MAJOR

He came to us by way of a friend who knew that we have a great deal of experience out here at Brownspur in rehabilitating injured or immature wildlife. Since he originated at the farm that Big Robert used to call “The old Millsaps Place,” and since son Adam graduated from Millsaps College, playing a lot of championship baseball there for the Millsaps Majors, we named him “Major.”

Major was a half-grown great horned owl, who apparently came off second-best in an encounter with a catfish pond paddlewheel. He had major equilibrium problems when he came to Brownspur, to the point that we sometimes wondered if his owl momma had maybe had an affair with a vampire bat, or something similar. He’d be calmly sitting on Adam’s gloved hand, and would start to lean slightly forward, without noticing, it seemed. He’d lean until he actually fell over, but his claws would cling ever-tighter to the supporting hand, and there he’d be, hanging upside-down from Adam’s hand, apparently content to survey the world from this batlike position. After a few minutes, Adam would gently push him back upright, and the process would start all over again, though maybe backwards this time.

We have previously hosted and rehabbed a full-grown great horned owl, a nearly-grown barred owl, four screech owls, and two full-grown hawks, and all but one of the hawks and one screech owl recovered and were released back into the wild. At any rate, we have owl rehab experience, which needs to be done under the supervision of a vet, as per the law. Major flat needed the rehab. The first few times we tried to turn him loose, he flew smackdab into light poles and trees.

Adam took him under his wing, so to speak, and became Major’s momma in the young owl’s eyes, that was obvious. When Adam would walk out of the house in the morning or after he got home from work, we could hear Major popping his beak like a 22 rifle shot, in greeting. They had a game, in which Major would run to the corner of the pen when Adam opened it, and do a little dance, then hop aboard the extended gloved hand and ride. He loved to visit the Swimming Hole and had his own special perch in a small cypress there, from which he’d survey his family afloat, like a lifeguard. The mockingbirds who nested in the big cypress never adjusted to having an owl for a guest, and harassed Major hatefully.

We essentially emptied the freezer of squirrel and rabbit, which he preferred by far over chicken. Adam would perch Major on his hand (ungloved, after the owl showed he’d not hurt him) and offer him pieces of meat with the other hand. He’d mock-roughly grab the meat and swallow it down until he got full, at which point he’d still reach out and grab the meat, but would hold it for a moment in his beak, then drop it to the floor for Blondie, the Lab, to clean up. Eventually, Major learned to perch on Blondie’s back, but the Lab wasn’t atall comfortable with that.

My guess is that his momma had done this to get the little owl ready to leave the nest and attack paddlewheels, but he had the funniest ritual: Adam would place his finger against Major’s upper beak, and the owl would lower his head and push so hard against the finger, that if Adam suddenly moved it, the owl would fall over forward. He’d let us stroke his head, and loved for you to scratch the back of his head, but you had to approach him from the front to do it. To sneak up and reach out to scratch from behind was to invite a snap that might bring blood. An owl’s beak is a powerful weapon, like his talons. And don’t touch his (or her?) breast!

Major eventually learned to accept, but never really liked, bike riding with Adam. Not on the handlebars, though: he still wanted to be on that gloved hand. He hated motors, and after he once panicked at the approaching lawn mower, we had to mow completely on the other side of the house from him. Adam once left for a four-day visit with Mountain Willy, and I took over the feeding duties, but he was sure glad when his real momma came home!
Well, Major finally recovered, after spending the summer with us, and we turned him loose. Now and then, we still hear him popping his beak in greeting. He was a pleasure to have for a guest, except for the mockingbirds and blue jays!

Wildlife Bad Guys

We’ve all known forever that it’s a tough world out there beyond the back porch. We can’t keep cats around out here at Brownspur since the coyote population built up to the point that the wild canines run in packs regularly. Matter of fact, keeping beagles isn’t really an option either, unless you keep them penned up, and who wants to keep beagles penned up if you live in the country? The Labradors are big enough to fend for themselves, but the beagles are too small to stand up to a pack of coyotes, especially the miniature beagles we used to have.

Of course, the other side of the coin is that, since the coyotes have taken over, we don’t have the problem we used to with packs of wild dogs, which have no innate fear of man. At least coyotes aren’t a real threat to maul a person, far as I know. Watch now: having said that, someone will call to say their Aunt Lilly was eaten plumb up by a pack of coyotes last October in Goose Hollow.

