Although Crowes Nest is a farm, it is also a wildlife sanctuary. We were licensed rehabbers and currently provide homes for unreleasable wildlife, requiring registration with US Fish and Wildlife and Texas Parks and Wildlife. All of the wild animals on the farm have been injured, abused, or raised in captivity and are deemed unreleasable as they would be unable to survive on their own. Our goal is to provide these animals with the best life possible, while teaching the public about why animals are beneficial to ecosystems and food chains.
The farm's property backs up to hundreds of untouched acres that are purely used for cattle grazing. The wildlife that are seen each day remind us of how blessed we are to live in a healthy ecosystem with a large diversity in species. To be a champion of agriculture and animal life, you must first be able to recognize what a healthy ecosystem is. Even in a neighborhood, there are age-old signs of a flourishing environment: frogs and toads, large volumes of insects, both flying and crawling, crickets and cicadas calling at night, song birds, and the occasional view of raccoons and/or opossums. Here's why: Frogs and toads only exist where water is present, and they feed on insects. Other animals that primarily eat insects are birds, bats, snakes, and lizards. Bats eat flying arthropods like mosquitos, flies, and moths, and are also pollinators of seeds and fruits. Most people are scared when they discover bats nearby, but fear not, bats are not going to suck your blood. The primary species we see here in central Texas is the Mexican Free-tail, and the presence of bats means there is a population of owls, hawks, raccoons, and opossums that eat bats as a major food source. So here is the food chain: Insects eat waste -> Frogs, toads, bats, birds, snakes, lizards, and turtles eat insects -> Raccoons, opossums, snakes, and lizards eat frogs and toads -> Owls, hawks, fox, bobcats, and coyotes eat birds, bats, raccoons, opossums, snakes, and lizards. So to sum it up, the presence of a few small things actually implies the presence of a very large and robust ecosystem. When humans step in and eradicate even one small piece of this system, it can damage the entirety of it. Each of these so called "puzzle pieces" plays a vital role in the consumer and producer processes in nature, ensuring that everything has a place and a reason for being. Certain things were created to be food for other things, and this harsh reality is something that everyone must understand; all the way from humans to animals to ants.
Being on the edge of "the country," the farm sees a larger volume of wildlife than most of our guests. We are also smack dab in the middle of a migratory path and see sandhill cranes and black bellied whistling ducks each fall and spring. The tell-tail sign that warm weather is coming is hearing the bleak squawking of the formations of cranes, miles up in the sky. They are extremely hard to see, but if you listen, you can hear the faint calls. We also see mallard, teal, pintail, shoveler, and redheaded ducks, along with great white egrets, great blue herons, and wild turkeys. In fact, an egret nested and raised a chick in one of our ponds through last fall and winter! But swimming and wading birds are not the only ones that make Crowes Nest their home. We have a large population of meat eating birds, or Raptors (Birds of Prey). There are five members of the Raptor family: Vultures, owls, hawks, falcons, and eagles. Central Texas natively sees members of each species family except eagles. Each morning, Caracaras (otherwise known as Mexican Eagles, but actually a member of the falcon family) are seen stalking prairie dogs, Kestrels are seen snagging field mice, and red tailed hawks are finishing their cotton tailed rabbits for breakfast. Just as turkey vultures and black vultures are cleaning up roadkill during the day, great horned owls and screech owls hunt silently at night for mice, rats, rabbits, small dogs, cats, and even ducks! I have literally seen a great horned owl fly off the ground holding a full grown male mallard duck in its talons. Because of urban sprawl, owls and hawks now inhabit most neighborhoods and pose a real threat to house pets. Think about this as you walk small dogs at night, listen for hoots and shrills. Something may be watching you from the trees!
Birds of Prey are riddled with what are called "structural adaptations." Let me explain: Structural adaptations are unique characteristics that organisms develop over time to better allow them to live more efficiently and effectively. Owls for example, are able to fly silently due to the presence of their fringe-edged feathers. One side of the owl's flight feathers has long, soft vanes, while the other side has short, stiff, separated vanes. Feathers like these enable the air to pass through as the bird flaps its wings, making flight almost completely silent. This is why owls are known as silent hunters and are so easily able to take their prey by surprise. Owls also bear omni-directional hearing, or large ears placed asymmetrically on their head. This is how night hunters may spot seemingly invisible meals at the sound of a tiny foot touching a leaf. Another adaptation is the flight lid. All birds have a second, clear eye lid that acts as a goggle during flight, keeping debris out and moisture in. Furthermore, all birds of prey are unique in having sharp, curved beaks which allow them to easily rip and dissect their prey. They have unbelievably strong and sharp talons that enable the breaking of bones upon impact and the ability to maintain an unrelenting grip on whatever vermin has become the present day's casualty. Binocular vision allows birds like hawks and falcons to hover high in the air but be able to spot and stalk small game from afar.
