The mink first struck in broad daylight. A pen full of guinea fowl began screaming and flapping and I rushed over to see a bird struggling in the corner with something that looked like the collar of a coat my mother once had. I shouted and the mink turned to examine me. It had a small face and bright beady eyes, but what struck me most was blood on his open lips and what looked like a feral grin. When I shouted and reached for the pen door, the mink shot through a small hole in a rotted board at the back of the pen.
The bird was injured, limping and bleeding from the neck. I ran to the house for my medical kit. By the time I got back, the injured guinea was dead. The mink had returned to kill it and was in the process of trying to pull the carcass through the tiny hole. Interrupted again, the mink offered a look of irritation before it fled. I should have brought my gun.
I spent the whole afternoon inspecting the fowl pens, blocking holes here and there and rattling doors. I thought I had done a good job. Some reading on the lifestyle of mink indicated that they are wiley creatures who will kill for killing's sake, unlike a weasel who kills to eat. Mink have a bloodlust. .
Sure enough, the next morning the entire pen of nine guinea fowl was dead. None were eaten though, just gnawed briefly at the neck. The mink had found a small space between a wall and the roof and squeezed through. Apparently, if a mink can get its head through a space, its body follows like smoke up a chimney.
I will confess that I never liked the guinea fowl much. When they were free-ranging as yard birds, they screamed all day long. Once one hen shouted their cry of "Buck Wheat. Buck Wheat" they were off in a chorus. If they roosted in the barn, it always seemed to me that they deliberately sat above the sheep water bowls and feeders, which they contaminated at will. When I tried chasing them away, they would flee outside and fly up to roost on the roof of the house and cackle at me. They drove one plumber to distraction by hooting and hollering at him all day long while he worked in the barn.
But the sight of the slain guineas reminded me of the good times. The way they would nest furtively, outdoors in a patch of long grasses or brush, clinging to their eggs in the foulest of weather. It was nearly impossible to catch the resulting guinea chicks. Long before they could fly, they learned to run and then stop, suddenly and cling to the ground silently, just as their mother had done when they were eggs. The only way to lure guineas into a pen was to scatter kernels of corn. They could not resist corn. I had used that technique to corral them into the pen where they now lay dead. I collected their carcasses in feed bags, marvelling at their spotted black and white feathers, and missing their imperious squawking heads.
The pen beside guineas' was almost identical in structure – wooden walls with two steel-mesh walls topped with green steel roofing. A corner pen, it housed a red-golden pheasant and a trio of pheasant hens. These were "new" birds, replacements for Mao and the Mrs. who had lived long and fruitful lives. I bought them at a bird fair, where all manner of fowl and rabbit were sold. The cock bird pheasant was at least two years old and in full and glorious feather. The hens, small and shy, were plain brown with mere tints of the gold that fringed the male's neck. I examined their pen from all angles. It looked secure and fine, complete with a skylight covered in two-inch steel mesh and a small ornamental spruce tree for them to use as cover when they were not perching.
As I closed the pen door, I caught sight of the mink again. He lunged at the steel mesh in the far corner of the pheasant pen. Leaping in the air, he rattled his furry mink claws on the steel. Then he fled, before Wally the Wonder Dog rounded the corner like a heat-seeking missile. Fast and furtive, the mink was. He disappeared beneath the barn into an elaborate series of tunnels and caves he had built there. This was his base of operations; the place where he would stockpile any food he could drag into the depths.
The next morning was another battle scene from Hell. The pheasants had been slaughtered in the night. I had only known them for a month, and they were just beginning to relax in their new home and nod curiously when they saw me bringing them fresh water and food. Now they were gone, their beauty wasted. The brilliant red, green and golden feathers of the cock pheasant's cape blew around the silent pen. I cursed the mink, imagining the searing fear the birds must have had when they saw it swinging it's lithe body swinging through the two-inch steel mesh on the skylight. It left a smudge of blood when making its escape.
