OF BIRDS AND BEASTS
OF BIRDS AND BEASTS
If you have been paying attention, you will have become aware of the fact that my husband is an avid golfer. For those of you who have never been on a golf course, allow me to explain a few fundamentals of this sport, which are relevant to the continuation of these annals.
A golf course is divided into eighteen sections called “holes”. Each hole has a “tee-off box” at the front end and a “green” (which is an artistically shaped area of velvety smooth, fine grass) at the back end. Somewhere on the green is the actual hole into which you are aiming to eventually drop your ball. In between are long stretches of cut grass called “fairways”.
The aim of the game of golf is to get from the tee-off box to the hole with as few shots (called “strokes”) as possible. If you can do all eighteen holes in seventy-two strokes, you are a “scratch” golfer. If you regularly do it in less, you can take your chances on the professional golf circuits, and if you can consistently score a lot less than seventy-two, you stand a good chance of becoming rich and famous.
In order to make sure that the manufacturers of golf balls (which are not cheap) can afford their annual trips to Mauritius and other luxury holiday destinations, it is imperative to make sure that golfers regularly have to replenish their supply of golf balls. This is cunningly achieved by littering the fairways with hazards which swallow golf balls like toads swallowing flies.
Along the sides of the fairways are areas of uncut grass, appropriately called “the rough”, and should a golfer “hook”, “slice” or “fade” his/her ball (a fancy way of saying hitting in every direction excepting straight down the fairway), the chances of the ball getting lost in the rough are very good. Should you happen to see a golfer wandering around in long grass while slashing at the jungle-like undergrowth with his/her club, you now know why.
Of course, many golfers soon become quite proficient at driving their balls down the fairway and avoiding the rough, so the golf ball manufacturers had to come up with another crafty plan. After much deliberation they invented water hazards, ingeniously disguised as pretty streams and ponds and mini lakes, with bridges and water lilies and waterfowl. The unwary golfer thinks that this is all to provide the golf course with a beautiful and soothing rural atmosphere, but don’t you believe a word of it! Those water hazards swallow as many balls as the rough, and you have even less chance of finding them.
I must also mention the sand trap, known as a “bunker”, which, while it does not swallow balls, does play an important role in preventing the earnest golfer from proceeding to that elusive hole.
Before I continue I must also describe the different kinds of clubs which golfers use for the serious business of getting that little ball into that little hole.
First there is the “wood”, a long club with a heavy head which you use to strike the ball as far as is humanly possible. To improve your driving skills, you need a “driving range”, which, for Barry, was no problem. He merely got the garden services to mow down the grass on the opposite side of the dam, build a tee-off box and plant distance markers along the way. A local youth was soon roped into standing at the opposite end of the range (out of reach of being inadvertently struck on the head) to collect the balls into a bucket. (He was deeply disappointed when we eventually left Iswepe and he consequently lost his source of pocket money.)
Then there are the “irons”. These are lighter than the woods and enable you to hit shorter distances when required. If he did not feel like going to the driving range, Barry used the length of the front lawn down towards the dam for practising. (That should give you a good indication of how big the garden was.)
The iron which enables you to hit the shortest distance is a “pitching wedge”, which you use to “chip”. A chip is a short, upward curving shot. The front lawn provided a perfect place to practise chipping.
But there is also a “sand wedge” which is used to get you out of the aforementioned bunkers. Without a suitable place to practice chipping out of bunkers, Barry set about remedying the situation and it was not too long before he had a bunker below the pine trees.
The bunker was easily made. He got a spade and dug out a large hole below the pine trees and had it filled with sand. (This bunker eventually became one of Tilly and Poppy’s favourite places in their early puppyhood.)
Finally, there is the “putter”. This is used once you get your ball onto the green, where you firmly but gently “putt” your ball into the hole. The lack of his own personal putting green was surprisingly easily solved. And it is here that we come to one of our family’s favourite stories.
During the course of our second summer in Iswepe, Barry noticed that there was a large, almost circular patch of fine grass near the pine grove and he began to tend this patch with the greatest of loving care, weeding it, and even going so far as to purchase an old-fashioned lawn mower so that he could cut the grass exactly to the desired length. It was cordoned off to prevent the garden services from scraping it to the roots with their huge diesel mowers and careless attitude.
One day he came to me in the house in great indignation. Had I noticed the hadedas making great big holes in his putting green? I hadn’t, but I dutifully followed him to the spot and commiserated with him, as the hadedas had done a very thorough job. Barry knelt down on the green and began to carefully fill in the holes and tenderly pat the grass back into shape, all the while muttering imprecations against the hadedas.