Obviously, the food chain in the wild means that Brownspur bunny rabbits and field mice, as well as house cats away from the house, will be killed and eaten by larger predators like coyotes, the occasional wolf, foxes, bobcats, hawks, and owls. It’s the way the world works, ever since Adam & Eve ate the Apple. Man as a predator is also figured into that equation, though most Americans do most of their predatoring at the local grocery store. Truth be known, in modern America those of us who hunt for food are looked down upon especially by many city-dwellers as blood-thirsty Neanderthals who need sexual counseling.

We’ve gotten too far away from the last generation, when if you wanted fried chicken for Sunday dinner, Junior had to go catch a pullet, wring its neck, pick it, gut it, chop off the feet for later chicken-foot soup, and whack it up into recognizable parts for flouring and frying. Those were the days when the pulley-bone was the choice piece on the platter, and Momma would pick some lucky kid to pull the pulley-bone with her, to see which one was going to have good luck and which would get married first. Whatever happened to the pulley-bone in the buckets that fried chicken comes in today? The youngest kid used to have to settle for the parson’s nose, the last piece over the fence.

Can you imagine sending a modern teenager out to catch a chicken, kill it, and clean it for supper?

Oh, well, I didn’t start out to go there. What I wanted to tell you about was a meanie out here at Brownspur: an uncommon predator that we’ve caught killing out of Pure-D meanness, not for food or self defense.

We’re always conscious of wildlife predators out here, which includes the denizens of the yard. Of course, that sometimes includes the coyotes on a late-night pass, as well as coons, possums, skunks, and even a mink, when the peaches start falling. Those are the predators which wear fur, plus the owls and hawks, and the more-than-occasional snake. Used to be, I encouraged the blue jays to congregate around the house, because although they’re raucous, they will congregate and raise Cain when they spot a snake in the yard. Then I can get a hoe and see if it’s one of the poisonous brand which needs to be eliminated entirely, or sometimes a too-large blue runner, chicken snake, or spreading adder that needs to relocated a mile away. A big snake can make you hurt yourself!

But no more will I encourage jaybirds. Adam and Greg were out at the Swimming Hole one afternoon and noticed a blue jay swooping and fussing out by the apple tree, so they hustled over, expecting to encounter a snake.

But it was a baby dove, which was just big enough to flutter out of the nest, but needed a few hours to master flying safely. Despite the efforts of the mother dove to distract the jaybird, the blue one was attacking the little dove viscously. By the time the boys rescued it, the damage was done. The blue jay had pecked in the back of the baby dove’s skull. Had to be out of sheer meanness! I never saw that before.

So, it’s open season out here on blue jays. I am aware that they are probably a protected species, so undoubtedly the game warden will be over to visit. Yet doves are also protected under the game laws, until the season opens. Therefore, that blue jay was breaking the law itself. We held court. He was tried, found guilty, sentenced, and executed. Selah.

The Scariest Jack-O-Lantern!

For years, my youngest daughter has belonged to a cult of pumpkin carvers. These young people take great pride in the production of Jack-O-Lanterns at Halloween, even to the point of purchasing special sets of pumpkin-carving tools to work with. They even have contests to choose the most intricate and scariest of their productions, which are sometimes accompanied by props, such as hers was this year.

In addition to carving a web across half the pumpkin, which really looked scary when she placed a lighted candle therein, she made huge black tarantula-looking spiders out of pipe cleaners that were clinging to the sides of the web, just waiting for an unwary victim to get close enough for them to get their fangs into. You didn’t even want to go into the same room with it!

A few days after Halloween, she set the pumpkin out on the back porch to await the sad fate of Jack-O-Lanterns the world over: I was to set it out with the rest of the garbage that week, on collection day.

That day rolled around, and I got the garbage together from the rest of the house, took it to the kitchen door, and was fixing to take it out onto the back porch, but fortunately I glanced out there first, and froze. At the foot of the chaise lounge, its black and white fur rippling softly in the morning breeze, reclined a skunk!

We have always had skunk problems in the country; comes with the territory, so to speak. Once Betsy went across the covered walkway to our guest house, “The Store,” for something at night, and when she opened the door to return, a skunk sat in the middle of the boardwalk, regarding her nonchalantly. She yelled for someone in the house (me or Adam) to come to the rescue, but I was reading in the den, with the stereo up loud enough for me to hear, which means loud enough for the neighbors to listen, too, if they want to. She ended up spending most of an hour besieged in The Store, and was sho’nuff hot at me for not coming to the aid of a fair damsel in distress, no matter that I had no idea the fair damsel was in any distress atall.

Labrador Boo once chased a skunk away from entering the back porch, but the skunk took offense and sprayed both Boo and the porch, which meant bathing both in tomato juice several times over the next week. We decided it might have been cheaper to let the skunk walk through the screen porch undisturbed. I know Boo concurred.

