Going home again ... and again

Science | Some things about animals are just a bit beyond science
by John R. Erickson
Posted 11/17/20, 12:17 pm

A few years ago, John R. Erickson shared some tales of puzzling behaviors he has observed in animals over his years as a rancher. He noted that British scientist Rupert Sheldrake, in his book Dogs that Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home and Other Unexplained Powers of Animals, combined stories from many animal owners suggesting that there’s still much we don’t understand about the creatures who live alongside us—be they domestic or wild. There are some things animals do that science just can’t explain in a satisfying way. Erickson has also seen some “things that didn’t quite add up.” Today, he’s back with more strange stories from his own interactions with the animal kingdom. —Rachel Lynn Aldrich

Mary D Cat

In 1990, when we bought our ranch in Roberts County, Texas, the only house on the place was an old bunkhouse that had been vacant for a number of years. It was fit for weekend visits but not for long term habitation, so we kept our residence in the town of Perryton.

Someone gave us a cat and I decided to leave her at the bunkhouse so that she could rid the place of mice, snakes, and pack rats. I went down to the ranch almost every day and was able to keep her supplied with cat food and water, but for the most part, Mary D Cat was on her own, living under the house. I hoped she would survive. It was a dangerous place for a cat. Owls and coyotes were a constant threat to cats that became careless in their wanderings.

Mary D proved to be smart and durable. She survived, all alone, under the house, and acquired odd personality traits that reminded me of Ben Gunn, the character in Treasure Island who had been marooned on the island for three years.

One day, after Mary D had been on the ranch for a year or more, two of our children, Mark and Ashley, went to the ranch with me for a day of work. I wanted to show them a deep canyon in a remote section of the ranch (the ranch covered nine square miles), and we loaded up in our Jeep Cherokee.

They had been playing with Mary D and wanted to take her along. I didn’t have the heart to say no (the cat seemed to crave human companionship), but warned them to keep a close eye on the cat and not let her wander off. We reached our destination, a high point with a spectacular view of Point Creek Canyon three hundred feet below. While we were enjoying the view, Mary D hopped out of the Cherokee and the next thing we knew, she was creeping down the canyon rim. We tried to call her back, but she didn’t respond—typical cat.

There was no way we could retrieve her and I told the children that, most likely, we would not see her again. This was a rugged ranch and we were three miles from the bunkhouse. To a cat that weighed ten to fifteen pounds, it would have been equivalent to something like fifty miles to a human. Mary D had never set foot on any part of the ranch except the small area she had occupied around the bunkhouse. Water holes were scarce and widely separated, and the ranch had a population of predator animals that would have been glad to snack on a lost cat. It was a sad occasion and we were sorry to lose her.

Two weeks later, she was back in her old spot under the bunkhouse—thin, still odd, but undamaged. I was amazed, but Sheldrake’s research indicates that this kind of behavior is not uncommon in cats and dogs. They seem to have an uncanny sense of home, and the navigational skills to find their way through unfamiliar territory.

Raccoons

Over the years, we have had a problem with coons slipping into the barn and raiding the cattle feed inside. I like coons, have had several of them as pets, and am glad to share the ranch with them. I don’t mind feeding them, but coons are not good at sharing. They seem driven toward behavior that you would have to describe as vandalism, wanton destruction. They are not content to open one sack and eat two or three pounds of feed every night. Instead, they will rip open five or six paper sacks and leave the barn floor littered with a hundred pounds of loose feed.

The usual rancher response to a barn-wrecking coon is to shoot the offender and be done with it, but this episode occurred during a grinding three-year drought, and I had lost my appetite for taking life. I instructed my son-in-law, Randy Wilson, to set a live trap and haul the coon to another location. He baited the trap with cat food (a risky procedure, because if you catch a skunk instead of a coon, you’ve got a problem) and he captured the villain. He hauled it two miles to the eastern boundary of the ranch and turned it loose near a pond where any coon should have been content.

A week later, the coon was back and wrecking the barn. Randy caught him again in the live trap, but this time I took him on circuitous ride through our ranch and two other ranches (probably ten miles of touring) and turned him loose near the Canadian River—perfect habitat for a water-loving raccoon.

