Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Colton with Uncle © Dan Colton

Colton with Uncle Dave after a successful hunt.
© Dan Colton

February 2013

Fighting back with Buster

An unintentional experiment in population management.

Dan Colton

While I didn't realize it at the time, hunting Tom Hawe's fields was exactly what I needed as a boy. The death of my father when I was very young had been, for too long, a black cloud above me. Hunting got me out from under that shadow.

The fields were named for an old neighbor who had his own hunting preserve and farm. My Uncle Dave led guides through Hawe's fields. When I was old enough, I was allowed to help with the farm's workload doing mostly odds-and-ends, and hunt Hawe's fields with my uncle.

One spring when I was about 10 years old, my uncle and I decided to start a pigeon raising project to enhance our hunting experiences. What we didn't realize at the time, is that we were embarking on an experiment into the importance of finding balance in an ecosystem to maintain healthy animal population numbers.

The "experiment" was Uncle Dave's idea and I eagerly jumped on board. I was an enthusiastic boy, eager to experience adventure and challenge. The experiment took place over two years and began with constructing pigeon roosts. Our goal was to raise pigeons we could then use to train Hawe's dogs in the fields for pheasant hunting.

We scoped out an old barn on the prop-erty that had two levels – both stories in disrepair. The upper story was cluttered with junk: broken washing machines, lawn mowers, discarded gas cans, that sort of stuff. But the bottom floor was dark and cool, with empty stalls for cows and thin dry straw scattered across the floor.

This barn was unused and mostly forgotten; it was the perfect place for an uncle to teach his young nephew how to raise healthy birds and train bird dogs.

We assembled the roost inside the barn and brought in live pigeons. We aited, crossed our fingers, and hoped the flock would stick around. Our hopes were reinforced when the birds came back the next evening. Soon, hens laid eggs. Protected inside the barn from the cold outside, the pigeon flock grew.

For a while, anyway.

But then, for no apparent reason, pigeons began to die. We feared disease had found its way into the flock. But that suspicion proved false when broken eggs began to appear on the floor. The flock was under siege by something more mysterious. We suspected that raccoons were behind the crime. So we boarded up all the possible entrances that a raccoon might use.

Still, pigeons were killed and their eggs destroyed.

Finally, it was the curiosity and tenacity of a small dog named Buster who solved the mystery for us and cleared the raccoons of any blame. Buster was a terrier bred by a local Amish family. The breed was said to be specialized in pest control, hence the breed's ame: rat terrier. Buster proved to be a splendid supporter of his breed's name.

One day I was standing inside the barn filling the pigeon feeders with crushed corn when I heard Buster begin to bark and circle the barn. Curious, I poked my head outside the door to see what the commotion was. When Buster came back around the corner and into view, I saw that he was running down a massive rat. It was astonishing – the rat was nearly as big as Buster! Around and around in a circle they ran until, with a final snarl, Buster lunged and took the rat between his teeth.

Buster the rat terrier © Dan Colton
Buster comes to the rescue and finds the culprit.
© Dan Colton

My uncle had also seen the chase and he immediately put two and two together. The rats were to blame for the pigeon deaths. It made perfect sense. If rats lived inside the barn, then they had easy access to the cooped up pigeons.

The rat population was destructive for several reasons, the most obvious being a taste for pigeons and their eggs. Additionally, if the rat population grew larger (thanks to the addition of pigeons as an abundant new food source), the rodents would eventually spread and could reach the perimeter leading to the pheasant pens. Rats also will raid feed barrels and there is an added concern over rat-borne diseases.

Our conclusion? We needed to stop the rat problem before it became any bigger.

Considering all the dogs and birds who roamed the property, widespread rat poison and traps were out of the question. We did what we could and set a few traps around the barn. But those traps had only limited success and the pigeon population continued to suffer.

But there was Buster. We had him on our side and that made all the difference. After his initial encounter with the supersized rodent, he was on constant patrol for more action.

One day, angered by more pigeon kills, I took a .22 Winchester rifle with a box of 25 rounds and called Buster into the barn. He darted inside with one goal: To find as many rats as he could. Fearlessly, he leaped into the tangled hoard of rusted appliances and hobbled tires, and barked with excitement. The narrow crevasses and small openings were no problem for him.

I could tell he was on a scent. Suddenly, a huge rat bolted up along a rafter towards the ceiling. I fired a shot, a miss.Quickly I reloaded. The rat reached a high cross-beam and scampered across. Again I eased my finger on the trigger, and the rat dropped. With a similar method, Buster and I worked as a team throughout the day. By sunset 11 rats were dead.

Sadly, the next winter was especially harsh. The barn suffered a partial roof collapse. After the cave-in, the pigeons no longer returned to the roost. As a result, I was never able to see the extended results of the serendipitous population management experiment.

But the experiment did show me the importance of keeping balance and that in order for nature to achieve balance, there is often a period of turbulence where the natural order must be sifted out.

Too much of one species can reduce another. In life, as in an ecosystem, cooperation is required for peaceful coexistence. If one species is highly skilled at acquiring resources, and greedy with them, competing species may be phased out. This was the threat that the pigeon flock faced from the rat population.

In the case on Hawe's preserve, the balance (or imbalance) was related to the way an introduced species altered the rats' ecological niche. The pigeons gave the rats an easy and reliable food source, thereby creating an imbalance.

I challenge others to pay attention to the balances or imbalances that occur around them. Getting out hunting is the perfect opportunity to do so. And if you can find a buddy like Buster to join you along the way, all the better.

Dan Colton is a student at Madison College pursuing a journalism certificate. He enjoys visiting the old Hawe's property when he is on break from his studies.