Yet here was a skunk apparently napping on the kitchen end of a 50-foot-long screen porch. I couldn’t get out the door without arousing it, though I could see the close screen door hadn’t been pulled closed the night before. Yet shooting him there was unthinkable. Skunks don’t take kindly to shooing, either. What to do?

I turned and went through the house to the garage door, and slipped outside there. Going to the door from the garage onto the back porch, I gently eased that door open and propped it with an anti-freeze jug. I peered in, but could barely see the black and white fur rippling on the other side of the chaise lounge. I turned and exited the garage, slipped around to the screen door from the porch onto the boardwalk to The Store, and eased it open, taking the spring loose, so it would stay thataway. Now the two doors at the other end of the porch from the skunk were open for its exit, if I could arrange that.

Okay, now I needed to open the screen door opposite the kitchen, which was only maybe ten feet from the reclining skunk. Using the rosebush for cover, I snuk silently toward the visitor, knowing that if it was aroused, the screen would give little protection from the stinking spray. For the last few feet, once I had to leave the rosebush’s cover, I went to hands and knees. Finally, I was at the screen door. I reached out and snagged the bottom of the door with my fingernails and began to ease it open, peeping fearfully at where the skunk rested as the door gradually swung to reveal the black and white fur… that from this close appeared to be more grayish. Maybe an old skunk? I eased the door more open, squinting with concentration. The fur WAS pretty gray.

Then I saw it had an orange base, barely visible.

Pumpkins, when set out unattended in the Southern heat and humidity for several days, produce the most beautiful mold, fully two inches of hair-like fungus that starts out rather tarantula-black at the base, but gets lighter as it gets longer, becoming almost white.

I gathered up the remains, for the garbage truck, then went to beat my daughter.

A NIGHT ON THE ROOF

It was a few winters ago, and my son and a cousin were getting up early for a hunt. Adam arose in his upstairs bedroom, and stepped out on the balcony to check the weather. As he stood admiring the stars and trying to assess wind direction and temperature, he suddenly was aware of a Presence nearby.
He stepped to the edge of the balcony next to the low roof of the house. At the same point where the south side of the balcony meets the low roof over the garage and back porch, the steeply-pitched upper roof joins the low roof. In the shadow of that high roof, he discerned a darker shape, and bent cautiously for a closer look.

“Want some coffee?” I asked.

“You can use my cup,” his mother offered.

It was obvious that the boy was confused, when he realized that his parents were lying on the roof an hour before daylight on a cold winter’s morn. “What the heck are y’all doing up here?” he asked, followed quickly by, “Or maybe I don’t want to know!”

“Watching the meteor showers,” Betsy and I responded. She again offered him some coffee. He just shook his head and went back inside to wake up Cuz and bring him out to observe his crazy parents.

It was the occasion of the Leonid Meteor Shower, advertised to be one of the best in our lifetime. Only problem was, the peak of it was about four in the morning. Yet we both decided when we hit the hay about eleven that if it was clear, we’d get up to watch the shooting stars, which we’ve done often before from the roof. Usually, though, they have showered during warm weather, when the main problem is mosquitoes, not clouds. I was to be the scout, in charge of getting up and seeing if the weather was going to be clear or cloudy.

It was clear when I arose at 3:30 a.m. I headed to the kitchen to boil water for coffee, then found my thermos bottle and filled it with hot tap water to be ready to keep our coffee hot. I make the old-style boiled coffee, with the grounds in the bottom of the pot, some of which pour out into the cup, so that you dare not drink the last swallow, unless you want to chew it. Betsy says my coffee is “Good to the last bite!”

Made coffee, filled the thermos, grabbed two travel cups Mr. Hurry gave us for Christmas one year, and took them up the outside staircase to the low roof, along with a basket of apple muffins Betsy had made up. Then I snagged a big foam pad and a large 2-for-1 sleeping bag, plus two pillows, and arranged them so that we could lie on the low roof, with our heads propped against the steep roof to watch shooting stars. Only when the stage was set did I wake my sleeping bride. She slipped on warm-ups and socks, picked up a quilt from the bed, and we hiked up the outside stairs. As she snuggled into the sleeping bag and arranged the quilt, I poured our coffee and slipped into the sleeping bag beside her. She passed me an apple muffin just as a light flashed over us that I initially mistook for a flashbulb. It wasn’t. It was a meteor!

We lay there on the roof until sunup, disturbed only by Adam and Cuz. During those couple of hours, we saw several hundred shooting stars, many just brief pinpricks of light. Some, however, curved halfway across the heavens before burning out. Many times, a half-dozen were in sight at once. Just before dawn, after the hunters departed, we saw what must have been a satellite speeding over from north to south. It was a great way to start the day.