Two pens of banty chickens and one pen of Silver Sussex chickens were all that remained. The banty pens were solid steel mesh, including the floor of the pens, which were covered over with wood chips and shavings. The little birds, red banties and white and black Rock Columbus, were nervous and flighty, now. I had discovered the Columbus hens both had bad feet after I brought them home from the bird fair, so they had a smaller separate pen where I could reach them easily and try to repair the damaged limbs. They were matted together, rooster and hens, in a fearful bundle of feathers together in the nesting box. And the red banties who had been a part of a petting zoo before I got them, cowered nervously and danced away to the farthest corner of their pen. Before this they had never shown any fear, even turning so bold as to peck at Wally's loopy bull terrier nose when he sniffed at them. Now they had witnessed the execution of their neighbours, and they had good reason to be afraid.
The Silver Sussex were Moose's chickens. Although he had never been disposed to birds before, when he saw the magnificent white rooster with a cape of lacy black feathers around his neck and a handsome, five-point red comb above fleshy wattles. Moose was chicken smitten. Silver Sussex are a rare breed of chicken these days, although they were once as standard an issue of chicken as the Barred Rock on most farms throughout North America, performing the dual function of providing meat and eggs. Specialization and factory farming had rendered them little more than a curiosity, but Moose thought that such beauties should be preserved. He had high hopes of hatching eggs in the spring and maintaining a small lovely flock. Six hens shared the pen, dubbed the "sky scraper" because it was a good story and half tall and filled with perches at various heights.
How glorious it had been to come home from the bird fair and put the varied fowl into their new homes. When the next morning dawned, their crowing filled the air; a cacophony or three tenor voices set at various volumes. By far the loudest, was the big Silver Sussex. Moose called him Foghorn Leghorn, and we rushed down that first morning to watch the rooster fill himself up with air and cock-a-doodle-doo so hard that he had to sit back on the heels of his craggy white feet to avoid falling over backward.
Moose made a special point of turning the Silver Sussex pen into a fortress to ward off the cutthroat mink. Steel siding went up and $100 worth of steel mesh wrapped the pen. We stapled and nailed until night fall.
Alas, there was no crowing in the morning. I looked out the bedroom window and saw yet another massacre, the Silver Sussex were scattered like ripped feather pillows on the floor of their pen. The mink must have made an aerial attack on Foghorn and crew, scaling the walls of the pen and squeaking through a small gap in the rafters. We cried desperate tears, while the banties hid their heads beneath their wings. From the sniffing Wally was doing around their pen, it was evident that the mink had tried and failed to kill them, too.
As unfortunate as the events in the chicken pens were, at the same time carnage of a different sort was going on in the world at large. Three weeks before the arrival of the mink, the World Trade Centre Twin Towers and the Pentagon had been struck by terrorists in hijacked airliners. In our microcosm, we responded exactly as the American's did. We declared all out war on the "Taliban Mink."
Shooting the mink was not going to be feasible, unless he happened to appear on open ground, but even then mink are fast. Poison was also out of the question since Wally would surely find it before the mink did. The only solution seemed to be a trap.
Off we went to the farm supply store, where we found a mink-sized, Hav-A-Hart humane trap. Rectangular and squat, the steel metal piped trap had entrances on either end that led to a platform where bait could be placed in the middle. One step too close to the bait triggered the closing of gates and the offending animal would be trapped – or the offending hand, as mine was judged to be several times.
Obviously, the Taliban mink was fond of raw chicken, however, a fine pink chicken wing left in the Hav-A-Hart did not entice him. Alone and out of my depth, I turned to the Internet for advice, signing onto a list-serve of chicken enthusiasts called Chickens 101. The word "mink" sent chills through the chat group, where normal topics of conversation tend toward discussing cute names for your chickens and ways to conceal chicken pets from downtown landlords. When it came down to a serious question involving the life and death of chickens, the suggestions flew fast and furious. Stinky, canned, sea-food cat food, the more offensive the better, was the bait recommended by someone who had tangled with a weasel in his hen house. This made sense, since mink like to live near water where they can eat small fish and frogs. Peanut butter, chunky not smooth, was also highly recommended. A woman in Northern Illinois swore by sunflowers seeds. She claimed to have live-trapped sixteen raccoons, five possums and one ground hog using nothing but sunflower seeds.
