Catron County, New Mexico has about 400 miles of paved road, and we're planning to walk every mile of it ... eventually ...

Monday, January 22, 2007

Not a happy boy.

No biting or scratching, just a few dirty looks and we were soon forgiven.

Cat Population Decimated by Eagles. Goodbye, Mars.

I've mentioned before that we know it's winter when the bald eagles arrive, and we know winter is over when the eagles depart. Every winter, a pair of bald eagles sits high up in a tree we've dubbed, unimaginatively enough, the Eagle Tree, and we like to think it is the same pair year after year, a male and female whom we have named Hercules and Xena after Kevin Sorbo and Lucy Lawless.

This year only one eagle showed up at first, the male, we think. We spotted him around Thanksgiving week. It was mid-December before the female arrived, and when we had a really cold stretch they both disappeared for a while, maybe gone south to warmer digs. They came back when the ponds thawed and we've been seeing them every day. They hunt the small wild ducks and rabbits and field mice and don't generally come too near the house or barn.

This winter has been wetter than usual, lots of snow and rain and sleet and snow again. I don't know if when the ground is covered with thick white snow it makes it better for hunting or worse. But I do know that this last week we've had lots of snow, and we've had not two but FOUR bald eagles hanging about, one clearly a juvenile female. And at the same time, the cats have begun to disappear.

Semi-feral cats are a fact of life in the country. They keep the rodent population down in barns and outbuildings, which is a very good thing, since the rodents that live in sheds and barns and wood piles are vectors for the transmission of bubonic plague and hanta virus. (Yes, we still have bubonic plague in America, shh.) Hanta virus crops up regularly in New Mexico, usually caught by rural folk who heat with wood, and is surprisingly lethal. So, cats are good to have around, and we put out a little food in the barn and in the tree next to the woodpile for them everyday.

We started with one pregnant cat which belonged to the neighbors, but thought our barn was a good place to have three litters of kittens. We called her Momma Cat. Eventually she disappeared, but not before we had gotten her all her shots and had her spayed and treated for various absesses. Her offspring were fairly wild, and their presence, as well as the presence of the free buffet in the barn, attracted more cats, especially stray males in the spring.

Too bad there isn't a form of birth control drops for cats that you can mix in their food and water. We did learn that the longevity of a semi-feral cat is directly proportional to the amount of time and money you invest in catching, transporting, spaying, neutering, etc., said cat. IE, the more money we spent, the sooner the cat would disappear completely, never to be seen again. The point of no return is about equivalent to $150 US. (includes gas for the two-hundred mile roundtrip to the vet's office, vet exam, spay or neuter, various and sundry shots, and treatment for various wounds/ailments.)

Not all cats are good mothers - some of them will up and leave a whole litter, or abandon a single slightly defective baby, or in the case of one very savvy little female, leave the babies on the front door step with a note pinned to them saying Here, you take care of these damn little pirahnas, I'm eloping to Vegas with the slinky black Tom from down the road. (She was backed, a month later, knocked up again and no sign of her man. Some girls never learn.)

Mars was one of an abandoned litter - we named the two males Mars and Mercury, and the female Venus, and took them in and raised them in the house. They preferred the outdoors after a few months, and then Mercury died and Venus disappeared, and Mars was left. He used to sleep under my car, until I accidentally ran over him and broke his hip. At the vet's, I said no to neutering him, assuming that since I was already at the $150 mark, he wouldn't be around much longer anyway. Back into the house he came, and we nursed him back to health, and when he went back outside to live, he had a newfound and two-fold sense of purpose. One, to claim every female as his own, and two, to drive off all competitors. He succeeded, too.

Whenever he was torn and bloody he came yowling at the door, and we'd doctor him up and send him back out there. He seemed to be quite fond of his harem, very affectionate, and gentle with the little ones, although as soon as his male offspring matured he would drive them off. Every year he looked a little worse and had a harder time getting rid of the stray males, and we thought he might not manage it next spring.

As I mentioned, there are now FOUR eagles on the place, and the first time we realized this it was because there was one very large one sitting in a tree quite near the house. Mars has disappeared, along with most of the other barn cats - in fact, there are only three outdoor cats left, as far as we can tell. And they're acting very nervous, moving around in stealth mode, trying to stay out of sight.

I fear the worst.