While we lay there snuggled together, drinking coffee and eating muffins, we also heard two coyote packs, one coming by right across the Mammy Grudge, less than a hundred yards away. The red wolf howled for a few moments, seemingly in answer to one of the coyote packs. A barred owl hooted almost angrily at the close pack, and as the eastern sky began to pinken, a pair of screech owls sounded off from the ditchbank.

We almost hated to leave our bedding to get ready for early choir and Sunday School, but the show was over once the sun came up, of course. I had to make a second pot of coffee. As I poured a cup, I thanked God for the show. What a morning!

Fall Smells & Sounds

Lyme Disease victims almost never reach REM sleep, so I am a usual light sleeper, and don’t dream. Rapid Eye Movement stage of sleep is when most dreaming takes place, so I knew I wasn’t dreaming when I awoke in the middle of the night last week, and faintly smelled woodsmoke.

Having been through two costly house fires, I am especially attentive to the smells associated with house fires: woodsmoke and propane or natural gas, which smell similar to me. Without moving, just trying to extend my nose outside the light blanket we were sleeping under with the windows open, I was pretty sure I wasn’t smelling wood afire that belonged to me and Betsy. This had a twang of campfire smoke maybe, and was pretty far off, smelt like.

I have read that when a person loses one sense, other senses grow more acute to compensate. My hearing has always been poor, since early bouts with ear infections, plus shooting right-handed shotguns left-handed. Naval gunfire might have contributed as well. Whatever, my smeller seems more sensitive than other folks’ olfactory talents. But I clearly heard at this point what had awakened me: a screech owl sounded off again from the persimmon grove across the driveway.

There just ain’t a better fall sound than a screech owl’s quavering cry, that some of the little predators can stretch out longer than they look like they’d have breath for. The owl in the persimmon tree was answered by another from back toward the Mammy Grudge ditchbank, behind the house. Screech owls not only make wonderful pets, but they seem friendly in the wild, often coming to perch close to a campfire and enter into the conversation at night. I drifted back to sleep, thankful for the serenade, blending with nightsongs of crickets, frogs, and katydids.

Investigation the next morning revealed unto me that the woodsmoke came from behind a neighbor’s house, across the pasture where we’d dragged up broke-off pecan limbs after Hurricane Harvey’s winds. As I figured that out, I was standing under a vine-covered hackberry tree, and the smoke smell mingled with the tangy odor of possum grapes hanging from the vines. I just made a trip with a couple of friends to visit a burn-victim friend in Memphis, and Betsy had sent us off before daybreak with a bag of biscuits slathered with pear honey or muscadine jelly, along with two thermoses of my Slung Coffee. JuBaby made the remark as we breakfasted on the road at sunup that he gussied up his muscadine jelly with juice from possum grapes: “Gives it a little tartness,” he boasted. I had never heard of doing that, though I’ve eaten lots of possum grapes.

The smell of woodsmoke and possum grapes also mingled, as I crossed the yard, with the aroma of ripe persimmons. Uncle George Vickers, a former resident of Brownspur, used to make persimmon beer that he aged in buried kegs. I have also eaten persimmon bread, but it takes a LOT of persimmons to get enough pulp for that or persimmon preserves, because of the many large seeds in the fruit: as in the old country saying: “He was shiverin’ like a dog passin’ persimmon seeds!”

I didn’t shiver that badly, but I did experience that delicious little dancing across my spine that my grandmother used to say was “A goose just ran over your grave.” I breathed: woodsmoke, wild grapes, fallen persimmons, the scent of ripe cotton before defoliation, the heavier odor of harvest dust from corn and beans being combined down the road. Betsy had just finished a making of pear honey back in the kitchen, and I had tested it with my last cup of Slung Coffee, the empty cup still swinging on my finger. It was a cacophony of autumn smells!

It was missing one thing. I thought I’d go back into the den and take my left-handed Remington 870, “Southpow,” out of the gun cabinet, picking up a couple of shells. There was a squirrel that needed a scare out on the Mammy Grudge ditchbank, for Betsy begrudged him the pecans he was invading her yard to pilfer, when he should have been content with the pignuts in his own back yard. The smells that were missing from this almost-perfect-smelling morning were the combined aromas of gun oil and burnt gun powder. I figured to make it perfect!

Top Shots, and how they get there!

A younger friend recently asked his Uncle Bob for his endorsement in applying for one of these TV reality shows, entitled Top Shots, or something similar. His reasoning was that since Brownspur had been quite a large part of his upbringing, who might better be qualified to testify to his marksmanship?