I tried all of those tricks and any others I could think of to tempt the mink into the trap, but nothing worked. Instead, the mink focused his efforts on trying to find a weak link in the cage containing the surviving banties. Every morning Wally the Wonder Dog, sniffed every inch of the perimeter of the pen for traces of mink. One day I watched him trail off from the pen, following the scent of the mink into the pasture field and down to the pond.
Winter was beginning to set in and the pond water was icy cold. Wally paid no attention to me and focused on the smell of the mink as it curved around tree stumps and wound its way to the water edge. I have seen Wally track wild animals before. His nose becomes a dedicated instrument. He was foiled when the scent ended at the water's edge.
In the case of his usual prey, the ground hog, Wally's ritual is to "give them notice" when he fails to catch them. He does this by voiding his bowels in their holes. It becomes a morning ritual for him to make the rounds of the ground-hog infested field and leave his constitutional calling card on their doorsteps. This would certainly encourage me to find new lodgings were I a ground hog and I have always thought of it as "fair warning."
There was no sign of a mink hole or a den, so I watched as Wally waded into the freezing pond water and pooped on some grassy reeds just below the surface. That was his Declaration or War.
Stymied, we called in outside forces. Mike the Local Trapper or legendary proportion was convinced that what we needed was a leg hold trap. However a quick check around the neigbourhood revealed that every leg hold trap was in use. This led me to believe that the entire township was in a state of fur-coated siege. Although he had never trapped a mink, Mike suggested alternatives and rigged up a noose trap in the tiny opening to the mink's first killing pen. Mink are curious creatures, explained Mike. If they think there is something within their grasp to kill, they will try. The tiny noose had a disturbing, primitive quality. I imagined the mink speeding through it like Wile E. Coyote in the Road Runner cartoons and being suddenly "hung up."
I took an old, white banty hen from the safe pen and put her in an old steel wire bird cage I had bought at an auction long ago. Then I hung the bird cage from piece of chain link more suited to hauling logs than hanging bird cages. The hen was secure enough, although I feared for her psyche.
The mink took a look that night, but smart mink that he was he simply swept the noose trap aside. No doubt he rattled the bird cage, but the banty hen was well secured.
Long days and nights of battling the Taliban mink were wearying. Occasionally a red golden feather would turn up in the grass or I would find a white and black Silver Sussex feather on a bale of straw. The surviving banty roosters seemed to fear to crow, and without the incessant call of the guinea fowl, an ominous silence fell over the farm. Every time I walked to the barn. I imagined the Taliban mink peering at me from his low-level cave underneath the barn, plotting his little mink plots.
And then one day it struck me. The mink had been successful because he knew what we were thinking. He knew that we thought we had created impenetrable pens, but he knew enough to find their flaws. He knew that a trap was a trap and he distrusted anything strange. He was just waiting for us to make one little mistake that would allow him to get at the remaining chickens. We were human, he knew a mistake was just a matter of time.
That's when I decided to turn the tables and think like a mink.
The mink enjoyed live prey and the fury of the chase. The more fearful the birds – the more they screeched and bounced off the walls – the better. Although the Hav-a-Hart trap had been a bust, its premise struck me as reasonable. The problem was luring the mink into the trap. The only lure strong enough would be the promise of a kill. I turned to the old white hen and pronounced her the One,, the lonely unicorn, the goat tied to a tree, sacrificial lamb – unless I could help it.
Moose helped me raise and wire the Hav-a-Hart trap so that its entrance was fixed over a mouse-hole sized opening in one of the killing pens. All other avenues of entry were blocked with wire or filled in with insulation foam. If the mink wanted the chicken the only access route was through the trap.
I felt badly leaving the small white chicken in the big pen that still bore spatters of blood from the fallen guinea fowl. She had a bed of cedar shaving and straw and I added a bowl of torn lettuce next to her grain, fervently hoping that she was not having her last supper.
Two nights passed uneventfully, but came the dawning of the third morning the banty rooster was crowing. We ran out to the pen and, sure enough, the Taliban Mink was spitting and hissing from the tightly locked Hav-A -Hart trap, while the unharmed hen quivered with her head under her wing in the cedar shavings. There was a terrible smell in the pen -- the musky odour of a fearful mink. Wally began dancing and barking and the mink hissed, expelling a stream of air through its incredibly sharp little fangs. Then the air filled with a high sharp scream and we all jumped back. The mink tossed its head fitfully and began biting the steel bars, clutching them with his handy brown paws and pulling with all of his strength.