Behind him, Scampy, (see Déjà Vu) then but a year or so old, noticing that Barry appeared to be digging, followed suit and with typical daxie skill, swiftly excavated a sizeable hole in the putting green.
Out of the corner of his eye, Barry caught sight of the little criminal, and let out a yell of horrified outrage. Scampy, not quite liking the tone of Barry’s voice, made haste to put some distance between them.
Tasha and I fell about laughing but Barry was not amused! We took Scampy inside and left Barry on his knees to fix the damage which that little “rubbish ‘hond’” had inflicted.
Barry was not the only one to curse the hadedas though.
A whole flock of them roosted and nested in the pine grove, and for Tasha, the first few weeks of living in Iswepe had been rendered hideous every morning at the crack of dawn, when, as she aggrievedly asserted, these great birds screeched into her window with deliberate malice. I thought she was just being melodramatic until one morning, having risen early, I was at my bedroom window and saw what was happening.
The hadedas launched themselves out of the trees towards the house, and instead of rising straight up, their weight carried them some distance downwards before the beat of their wings bore them upwards into flight over the roof of the house. And their path was directly over Tasha’s room. It genuinely looked as though they were deliberately swooping down to call in at Tasha’s window! And as all who have experienced it know, the hadeda has the loudest squawk in Africa!
Tasha had some interesting fantasies about hadeda stew and hadeda potjiekos!
Hadedas were not the only ones to create a noise, though.
One night we heard the most horrific racket on the tin roof of the house, which made our hair stand on end. We dashed to the lounge window to see if we could catch sight of the gang of burglars, some of whom who were apparently attempting to gain entrance through the roof, and there in the moonlight was a huge cat on the lawn staring at us with saucer eyes.
Then we saw that it was a two legged cat!
This was swiftly followed by the realisation that it was a very large spotted eagle owl.
From the pellets of rodent fur lying on the ground below the pine trees, I had been aware that we had owls in the garden, but I never once saw them during the day. All I ever got while searching for them was a crick in the neck. (The pines were huge.) However, my mom once saw one of them while she was lying below the pine trees on the garden chaise longue, so we came to the conclusion that the grove was actually their home.
After that first time, we often heard them on the roof, especially in summer. What they were doing was anyone’s guess. Possibly dispatching rodents. Who could say?
Another pair of birds which made their presence felt was a pair of Indian Mynahs which decided to set up their home with us the summer after Tilly and Poppy’s arrival.
I know they are invasive aliens but I found their behaviour to be very interesting.
Their choice of nesting spot and the materials they used proved them to be extremely low class birds. (Trailer trash, in fact.)
The nest was built in the toilet breather pipe! I mean, really! And because the spot was so cramped, a lot of their building material landed on the ground below and the debris included the mummified corpse of a small bird! I mean, double really!!
They turned out to be excellent parents though – attentive and extremely protective. From about two weeks before the eggs hatched and until the fledglings left the nest, they screamed every time one of the dogs came anywhere near the vicinity of the nest and even dive-bombed them!
However, their choice of food for their babies left much to be desired.
Barry once tried to make himself calamari (without a recipe and without the faintest idea of what he was doing – he is fantastic in many ways but not too adept in the kitchen) and the disastrous results landed in the dogs’ food bowls. The dogs, after one sniff, decided that Barry was clearly not to be trusted, but do you know that those mynahs actually fed those tough, inedible pieces to their unsuspecting babies! Whether the babies puked it up, or whether they had cast-iron digestive systems, I will never know.
They also tried to take the dogs’ food. I fed the dogs late every afternoon on the lawn just off the back stoep. Those birds would swoop down on them and actually strike their heads as they tried to drive them away from the bowls. The dogs just hunkered down and ate as fast as they could. No one, but no one, was going to steal their food!
The dogs got their deadly revenge though. The mynahs lost three of their four fledglings to them. The following spring I put a cone of cardboard into the breather pipe to force them to build elsewhere.
Those idiotic birds then built their nest, not even two metres away, under the eaves above the security gate which guarded the enclosed porch at our strange “front” door. (See Stop! Thief!)
The amount of nesting material which landed inside the porch alerted me to what they were doing. I was most dubious about the position as it seemed to me that the nest was in a very hot place, directly under the tin roof, but I assumed that birds know what they are doing.
I was wrong.
On a particularly hot day, the fledgelings all abandoned ship and fluttered about on the porch. They were clearly far too young to be out of their nest, and if they hopped through the security gate, they would soon suffer the same fate as their siblings from the previous season.