Who indeed?

This youngster (anyone under fifty is one of those) and his own late Daddy and Uncle grew up out here in the country, and like most Southern boys, was introduced to firearms – and their safe use! – at an early age: if one counts the plastic Cowboy-&-Indian cap pistols, even when the boys are still in diapers. His grandfather made for me and his Uncle, who was just older, wooden rifles that shot rubber straps cut crossways from inner tubes. That same grandfather shortly impressed upon us with his belt that only discarded tubes should be used for ammo; we had gotten into the farm shop inventory of new tubes. That was one of our first lessons on gun safety!

Probably that next Christmas came the ubiquitous popgun, which shot a cork inserted into the end of the barrel. When the cork disintegrated from frequent use, we found that green plums that spring made suitable substitutes, even achieving much more velocity. Our principal at school confiscated those type weapons after a math teacher was targeted between temple and eye, and in a locker room session with class boys proved how much of a welt those plums could raise upon bare bottoms at a ten-foot range, one of the most unusual punishments meted out to us.

Then came the BB Gun: this was when daddies, uncles, coaches, and even female relatives seemed to constantly harp on safety, and as I recall, any adult was qualified to administer licks if and when they were needed to enforce gun etiquette. Future “Top Shots” learned safety long before accuracy!

But if the Top Shot survived BB Gun ownership to the point that he was allowed to “hunt” with one on his own – two other rules were, “You gotta clean and eat what you shoot,” and “Do NOT kill a mockingbird!” – he soon learned the basics and value of accuracy, graduating to a .22 rifle. When contests were held, the bullseye concept was well understood, and no future MVP or Heisman trophy was esteemed more than that small dot in the middle of a paper target that signified the champion of the day, and could be presented to Dad and Mom before supper, with proper accolades bestowed.

Later on, the .22 rifles graduated to deer rifles, and eventually to elephant guns – on the theory of “My gun’s bigger than yore gun, and makes more noise.” I have a vivid memory of this young man in question standing with his comrades on a gravel road bridge shooting offhand (without a rest) at floating gallon jugs over 200 yards away with a rifle calibered in .458: big enough that the youngsters would not permit their left-handed-shooting Uncle Bob to even shoulder the gun, because rifles that big are engineered with a “cast-off” recoil that could literally break the neck of a southpaw shooter. Though this particular skinny kid could not have weighed 140 pounds then, he shot round after round, sinking jugs with only iron sights, and at every shot, he was shoved backwards two feet on the gravel!

Shotguns followed the same progression: the cut-down .410, then the .20 gauge, then the standard .12 gauge, and some even went on to .10 gauges. My son turkey hunted with a loaned .10 gauge once, and told me, “Daddy, .10 gauge hunters go out in pairs, so if one misses, then the other can hold his gun on him and MAKE him shoot again!” My cousin Mountain Willy, the family gun nut (“turning money into noise”), once showed up with an .8 gauge, which shot a solid slug to stop charging elephants. One needs to have a charging elephant close at hand to be motivated to shoot that gun!

Here again, boy standards point toward practice to achieve accuracy; the kid who comes in from a dove shoot having expended two boxes of shells to down his limit, is likely to have to clean everyone’s doves, then wash dishes after supper, while his buddies brag on their Top Shots, and make fun of the one who shot the most shells.

However, like in any endeavor, practice can only take one so far. Some are born with the Top Shot Ability, but never develop it. Some, like Mac and Adam, do both.

Outdoor Commercials: Dogs, Guns, & ATVs

Over a decade ago, I was associated with a Delta television station in several capacities, the most enjoyable of which was been the production of commercials. The success of my very first one I owe to an Ole Miss friend, Joe Camp, who produced the popular “Benjy” series of movies. Joe told me that his dog trainer had confided to him, “You can make a dog do anything with a pound of bacon and a microwave!”

A local shoe store wanted an ad for a Hush Puppy Trunk Sale. Betsy had a restored antique trunk upstairs, and I knew a lady with a month-old litter of bassett hounds. The rest was easy, with Joe’s advice. I bought a pound of bacon and got access to the lady’s microwave. We used bacon to get the dogs in the trunk and the lid closed. Then we used bacon to entice them scrambling out, going after the shoes. I’ve never done a more fun ad!

It was here at the house we did an ad for a glass company, part of which involved glass bursting. I used my .22 pistol with ratshot loads, and it worked perfectly for the water glass and a glass table. However, for the scene in which a sheet of window glass is supposed to break, the ratshot only made small holes in it. Finally, I went for a shotgun.

