Nature Giveth, and Nature Taketh Away

R.R. Edwards

Life in rural Sonoma County can be an odd blend of nature at its best, and then a show of its harsher side. We’d arrived home yesterday at about 4:00 a.m. after a stressful couple of days, and an 11 hour drive. Awaking after only a few hours of sleep, we were beat, and decided it was a day to lie low. We owed Mr. Emu a visit—it had been about a week since we’d made off with his five chicks to give them a better chance at survival, and, after debating about dragging our tired asses out of the house and up the hill, nature’s perfect afternoon of sunshine and blue skies won out.

We made our way past the field where Mrs. Emu was grazing alongside the sheep, stopping only long enough to give her a few pieces of apple we’d cut up for Mr. E. She’s now in the habit of making her way over to the fence when she sees us walking up the road, looking for her share of apple. Further up the road are the two fields (divided by a fence with a gate) that Mr. E has been occupying along with about a dozen sheep and lambs. The upper field holds a pond that you can’t see from the road, and the emu’s nest was near the pond. When we arrived at the lower field, there was no sign of Mr. E. We thought this odd as he’s usually wandering along the fence, near the road, and even when he’s in the upper field, he can usually be seen. It was then that we noticed a lone buzzard, standing in the far corner of the field. I didn’t give it a lot of thought—normally, if there’s something a buzzard is interested in, they’re all interested. Any carrion meal of note is usually well attended. I was about to head to the upper area in search of our missing bird when AV says, “Let’s check it out.”  As we approached, the buzzard took off, abandoning what was clearly the remains of an animal. At first, the only thing I could see was a rib-cage, picked clean. Just as I was thinking it, AV said, “It’s Mister Emu!” My heart sank, and AV looked as if she were about to cry. I wandered closer, and it was then that I realized it wasn’t Mr. E, but the remains of a lamb. It’s not often that we’d be relieved to come across a dead lamb (especially one who was killed by a predator) but, in this case…

After recovering from our initial shock, we started looking for clues as to who the culprit might have been. We didn’t see any tracks or other evidence but concluded that it was most likely a coyote—even though a fox could take down a large lamb, and there are (be it rare) mountain lions about, coyotes are usually the biggest problem.

It was then that we noticed two lambs that were trapped between a pair of fences that ran between this and an adjacent field. (A 6’ wide strip was planted with trees to create a wind-break, and the fences protect the young trees from the sheep.) How the lambs got themselves trapped in there, or how long they’d been there was unknown, but before we took on this unexpected task, we still needed to solve the mystery of the missing emu.

We passed through the open gate, to the upper field, and came over the rise to an open area next to the pond. And there, sitting on his once-abandoned nest, was Mr. E.  Along with this discovery came the realization that he had returned to the nest with the intent of hatching the two eggs he’d walked away from, about a week earlier. In our haste to remove the last chick, we left the eggs he’d abandoned the day before, not imagining he would return to them. In the past, he’s pushed eggs out of the nest, or left them if he determined they weren’t viable, and we never saw him return or reclaim an egg, once he made the decision.  Needless to say, our relief at finding him alive and well was replaced by guilt. First, we’d taken his 5 chicks and then, carelessly left the eggs that he’d now brooded over, needlessly, for perhaps a week. Our learning curve on emus continues to be steep.

We were now left with a lot of questions, and few answers. First, did the predator’s attack on the lamb prompt Mr. E to return to the nest in a misplaced effort to protect his unborn? Or, was Mr. E pointlessly sitting on his nest rather than tending to his duty of protecting the lamb from a coyote? And, why were the two other lambs trapped in the fenced area? Were they fleeing from an attacking coyote by working their way through the fence? Were there originally three lambs stranded between the fences, cut off from the rest of the flock, their mothers and the emu—one falling victim and pulled out, into the open field and eaten? Or, were all these events totally unrelated, and it was just another day on the farm?

We removed the remaining emu eggs from the nest, and made our way back down the hill to the lower field.  We opened up the end of the fenced area, coaxed the two lambs out, and back into the field to join the ewes. We located the hole in the wire fence that gave the lambs access. Whether they wandered in, in search of greener grass, or were spooked by the coyote, we’ll never know. Oddly enough, it was in this same fenced-off area that two emu chicks fell victim to a fox, a couple of years ago. That event also raised similar questions—did the chicks wander in between the fences, where they couldn’t be protected, or did the fox pull them in, seeking protection from the emu parent? AV had come upon the scene, after the fact, where she found a highly agitated Mr. E, frantically pacing outside the fenced area.  There, just out of the emu’s reach, were the remains of one chick, and the other was nowhere in sight, most likely carried off by the fox. The fatal error may have been Mrs. Emu’s choice of a nesting sight next to this fenced-off “no man’s land.” (Though the male emu hatches and rears the young, the nest is established where the female chooses to lay her eggs.) AV returned the next day, with apple treats, and found Mr. E standing at the nest site, still dazed from the trauma of watching his chicks meet a violent end. A surprisingly, touching moment occurred while AV tried to console what was clearly a grieving parent—this oversized, prehistoric beast gently wrapped his long neck around AV’s shoulder, and embraced her.

Today, we headed back over and found Mr. Emu in one of his usual spots—walking the perimeter of the lower field, near the road. We fed him apple pieces and emu chow, and life (as if we can ever truly understand it,) seems to have returned to normal. That is, if you consider five emu chicks living in your bathroom, normal.

 

 

 

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