The cage was placed on a picnic table where we watched the mink. Much about it was rat-like and bright-eyed, but the length of its body added lively movement and a dart of urgency to each gesture. It was smaller than my forearm, making the savagery of its killing all the more difficult to comprehend.
All throughout the process, Moose had been dealing with Faye and Joe, our animal-loving West Coast friends who pleaded leniency for the mink. But this was not a creature that could be domesticated, or change its lifestyle, way or begin to comprehend our concept of "the error of its ways."
Nor, I fear, could it have been relocated without presenting a danger to some other farmer's fowl. My newfound cyber-friends at Chickens 101 were loudly asserting that they did not want that mink dropped off anywhere near their coops. Unfortunately for the mink, our two competing lifestyles had over lapped and I had won. Moose dispatched the mink with a quick bullet in the brain. It would never hold brilliant feathers in its mouth again.
Capturing a mink is no mean feat. I looked at its inert body in the steel cage and drew it out to have look. The fur was soft, not silky the way we think of fur, but there were layers to it. The head was small, almost bat-like with tiny ears. The teeth were tiny perfect daggers.
"I don't know what you are thinking, but you couldn't even make a head band out of it," warned Moose.
No, I was not thinking about a head band, or even a fur collar, but something about the trauma of the experience made me want to preserve the moment in some way. I decided I would skin the mink and keep its pelt as a reminder to always be watchful for predators.
I have cleaned fish, eviscerated chickens and supervised the butchering of lambs, but removing the hide of an elongated rodent was an opportunity that had never presented itself. A quick run through the talents of my various friends assured me that none of them were likely to offer much in the way of advice. I knew it should not be difficult but, as with any such crafty endeavor, there had to be some techniques that were better than others. So I did what modern farmer does these days, I searched the Internet.
I have become fairly handy at using this computer tool. At least if you make a mistake on it no one needs to know and you can start again. You can run into brick walls of information, but you can't injure yourself the way to can with a hammer or a drill.
I am not sure exactly what search words I used, but after visiting a number of web sites that encouraged me to send to the mink to them for stuffing along with a big fat cheque, I finally found a site run by a 15 year-old from North Carolina whose hobby is skinning rodents and road kills. Young, home-schooled Amy had photo-documented the step-by-step skinning of a rat. It was graphic, but virtually bloodless, and I figured if a 15 year-old could do it, I could at least try.
Amy had all sorts of tools and scalpels and special scissors. I decided I would have to get by with an Exacto knife, kitchen shears and a set of pliers. I assembled my tools on the picnic table and positioned the mink tummy-side up on a wooden board covered with newspaper.
Although her instructions were quite clear, Amy's web site did not print out properly, so I kept having to ask Moose to go back into the house to check to see if I was doing things correctly and to find out what came next. Between Moose and Amy, I navigated the skinning of the mink and avoided the dread anal sacs which could have doomed the project if they had been nicked. It was work that took patience and a certain willingness to look closely at that which we do not normally even think closely about. Pulling the tail bones out of the tail of a furred animal using needle-nose pliers while seated at a picnic table is an almost surreal experience. The pelt rolled up over the head of the mink just like a tight sock once the legs had been clipped free. When it was over, I had a full pelt with four little paws. It even had the original ears. We stretched it on the board and rubbed the skin side with salt to begin the tanning process. I felt a strange sort of catharsis, but the white chicken kept her head tightly under her wing for days.
An announcement was spread throughout the land about the apprehension of the Taliban mink by Special Operations Forces Code Name "Vengeance Most Fowl", who reported the beast had been rendered spineless. It was another one of those days written in infamy.
I expect the story will become twisted as it spreads in the telling. The body count will rise and the neighbours will add their own tales of murderous creatures and attacks from the wild. My chickens are safe now and, ultimately, I will become the subject of great envy. After all, how many farm women do you know who have a mink's coat hanging in their barn?
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