We were filming on our west balcony, and had the sheet of glass (4X4) propped up across the outside door, with the camera set up on the south side of the balcony. I was inside, out of sight. It was the day before Thanksgiving.

Betsy was downstairs, in the kitchen, on the east side of the house. She had gotten used to the faint “Pop!” of the .22. She did not know I now had a shotgun. Back upstairs, I loaded up, got the camera guy ready, then realized I needed to be far enough back for the shotshell pattern to expand, to get a really spectacular picture of bursting glass. No problem: there’s a long hall leading to the balcony door. I just backed down it 30 feet and told Landry to yell when ready. He yelled. I fired. It was, indeed, a spectacular shot of bursting glass. It was also a spectacular shot of the sudden appearance of a somewhat perturbed apron-clad wife, who was not prepared for an explosion directly above her propane stove!

We shot another commercial out here at Brownspur that attracted the law. It was an All-Terrain Vehicle ad, during a dry summer and fall – mud was scarce. However, I knew of a spring-fed mud bar down in the Mammy Grudge behind the house and downstream 300 yards. It was certainly suitable, for we stuck the machine and ended up having to take another couple of ATVs down there to get it out the next day. We got back to the house hot, sweaty, and muddy. I used the fire hose to clean the ATVs: most of the mud bar had come back with us through the ragweeds. Betsy made sandwiches.

We were loading the ATVs on the trailer, but the cameraman had another shoot, so he cranked his pickup to let the air conditioner begin to cool, shook hands around to say “Bye,” and scratched off. Just then a black helicopter appeared overhead, hovering.

The truck took off down the road, and the chopper headed right after it. I knew it was a narc chopper, and that they thought the path to that muddy spot in the Grudge led to a marijuana patch. We laughed at their ignorance, and then the ATV guys left for the dealership. Just as the chopper reappeared from following the cameraman for a mile. The helicopter swung around and took off after the truck and trailer of ATVs.

I had on cutoff jeans and a tee shirt, and was filthy, so I headed across the pasture to the Brownspur Swimming Hole. I was nearly there, when the narc chopper landed in the pasture. Two men in black jeans, tee shirts, and boots got out, as the pilot shut down the rotors, and one called, “What have you guys been doing, back there between those ditchbanks?”

Just as innocently as I could, I replied, “Making an ATV commercial, sir.”

“Right!” one snickered. “We’re gonna have to check that out.”

“Help yourself,” I offered. “I’m gonna be in the Swimming Hole here.”

The pilot eyed my muddy, sweaty person and the cool shady water under the huge cypress. “I’ll be at the Swimming Hole with him.”

He never said pea-turkey to me, but the agents showed up an hour later, hot, sweaty, and muddy. One whistled at the pilot to crank up the helicopter. They boarded and took off, with never even a “Good-bye.” Making commercials can be dangerous!

Screech Owls & Wind Chimes

I was sitting out on the porch the other day having lunch, enjoying the cooler fall weather. There was a gusty breeze, the sun was bright, and all-in-all it was one of those days you consider to be perfect. Last Mother’s Day, we had gotten Betsy some of those big wind chimes that are calibrated in different pitches, and we’d not really appreciated them in the summer, when few breezes blew. Today, though, they were playing a tune!

Then I heard a different tune. Which was not particularly unusual when you have several different-pitched wind chimes, but it wasn’t quite in harmony. I sat up and tried to concentrate as it sounded again.

Cross my heart, there was a screech owl in the back yard – and he was singing along with those wind chimes!

This was at high noon, now. It’s common to hear screech owls out here at Brownspur, and we have raised several of them – matter of fact, seems like I just did a column on them a month or so ago. Yet the time to hear screech owls is at dusk and dawn. They’re nocturnal birds, as are all owls, and they sound off that quavering cry all night long, if you want to stay up and listen to it. Betsy has even sent me outside to shoo owls away from the pecan tree over the bedroom window, because they had awakened her with wee-hour serenades. But high noon? No way!

Yet this owl was talking right back to those wind chimes, one of which was at almost the same pitch as the owl’s voice. Question is, was the owl calling because he thought it was another owl, or just because he felt moved to join in the music?

I voted for his joining in the music, and sat back to enjoy it. He called for nearly an hour, from the same tree, sounded like. It was great!

We’ve lots of times sat outside at dusk and called up both screech owls, with their quavering “whooo-ooo-ooo-ooo,” as well as barred owls and great horned owls with their standard “Who-who-who cooks for you?” We even raised some of the latter, great horned owls Major & Howland, and a barred owl named Stoney. We’ve never had pets as interesting as the little screech owls, though: Hoot, Don Quixote, Gordo, and Monfred.