This time, it took him ten days to make it back to the barn, and to his old habits. When he got bored with tearing sacks of feed, he overturned coffee cans and plastic containers that held bolts, fuses, nails, and pipe fittings, and dumped them in the middle of the barn floor. Randy trapped him again and hauled him nineteen miles to the east and turned him out beside a nice spring-fed pond—again, perfect habitat for a coon.

For three weeks, we had tranquility in the barn and thought we had seen the last of him, but he found us again.

I can’t prove that it was the same coon, but I am confident that it was. This was a coon that, most likely, had been born and raised on this ranch, and had probably never ventured more than a half-mile from the barn until we hauled him off, yet he had an unerring sense of home.

Horses

Anyone who has done much horseback riding has noticed that horses tend to move at a sluggish pace when they are leaving the barn, and at a more exuberant pace when they think they’re going back home. It seems to be a common trait in horses. They have a homing instinct.

Over a long career as a rancher and cowboy, I have ridden both Quarter Horses and Arabians and have a preference for the Arabians. Even though small and light-boned, they are tough and durable.

I believe that the homing instinct is stronger in my Arabian horses, and it has been a source of annoyance. Regardless of where we are on this rugged nine-square-mile ranch, if I give my Arabians a slack rein, they will bend their path away from a straight, forward line and begin drifting toward the barn, even when it is miles away. If I didn’t make regular course corrections, we would find ourselves standing on a canyon rim, looking down at the barn.

It’s as though they are following an internal compass and have become the needle. They always know the location of “home” and it doesn’t depend on line-of-sight vision. They are pointing toward a place they can’t see or smell. I can’t believe these horses are so familiar with the terrain and landmarks on a 6,000-acre ranch that they always know where they are. They spend most of their time in one pasture and we use them for gathering cattle only three or four times a year.

It’s as though they are following an internal compass and have become the needle. They always know the location of “home” and it doesn’t depend on line-of-sight vision.

Carlos

Sheldrake devotes a chapter to dogs and cats that seem to know when they are getting close to their home or to a familiar spot. I observed this in our son’s dog Carlos, a black Lab-blue heeler cross.

Mark and Carlos lived in Amarillo, a hundred miles southwest of our ranch. Now and then, when Mark needed to travel, Carlos stayed with us, and on several occasions I took him back to Amarillo. He was a good traveler, quiet and well behaved. Once we began the two-hour drive, he curled up in the back seat and slept.

When we passed through the towns of Pampa, White Deer, and Panhandle, I had to slow down and stop at traffic lights. Carlos might open his eyes and look around, but then went back to sleep. But when I took the Washington exit off I-40, he sat up and showed excitement. We were within a quarter mile of Mark’s house and he seemed to know it.

I noticed the same behavior on trips from Amarillo to the ranch. When we drove away from Mark’s house, Carlos curled up in the back seat and slept. On the last nineteen miles of this journey, when we were driving on dirt roads and passing through big, empty ranch country, he slept. But when we made a left turn onto a dirt road that was one mile from our house, Carlos sat up and moved into the front seat. His excitement showed in his body language, as though he knew that he would soon be seeing his pals, Dixie and Daisy, our dogs.

Buzzards

Our house was located in a deep canyon, in an area that supported a heavy population of trees: juniper, western soapberry, hackberry, native elm, and cottonwood. About a hundred yards east of the house, there were several large cottonwood trees that towered above the other trees.

For the twenty-seven years we had lived on the ranch, one of those cottonwood trees had been the roosting tree for a colony of buzzards, maybe as many as fifty. We had other cottonwood trees on the ranch, but none was occupied by roosting buzzards. Every morning, they left the roost at daylight and every evening they returned and landed on the canyon rim. One by one, they glided down and took a spot in the tree. By sundown, they were all in place, and as far as I know, they never made a sound. (Roosting turkeys will squawk at loud noises such as thunder. Buzzards don’t).

There were several things that puzzled me about our feathered neighbors. First, even though we had shared our canyon with them for almost three decades, we had never found a nest or seen a buzzard chick. I had no idea where or how they raised their young.