I found a flat box, gathered the nest into it and balanced it on top of the security gate, wedging it in so that it would not fall. I then replaced the fledgelings in the nest.
Alas, they had got a taste of freedom and by the next day were leaving their nest again. The dogs began to pick them off, one by one. I do not know if any survived.
By now the four dogs (Wolfie, Tess, Poppy and Tilly – for those of you who might be a bit confused with all this jumping around) had become a pack, and we had no qualms about leaving them together at the back.
Before the pups’ second winter, when they were just over a year old, we decided to change the sleeping arrangements. If Tess left the kennel during the night, Wolfie would not let her back in. Not unreasonably, she soon voiced her unhappiness with the situation. When it started becoming a regular thing of having to go out in the early hours to call Wolfie out of the kennel so Tess could go back in, it became clear that Wolfie needed more space.
Poppy then joined Tess outside, Wolfie slept in the kitchen, and our sleep was once again undisturbed.
About a year later, we noticed that one of Wolfie’s testicles was noticeably larger than the other, and the size increased rapidly.
It turned out to be a very aggressive testicular cancer and he had to be neutered. (This is quite common and is another reason to have your male dogs neutered at a young age.)
By now he was eight years old, and we had to face the fact that he was not going to reach a good old age. However, it seemed that the arthritis medication was still helping him to have some quality of life.
Besides the devil’s claw (a herbal root extract good for arthritis in humans as well), which was mixed into his food, he also got a cocktail of anti-inflammatories, pain killers and cortisone, none of which were good for his kidneys or liver, but we had little choice.
However, this unfortunate situation did lead to another of our favourite stories.
The pills were concealed in a ball of cheese or mince, which he usually swallowed without a problem.
One afternoon, just before feeding time, I handed him his ball of cheese over the lower half of the kitchen door. With great reluctance, he took it gingerly between his teeth and then simply opened his mouth and dropped it on the ground. In a flash Tilly, whom I had not realised was there, leaped upon it and swallowed it whole.
I nearly had a heart attack. Those pills were calculated to give relief to a forty kilogram dog, and Tilly weighed five! I lost any cool, calm collectedness I might have had, and indulged in a mild fit of hysterics (I save the serious hysterics for spiders and pooped-on duvets – see A Serpent in Eden and Feline Felonies) and Barry and Tasha came rushing to my aid.
“We’ve got to get her to vomit!” Barry said.
He promptly grabbed her and proceeded to try to shove a finger down her throat.
Naturally, Tilly believed that he, for no good reason that she could see, was trying to murder her and she responded as one would expect. She violently fought against his efforts and we got nowhere.
For a few moments I became really angry with Tilly. I was about to lose yet another dog and it was all because of her gluttony! I declared that I was washing my hands of the whole situation and would go and sit somewhere and wait while another one of my dogs died!
Yes, I am very reasonable when stressed. Ask anyone in my family.
But James Herriot has not been one of our favourite authors for nothing.
“Mustard water!” Tasha declared, and I instantly knew what she was referring to.
Hope sprang afresh and I leaped into action. I had no idea how much mustard powder to use, but I decided that the stronger it was the better. As soon as it was ready, we took her to the front away from the other dogs.
With grim and deadly determination Barry held her in a vice-like grip. (She was more convinced than ever that our intention was to murder her.) With even more grim and deadly determination Tasha prised open her jaws. With the grimmest and deadliest determination of all, I poured the evil-looking concoction down her throat. She gagged and spluttered and fought for her life but one tiny dachshund is no match for three grimly and deadly determined humans and we got most of the stuff down. Then we let her go.
She ran away from us down towards the dam. No longer in fear for her life, she slowed down and allowed us to catch up with her, but she was clearly deeply offended and ignored all our overtures of sympathy and affection.
We walked with her, hoping and praying that the emetic would work.
Within a few minutes her entire demeanour began to change. Her steps became slower and slower. Her head began to droop with her ears trailing the ground. Her tail drooped. Her eyes drooped. Her lips drooped. Even her paws drooped as she dragged them over the grass. She was a picture of abject misery.
We began to feel more and more cheerful. In fact, the sicker she looked the happier we felt.
Finally she assumed a skulking posture, head down, and back slightly arched. She stopped and retched and, lo and behold, the ball of cheese came up whole, the pills still safely inside it!
It had taken less than ten minutes.
What a blessed relief!
For us, that is.
For the rest of the day, Tilly regarded us with deep suspicion.
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