An ill wind blowing

I touched on this earlier, but I think from my admittedly narrow point of view, the fauna of the prairie is fixin for a hurtin. I say narrow point of view, because I have only been here for 9 years, and what I am seeing is unprecedented in that time.

When we came to Kansas in 2006, the local climate was going through a wet period. That happens now and then. The weather around here vacillates between wet and dry times, trending more towards dry. The fall of 2006 got quite a bit of rain and it snowed more than I thought it should down here. Snowed and stayed.

This cycle of wet springs and summers and cold, snowy winters, lasted 3 years. I have no idea what went on before, so my comparisons start there. During this time, the prairie around us was a horn of plenty for the wildlife. We have Deer, Wild Turkey, Quail, Ducks and Geese, Squirrels, Rabbits and all the predators that use them as a food source. Everything was booming. The local trees, the Black Walnuts, Hackberries, Hedge Apples and our old Pear tree were pumping out produce like a Super Walmart. Our house is surrounded by Black Walnut trees and starting in late summer, it is miserable walking up from where we park and not twisting your ankle or just falling on your hinder, because the ground is covered with hard little balls. The Hedge Apples are soft ball sized, so you can at least kick them out of the way.

Along about 2009, things started drying out and heating up. We started trending toward long strings of 100 degree days and one very memorable day of 116. During this time, the local flora had minor cycles of more this year, less that year, something I was expecting and used to. Our local environment had one year that was extreme, even for this part of Kansas. It was I believe 2011, when we had no rain or snow from January to December. People around us, within 3 miles sometimes, got a little rain or snow, but not on our 20 acres. I was incredulous, to say the least.

Many a time thunderstorms were building to our West and as they approached, they would form a dry circle west of us and just go around. The Mrs and I watched this happen time and time again and I could not believe what was happening. In the old days, you would expect you’ve been cursed or something. I was beginning to wonder if any virgins were up for a sacrifice in the local area. During this period, the trees did not quit producing. They slowed down and a couple of weaker ones died, but there was still food available. Our pastures dried out and then died. Weeds took the place of prairie grass and a lot of the place became a mono culture of one dominant weed, which still puts out seeds for consumption. Our biggest Pack Rat and Norway Rat populations peaked during this time. We also suffered through 3 years of grasshoppers that decimated our garden and fruit trees, however the birds and quail did well dining on them.

So, wet times, dry times, hot times, everything kept plugging along, like you’d expect and we lived happily ever after.
Until this year.

We were a bit preoccupied as Spring rolled around. The Mrs and I had made a decision 4 or so years ago, that we were heading back home to Minnesota the Fall of 2015 and here it was, heading down the track. Spring snuck in a hard freeze, like it likes to do, and we didn’t get any fruit blossoms to survive, so no fruit. For the small trees, this did not surprise me. For our large old Pear tree to not produce at least some fruit was a different story. That hadn’t occurred before. Fine, things like this happen. We have not been here all that long to know if this was a once in a while occurrence or not. Our blackberries and strawberries put out a minimum effort, but so did we when it came to picking them.

Late summer gets here and we are suffering through another rat invasion. The local owls have done well with surviving chicks so we had lots of help in dealing with the vermin. I did notice our deer population was not as strong as it had been, for the second year in a row. The coyotes have always had a strong presence and were holding up their end of the deal. Still had lots of wild turkey and quail.

What got my attention, that something was not right, was the squirrels. We normally are just about overrun with them. I had not really noticed that we were low on squirrels until the day I convinced my wife that we should eat some and went to hunting them. We had been keeping our nose to the grindstone, fixing the house so we could move, and had not really looked around to see which way the wind was blowing. I got my 22 rifle out and saw two squirrels. That was it. Figures, get the Mrs to declare her love for munching on tree rats and there ain’t none.

Having been a hunter all my life, this started me to look around to see what the deal was. It was then, I noticed no Black Walnuts, none. That was different. When I came to the realization of this, I was standing under a very large Hackberry tree. I looked up and saw no berries. Zip. These trees are very reliable, or at least had been, for producing a lot of small red berries that are a staple for everything around here. I walked over to a large stand of Hedge Apples. Nothing. No bright green softballs lying all around the tree. I was starting to get a bad feeling. I wandered around our whole property, doing an informal accounting of foodstuffs for the wildlife and saw a very grim picture. Only 1 out of 30 Hedge Apples had produced anything. No Black Walnuts, no Hackberries, prairie grasses had been overwhelmed with cheat grass and mares tail. The wild grapes had little or no production. We also have Red Sumac, and Buck Brush and they did go wild this year, but there’s not enough of that to go around.

Since I have become aware of this, I have been driving around and looking at things. Hedge Apple production is way down all over this part of the county. The deer, squirrels and quite a few others depend on those for winter forage. Very few of the fruit trees had made any fruit in the places I looked. Hackberries look to be taking a year off also. We are the only place with Black Walnuts, so I am not sure if it’s just us or what.

Now, barring the north part of the county being cursed or suffering from a biblical shunning, I have a tentative theory of what might be happening. We had a horrendous dry hot shock to the biome just a few years ago. Like I said before, we personally had almost a year without rain or snow. We also had temperatures of up to 116 and lots of 100’s for days on end. This lasted for almost 3 years and then last year, the rains started to be a bit more normal. Temperatures cooled off to the standard 90’s for deep summer and winters were very mild. This is the second year in a row of everything moderating from an extreme. I am wondering if what I am seeing is environmental shock. Much like a person who experiences something extreme and goes into shock, the outdoors just takes longer to show its pain. And pain it will feel, with nothing for the critters to eat. It could be just cycles that take a long time to run though.

I’ve been around only 5 and half decades so this kind of thing could slip right past my radar screen if we are talking about something that takes longer than that. I do know that I will continue to hunt what squirrels are around and whatever else is in season. I am sure if you could ask their opinion on would they prefer a quick death or long, painful starvation, well, I would assume the former rather than the latter. But that’s me just talking for them. At least a reduced population will give those that survive a better chance. The wife and I will be grateful for those we harvest. Besides, the whole virgin sacrifice thing is old school crazy. I mean, where you gonna find a virgin without a tattoo in these bizzaro times. You did know that any tattoo nullifies the whole deal and puts you at the head of the line for a biblical shunning, right? No? Really! Were you raised by wolves?

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