Second, every autumn, perhaps on exactly the same day (I didn’t keep good records), they vanished, all of them. Every spring, perhaps on the same day, they returned to the same roosting tree in the same canyon on the same ranch. I had no scientific data to prove that we were observing the same colony of buzzards year after year, but I assume that we were.

I have read that buzzards spend winters in South Texas or even as far south as Mexico, six hundred to a thousand miles from our ranch. On such a scale, their roosting tree in our canyon is a microscopic speck on a map, yet we never saw a spring when they didn’t return.

How do they find one tree in the entire state of Texas, in the entire United States, and reclaim it every spring at the same time?

How do they find one tree in the entire state of Texas, in the entire United States, and reclaim it every spring at the same time?

Another thing that puzzled me about buzzards was their ability to find dead animals. Not long ago, I saw a buzzard sitting on the side of a ranch road, eating a dead bull snake. I had driven the road the previous afternoon and hadn’t seen the snake, so I knew that it had been run over by an oil field vehicle that morning, probably not more than an hour or two before I saw it.

Buzzards spend their days floating above the ranch at altitudes that probably range from five hundred to two thousand feet. At such a distance from the ground, how does a buzzard see a small snake on the side of the road, and how does it find the snake so quickly? How does a bird with a brain the size of a pecan distinguish between a dead snake and one that is just sleeping, resting, or stalking prey?

Is this romantic nonsense? Over the years, I have seldom told these stories, because they are so strange and inexplicable. One hates to report things one can’t explain, but Sheldrake’s research reminds us that what we understand—or think we understand—might be only a small part of God’s creation.

John R. Erickson

John provides commentary and short fiction to WORLD. His Hank the Cowdog series for children has sold more than 8.5 million copies worldwide, and in addition to publishing 74 books, his work has appeared in news outlets such as The Dallas Morning News. John and his wife, Kris, reside near Perryton, Texas.

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Comments

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  • OldMike
    Posted: Sat, 11/21/2020 03:36 pm

    Another good one, Mr.Erickson!  Thank you!

  • PW
    Posted: Sat, 11/21/2020 07:52 pm

    Just thinking of the buzzards soaring above our home place. It's a river coulee feeding into the Mississippi in Wisconsin. I used to sneak up to the bluffs to spy out their nests in little caves. Nowadays, we mostly see bald eagles instead of buzzards. Fifty buzzards on one cottonwood. That sounds like a treefull! Love the animal stories, especially Mary D. 

  • wgbEden Prairie
    Posted: Sat, 11/21/2020 08:43 pm

    Monarch butterflies have the mind-boggling ability to return to the same small area in Mexico in the fall every single year. This includes virtually all the monarchs in North America east of the Rockies. "Metamorphosis" (a DVD and Blu-Ray from Illustra Media and available on Amazon) talks about this, as well as many other mysteries of butterflies in general. How do they do it? Only God knows!

  • PW
    Posted: Sat, 11/21/2020 10:18 pm

    That's a great example. We were just down south of Wabasha, MN two weekends ago to see the migration of the Trumpeter swans. Now, you could as easily measure the migration of the swan watchers coming down from the Twin Cities.

  • SonoitaMike
    Posted: Sun, 11/22/2020 10:18 am

    Thanks for sharing this story. This is part of the reason I subscribe to this magazine.

  • TEAME
    Posted: Tue, 11/24/2020 08:54 am

    When we re-homed feral cats in our barn, we were told they have an internal compass that tells them exactly where on the earth is home.  When relocating them, you must keep them contained for 4-7 days to re-boot their compass.  If you could keep that racoon in a cage for several days in the new location, he would probably decide to stay put.  Lot of luck with that!

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Wed, 11/25/2020 06:23 am

    Of course in the USA "buzzards" are actually vultures. These vultures in Texas, likely Turkey vultures, or possibly black vultures, do not make nests in the conventional use of the word. They lay eggs on the ground, in a cave or in a cavity in a tree or under an outcropping. Consequently we are unlikely to find a nest or see chicks until they fledge. 

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