Friday, November 19, 2010

Funny Furry Friday: Wild Kingdom Chateau Wooldridge

Welcome to this special edition of Wild Kingdom, where we'll explore wild animal habitats… a little closer to home.

This episode brings us to -- ------ Road in Auburn, Massachusetts.  A two-story colonial separated from surrounding suburbia by woods on four sides, cliffs on two.  As the human habitants, the Wooldridges, explain, the environment is a gathering place for many species.  A red-tail hawk regularly nests here.  A herd of deer frequently migrate through.  Turkeys, Red-headed Woodpeckers, Turkey Vultures, Barred Owls, Screech Owls all have been sighted. 

What makes this area so strange is the tameness of these wild creatures.  Most come within 10 or 20 feet of humans, unafraid.

Today, we'll look at one particular habitat and the curious behavior of the animals involved.

For the past 25 or more years, there has been an untouched pile of a hundred or so cinder blocks beneath sheets of plywood, sheetrock, and a truck cap.  The story about how it came to exist isn't important right now, because it's all about to be turned upside down.

Some history you do have to know is that the Wooldridge family added a companion predator to their pack approximately 4 years ago. 

It's a highly domesticated predator who, on record, has only managed to kill three field mice and a chipmunk - and although no autopsy was done, it's suspect that the animals were likely rather domestic and out of shape themselves.

Early (according to Mrs. Wooldridge who claims 11AM is early), visitors came to the Wooldridge residence to obtain cinder blocks for the construction of a stall for another companion, a horse, who lives off site.

Unbeknownst to the residents of the cinder block pile, their lives were about to change forever.

In a couple of hours of hefting and loading, the truck cap was moved, much of the wood taken, and then the cinder blocks started to disappear, too!

As the humans were moving these building materials, they uncovered several different members of the insect kingdom, and continued to find more and more evidence of field mouse nests and scat.  Upon reaching the cinder blocks, every third one had at least one hole full of mouse nest.  Every so often, the advancing humans would catch site of brown and grey bodies scurrying… and even staring right at them!

In all, a minimum of two or more dozen individuals were estimated as living in this maze of cinder block holes.  All demonstrated only minor fear of the creatures decimating their homes.  Most letting the humans come within inches, some even letting the humans "pet" them with gloved hands.  Unfortunately, we have no camera footage of these strange interactions, but here is a view of how much of their homeland was taken from them.

Close to 80% of the field mice's habitat was trucked away this day, leaving the remaining mice to make do with the few blocks left.

Or not.

The companion predator, known as Nylis, was introduced to what was left of the field mouse habitat to promote balance in a now over-populated area.  The humans did not want the mice to migrate into their domicile and wreak their own brand of havoc on the materials, food storage, and other things.

"Since she's not all that much of a hunter, I wasn't sure what she was going to do when she spotted the mice," says Mrs. Wooldridge.  "But once I put her on top of the pile of cinder blocks, she was all business… sort of."

"Sort of" is a good way to put it.  What happened next is an example of the strange, quite anti-Darwininan, behavior this environment promotes.

Within a matter of seconds, Nylis captured her the first field mouse of this population and, haphazardly carrying it in her mouth, brought it to the grass to inspect.  It died within moments.  The feline appeared confused, poking and sniffing the now still mouse.

Without a reaction from her prey, the feline returned to the blocks and within seconds had another mouse in her mouth.  This time, however, she was carrying it like a kitten, and she gently placed it on the grass.  From there, we watched quite the game of cat-and-mouse… only, with the cat letting the mouse escape into the woods every time. 

Even during the play, Nylis kept her claws withdrawn and no longer used her mouth.  Her bats were much more gentle than the strength demonstrated when she played with her humans - as if she now realized these creatures were delicate.

(Apologies again, for lack of photo proof.  All parties were laughing too hard to properly operate their electronic equipment.)

One might think that the mice would now know to run or flee, but the cat was still able to catch a mouse within seconds of returning to the cinder blocks - each one quite gently and like a kitten and none harmed again.

The humans watched this dance take place with three mice and then retired to the house to conduct business, letting the cat stay with the mouse population.  Something she appeared pleased to do.

Upon completion of the business, approximately half an hour later, the humans returned to the scene of destruction.  No more rodent cadavers were found, nor a hint of blood, but there were also no more mice scurrying around the blocks.

Well, almost no more mice.

It was agreed that this one looked so sad and pitiful that the humans moved the blocks so Nylis would not find him, but he could still go out.

With the rodents evicted in a direction away from the human domicile, all retreated to the two-story colonial and Nylis was given a bowl full of snacks in hopes she might have a positive affirmation that she continue to evict field mice from the human territory.

While such a behavioral show might seem anti-Darwinian, recall that these mice have had that relatively safe habitat - hard to get to by the mostly avian predators of the area - for what could be close to a hundred generations of mice.  And in such close quarters, inbreeding is sure to occur.  Although the local predator only killed one, these animals will now fend for themselves among the other habitants of the human neighborhood - such as other cats, dogs, and now the avian predators.  The cat, being domestic and sharing a domicile with a prey animal - a 10-year-old rabbit - has learned that actual hurting of prey animals normally results in punishment, so her adaptability to the environment also shows. 

(That, and she has been altered so she cannot reproduce, anyway.)

We hope you've enjoyed this close-to-home safari into a Not-So-Wild Kingdom.  Remember, you can find life or death drama and appreciate the world around you… just by paying attention in your own back yard.

Thank you for joining us!


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