First time I ever heard one imitating wind chimes at high noon, however.

We’re used to the Brownspur mockingbirds imitating sounds, especially before duck season and turkey season, when we are practicing up on the calls. If you’ve never heard a mockingbird quack like a duck, you still have things to learn in this life.

One of the worst mocker imitations I ever heard was after I had spent all day printing out letters to bookstores about a new book I was publishing. It was a beautiful fall day, and the windows were wide open, one of them a double window right behind the printer. The feeder was on the blink, so I was having to hand-feed each sheet of paper into the printer, and it would make a high-pitched “Beep-beep-beep” after each sheet went through. I was used to it, until the next morning early, when I was just sitting down with my first cup of coffee. The first couple of times I head the printer beeping, I didn’t take notice, and then I thought I’d just forgotten to turn it off the night before. When I went to refill my cup, I checked the printer. It was off, but just then the beeping started again.

The printer’s beep sounded just like the smoke alarm!

I spilled coffee as I sprinted upstairs – no smoke there. I ran down the outside stairs to check the Store, our guesthouse – no smoke there. I puffed into the house – no smoke in the sewing room or pantry, where the hot water heaters are. The beeping had stopped now, and I collapsed into my chair before it started again.

It was after I made that panicky circuit once more that I heard the beeping begin again, and traced it to the corkscrew willow by the patio. A mockingbird who nested there had apparently listened to that printer all day before, and was now imitating it, not knowing that it was an exact replication of the smoke alarm!

After we came home from the Navy, complete with a genuine cuckoo clock, the clock hung in the den right next to the doors onto the side deck. Those doors stayed open most of the year, except for the dead of winter, and we all were so used to the clock’s cuckooing that we never noticed the mockingbirds were imitating it until a dozen years later when the clock quit. The mockers continued to cuckoo for years!

So, are the mockingbirds fixing to start imitating wind chimes and screech owls?

Whatever. We can stand it, as long as nothing is burning!

Dry Season Doves

With last year’s dove season opening up, everyone else was looking for feed fields to try their luck on Opening Day, but I had other ideas. August and late July had been exceptionally dry, and we had of course been spending afternoons and weekends out at the Swimming Hole in the pasture next to the house. I couldn’t help but notice how many doves came over, flared, and then swooped down to water at the edge of the Swimming Hole.

So, after all the youngsters had left the house headed out for a sunflower or corn field, I sat around with an extra cup of coffee, then slipped on my swim trunks and a tee shirt, grabbed Southpow, my left-handed Remington 870, a shell vest, and strolled out to the pasture. I settled in a comfortable chair by the west end of the Swimming Hole, loaded up, and sure enough, here came the doves. I had to pick my shots, so as not to sprinkle my house or the neighbor’s house, but that was no problem atall.

Time the youngsters got in from the field with maybe two limits total between the four of them, I was through breasting out my limit, had them washed, and marinating in Dale’s Sauce for that night’s supper.

Used to be, we’d have 100 hunters for Opening Day. Back in the old days, if a farmer had a 25-acre milo or sunflower field, surrounded by 20,000 acres of cotton and green soybeans, he’d have a concentration: all the doves for 20,025 acres would be feeding in that little field, and they’d stay for a week or two, providing you didn’t shoot it out, and you let the doves come in to feed unbothered after you and your guests had limited out.

Then twenty years or so ago, the corn market suddenly exploded in the Delta, and instead of that little sunflower or milo field being surrounded by 20,000 acres of cotton and green soybeans, it was adjoined by 12,000 acres of corn, 2,000 acres of cotton, and 6,000 acres of early short-season soybeans. The corn and beans were combined about two to three weeks before Opening Day, and then instead of the doves on 20,025 acres having one feed field, they now had 18,025 acres of feed fields. No one could keep a concentration, because there were too many other places for doves to go. The best hunting nowadays seems to be late sunflower fields during the second season, after the grain fields have been harvested and cultivated.

So, heading out to the water hole was a natural thing to do and I was successful, though it would not have worked for more than a couple of hunters, who would be careful about where they shot.

Late in the season, Big Robert and the Dead Duck Club men would hunt the banks of the Mammy Grudge canal, back behind the house, where doves were coming to water. Uncle Shag used to have a favorite stand close to a locust tree: everyone knows how doves love to light in thorn trees. I once saw Uncle Shag get a triple on doves, though why the second and third birds didn’t panic when he dropped the first one, I’ll never know. They just kept on loafing toward that limb.