Now that I've covered the avian class, I want to talk about four legged predators. The farm has its slew of threats, primarily against sheep, goats, and birds. In 2016, the farm lost about half of its sheep and goat population due to coyotes and mountain lions. Never before had we lost more than one or two animals a year to predators. The change in infiltration was unknown, but extremely destructive. We have since built our herds back up and corral them into enclosed barns each night. Although this is significantly more difficult, it is effective. Crowes Nest has not lost a single sheep or goat since the nightly lock-up began. However, other predators such as fox and raccoons have increased their focus on killing chickens, pheasants, and other birds. These are two of the smartest and craftiest predators in the wild of central Texas. The smallest opportunity will be taken advantage of to find food. But raccoons for example, aren't always even looking for food, they just like to kill. Be aware of these types of threats when you have an interest in starting a coupe. Use wire with a small weave so that raccoons can't fit their hands through; make sure there are no holes around the bottom of runs or structures to encourage digging; place rungs and enclosed nesting boxes to keep poultry off the ground at night.
Wherever feed is found, mice, rats, and shrews will also be found. There is little more aggravating than picking up a bag of food with an unknown hole chewed through it, and having the remaining feed quickly pour onto the ground through your arms. The farm chooses not to use poison to exterminate vermin due to the significant wildlife population that eats them. Please also carefully consider challenges like this when you begin raising animals. Not only is poison inhumane, but it can damage ecosystems. For example, a poisoned rat can be eaten by a raccoon, poisoning the raccoon, which can be eaten by a bobcat, potentially poisoning the bobcat, which can be eaten by a vulture. As an animal life center, our official take is to use traps which encage animals, but don't kill them. Traps like these are used daily for raccoons, opossums, squirrels, and skunks. But for pests like mice and rats, extermination is truly the only effective solution. Vermin can cause structural damage, tree girdling, carry numerous diseases, contaminate large surfaces by urinating and defecating on EVERYTHING, and are the cause of massive feed loss. There is no solution other than dispatching and feeding to our birds of prey. Nothing goes to waste.
Snakes. One of the worlds most feared, but helpful creatures. Texas is fortunate (or unfortunate to most people) to have a huge variety of snakes. The United States only has four types of native venomous snakes, and all four happen to inhabit Texas: the rattlesnake (multiple varieties nationally), the water moccasin (cotton mouth), the corral snake, and the copperhead. Most people carry their fear of venomous snakes over to non-venomous snakes. Not all snakes are bad. Some snakes are considered pests to farmers as they eat baby animals and eggs, but most are considered helpful. Rat snakes do just what their name implies: eat rats and mice. King snakes, like the milk snake, are extremely helpful and will eat other snakes, especially venomous ones. Most of the public is uneducated when it comes to limbless, cold-blooded, slithering creatures. Cold blooded refers to having a body temperature that varies with that of their environment. Humans, and all mammals for that matter, are warm blooded, meaning that our blood temperature stays the same, year round and only varies slightly with illness. Reptiles, which include alligators, crocodiles, lizards, turtles, and snakes, are cold blooded, meaning that the hotter it is outside, the warmer their blood is, meaning the more active they are. Reptiles also lay eggs, have vertebrae, and have scales. The forked tongue you see on a snake is used for "smelling." They aren't being rude, they are "tasting" what their environment smells like. The tongue has receptors that grab scent and place it into two pits in the top of their mouth that transmit what the receptors grabbed, to the brain. This is accomplished dozens of times a minute. There is only one rule when you see a snake, and please, tell this to any children you know: no matter what kind of snake it is, LEAVE IT ALONE. Snakes don't want to hurt you. Very rarely are snakes aggressive without being prodded. Primarily, they are doing one of two things: looking for warmth or looking for food. So next time you see a snake, keep your distance, try to identify whether it's venomous or not, and leave it alone. If it is venomous, call animal control and keep clear of the area. If it isn't, it will usually leave by the next day.
Daily, vultures fly in and sit and squawk with the our caracara, turkeys come gobble with our turkeys and graze with our bison, cattle egrets sit on the backs of our longhorns as they feed, snakes come slithering through gardens in search of mice, beautiful skunks and fluffy foxes lurk, looking for a snack. We consider each day to be a gift, seeing all of God's creation on display before us. The woods are just a blank canvas, willing to be painted with whatever beauty we welcome to come out of it. You may see a smelly striped fur ball, but I see another important reason to love, respect and cherish nature. Not only does this creature just want to go about his day; not only does he want to leave you and everyone else alone; he plays an integral role in the world around us. Our precious wildlife are the natural pest control, garbage men, conservators, and roadkill cleaners of Texas. They waste nothing, they don't complain, and they are free for hire. So next time you see a vulture eating a decomposing unidentifiable creature on the side of the road, don't be disgusted, be thankful. We need them, we're thankful for them, and we'd be much worse off without them.