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Predator, Prey and An Egg A Day

Between April showers, the warm, calm dusk deepened toward dark. Lightning flashed soundlessly in the far distance as I slipped on my boots, perched on the back porch bench. I clipped the leash on the dog and set out into the sultry spring evening, grumbling but secretly grateful for a duty that would require me briefly to enter the crepuscular world of the night shift creatures before I would give it up to them until morning.

The chickens would have put themselves both into their pen and into their house to roost by then, but they couldn’t close the door behind themselves to keep out the predators who might come over for a chicken dinner. It is an obligation that can be postponed a bit, of an evening, but when darkness falls, danger rises from those who prowl the night. We’ve not lost a bird yet, but why tempt Wile E. Coyote? I wouldn’t be surprised if those feral canines could and gladly would scale the six foot chain link fence to get a drumstick.

Somewhere along Nameless Creek, a Screech Owl trilled its throaty scream twice as its dark day dawned, and said no more. Just then, the rains returned, fat drops splatting against the barn roof and the back of my neck.

Usually by this late, one of us has gathered the eggs, but I wasn’t sure if Ann had been able to before she left for work. So surely, there would be a hen in the nesting box, and I’d better check. I’d have to slide my hand under her to find one or more eggs by feel alone in the near-dark, slip the brown ovals into my shirt pockets and go back to the house and finish reading my book.

That my fingertips touched a thing smooth, cold and soft was puzzling. Might have been the bird’s reptilian legs, I guessed with a raised eyebrow. I tried again, this time going a little lower to wedge my fingers under the setting bird. Coils of soft coldness lay heavy across the knuckles of my right hand. Reptilian indeed.

In the last hint of light from the indigo sky, I could just make out a dark mass that filled the round depression in the amber hay where the bird should be warming the eggs. From the evidence I’d already gathered, I knew that there was now an unidentified snake occupying that space, and it was not a small one at that.

The circumstance called for a quick, calculated decision. I’ve not seen enough poisonous snakes on this land in a decade to think the odds were high that this egg-sucker could do me any real harm. In all probability it would be a king snake or more likely, a mild-mannered rat snake.

I reached in, grabbed a loop of snake, and quickly dropped the cold-blooded intruder onto the hay of the pen. The weight of the adult creature thumped onto the soft ground like a  sack of flour. It lay in a loose coil, fifty feet of industrial hose with a white object in its mouth, swelling its head to three times its normal size.

Poking at it with my boot, it seemed disinclined to leave hungry. A few prods with the broken hoe we keep for coop-cleaning made him give up the egg intact, and got him moving, inch by inch, foot by foot, through the chain link—and this continued for well more than five feet. There was the hint of a pattern on what (I think) was a dark phase gray rat snake. I feel certain this was not his first poached egg.

And I don’t know how to insure it will be his last. I wiped the snake spit off the single surviving egg, and headed towards the golden glow inside the white farmhouse, back across the rushing creek, immersed in the smell and chill of a soft spring rain to home.

Moral: We’ll gather eggs earlier and more often in the warm months. The snakes do more good than harm, and we’ll coexist. But from now on,  I will look first before reaching in for cold, hard and smooth to be sure I don’t instead get a handful of cold, soft and scaly.

By Fred First
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