Sammy, Little Dave, and I went out to that same canal one December after a freeze. The water was still running in the canal, but the mud was freezing on the banks, and the icy mud was freezing on the legs of the doves as they came to water. It would collect into ice-mudballs until they couldn’t fly more than a few yards. We shot them like quail for the first few minutes, until we realized what was wrong with them, and how many doves were affected. It was awful, but they would have never lived through the night anyway. We took sticks and whacked our limits in the head before dark. When we went out early the next morning, there were hundreds of dead doves, and the coons, possums, skunks, bobcats, and coyotes – plus tame dogs and house cats – had mopped up on the feast.

Water Hole doves are a good bet for a hot, dry first season. But here’s one piece of advice from the Brownspur Swimming Hole Hunt: Do NOT discharge a 12-gauge shotgun straight up at a dove, while floating on an air mattress!

Rebel Flag Controversy

I know, this a departure from the usual; but it gives a meaningful point of view.

There’s quite a controversy going on in Mississippi these days concerning the state flag. Some folks say that the old flag is no longer realistic, and is to some extent hurtful in modern days. Some say that it is even racist and degrading. On the other hand, many supporters oppose changing the flag which has meant so much to them and their forebears over the past century or so. As the state is debating this, it’s just fighting a fight we already fit (and lost) at my Alma Mater, Ole Miss, several years ago.

My parents met at Ole Miss, like Betsy and I did. Big Robert and Miss Janice were married for 45 years before he died in a car wreck, and she passed on the next year, not wanting to live without him. Betsy and I have been married for 53 years and counting. So, whatever else Ole Miss has meant to this family, it’s meant true love! We had supper recently with a sorority sister of Betsy’s who was a bridesmaid in our wedding, and I regularly hunt with a half-dozen fraternity brothers from those days. Ole Miss has meant long-lasting friendships, as well.

It’s meant pride, too. I played Rebel football when we were the Number One Team in America, and while I was too small for a college guard and got hurt too much, finally rupturing a hip joint when I was clipped on a punt, no one can take being on the Best Team in America — shoot, in the world! — away from me. Betsy was a Top Six Beauty at a university which had produced two Miss Americas in the four years before she got there, plus she was a majorette (we called them Rebelettes), and as such, was closely associated with that Number One Team, too.

I’m saying that being a Rebel and a Rebelette means a great deal to both of us. It was a great time in our lives at a great school that almost was closed down by the politics of the day, and that Number One Team was a big factor in keeping the university open, when state and national politics could have closed it down.

I got out Momma’s 1936 Ole Miss Annual yesterday. While there was mention of “Ole Miss” aplenty, the team back then was called “The Flood.” I believe I’ve read that it was the next year when “The Rebels” was used for athletics. It’s an educated guess that the title “Ole Miss” refers to the mistress of the plantation, and during those days, the State was largely rural, and farming was the way of life. Nothing racial about that, unless you are just looking for something to gripe about.

There’s no mention I can find of “Colonel Rebel” nor of the flag commonly called “the Rebel Flag.” No pictures of it, either. My point is simply that the mascot of Colonel Rebel and the “Rebel Flag” in question became associated with Ole Miss during a time in American history when there was little racial controversy. This was when Germany was powering up to start World War II. To be factual, the Confederate Flag was never the flag we waved at Ole Miss, nor is it the flag included in the canton corner of the state flag. The “Rebel Flag” was designed by General Beauregard after the first Battle of Bull Run, when similarly uniformed troops mistook the two similar flags of the USA and CSA. It was used as a battle flag by the Army of Northern Virginia, and other units, and black, white, and red Confederate soldiers fought and died under that banner. Seems like the last Confederate general to surrender was a full-blooded Cherokee Indian.

But enough history. I wanted to give y’all a different perspective. A decade ago, I was on the staff of a writer’s conference, and Alex Haley, the author of ROOTS, was also on staff. Several of us were in the restaurant lounge one evening planning seminars, when the TV news came on. The first story covered a demonstration in either Georgia or South Carolina by people wanting to remove the “Rebel Flag” from the state flag.

This was followed immediately by a story on yet another famine or war in Africa, with gruesome pictures of the dead and dying, and the inevitable shots of starving children, bellies distended, runny noses, flies all over everything. Awful!

And the author of ROOTS declared, “You know, every time an African American sees a story like that, he ought to go find a Rebel Flag and kiss it! Because, there, but for American slavery, would be me and my descendants! Thank God I’m here, not there!”

The perspective of a nice guy, who was black, saying that America is truly a land of opportunity — if you will live in the present, and not sweat the small stuff of the past.

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