasn’t long before I realized that they were spending a lot of time under the shed. Penny is actually the one who discovered this. I heard her barking from inside the shed and opened the door to let her out — but she wasn’t in there. It took a moment to realize that she wasn’t in the shed but under it, likely barking at one or both cats. I got her to come out and I think she hurt herself doing it because she was sore for a few days afterward. Since then, she often goes to the cat’s entrance to their undershed domain but doesn’t try to go in.

I’d occasionally see Kitty inside the shed, up on a shelf — especially when I still had the heater in there. But I didn’t see Black Bart at all and I worried a bit about him.

Understand that these are still completely feral cats. If they see me, they run away. They don’t know their names and, even if they did, they definitely wouldn’t come if I called. Although I suppose I could make some effort to tame them, I prefer not to. There are many predators in this area — coyotes, eagles, owls — and although they have the shed for safe shelter, I don’t expect them to live very long. For that reason, I’d prefer not to get attached to them.

Still, the water was drunk and the food was eaten so I knew they were around somewhere. While I was in Arizona, the litter box got quite disgusting, but I think that was actually a good thing. When I returned, dumped it, and refilled it, I soon realized that they were hardly using it at all. When the weather gets a little better, I’ll take it outside and eventually do away with it. They did their business outdoors before they were captured, they can do it outdoors again when the litter box is gone.

Based on Penny’s behavior, I knew at least one of them was living mostly under the shed. I assumed they came out to hunt at night.

Lately, however, I’ve been spending a lot more time up in my living space over the garage as I finish up construction. I often take a break in a chair by the window and look out over my property and the Wenatchee Valley beyond. Over the past two days, I’ve caught sight of both cats wandering around near the shed. On Friday, Kitty explored the inside of the cabinet installers’ cargo trailer. On Saturday afternoon, Black Bart sat sphinx-like on the concrete “porch” of the shed while Kitty wandered around the weeds nearby.

My Barn Cats
I shot this photo of my two barn cats out in my garden from my living room window only a few hours after writing this blog post.

It was rather comforting to see my barn cats out and about on a nice day — especially since they’d obviously become a pair and were roaming, at least part time, together. It was a sort of reminder of the success of the program. I admit that I’m tempted to get another two cats and set them up in my garage, but I’d rather wait until I’ve moved my furniture and boxes into my new home upstairs. Then I’ll give it some thought. (I don’t want people to think I’ve become a cat lady.)

As for rodent control, it’s too early to see what kind of difference they’re making. It’s still winter here and the temperatures have been getting down into the low 30s and high 20s lately. The ground is hard and the voles aren’t coming up to the surface. Or maybe they have been — just long enough to make a tasty snack for a barn cat?