Cows in My Backyard

Even before I moved to the Vineyard I knew the Island fauna was, at the least, eccentric, and, at most, weird. Like many non-resident homeowners, I subscribed to the Gazette to keep up with Vineyard events. Stories on feral turkeys, tree-roosting chickens, and neurotic skunks appeared routinely in its pages, particularly off-season when there was less bad behavior and fewer moped accidents to report. This should have prepared me for my own run-ins with crazed quadrupeds, but it didn’t.

I have grown used to frequent sightings of wild, feral, and domesticated creatures of two and four legs in my yard, but occasionally, something strange even by Vineyard standards occurs. Take the case of the red-footed falcon. Last summer a directionally challenged bird migrating from Africa to Argentina landed in Katama, taking up residence on a sign on the airfield across the street. I got up one morning to find hundreds of birders clogging Herring Creek Road. Taxis by the dozen from ferries and planes brought people who stayed just long enough to eyeball a species that had never before set talon on North American soil. After adding this sighting to their life lists, they turned around and headed home without purchasing so much as a Coke. Once here, you’d have thought they might enjoy some of the other natural beauty around them, but no, birders, apparently, are just as single-minded as, say, golfers, sailors, or fishermen. I once came across a bunch of them on a beautiful Pacific beach. They were sitting in lawn chairs, staring through binoculars with their backs to the ocean! Go figure.

A crazy skunk took up residence in our yard last year. She mated, though I never saw him, and produced half a dozen skunkettes whom she abandoned every time she heard a sound. When quiet returned she would come back and round up her babies, who had spent the interval running around in circles completely exposed to all the dangers of this world. This backyard activity did not sit well with a dog who, until his first run-in with Mama, had been allowed free range. You’d imagine that after being half-blinded, the dog would have avoided skunks at all cost, but having the short-term memory of a turnip, and being more territorial than a street gang in Dorchester, every time he saw the skunk he would leap, snarling and snapping, as far as the leash would allow.

Loony behavior is not limited to loons. On occasion, rush-hour traffic, such as it is, can be held up by feral Tom turkeys fighting, presumably, over an attractive hen. When I think of birds fighting, my mind drifts to a smoke-filled cellar or garage with two roosters trying to peck each other’s eyes out. This is not the way turkeys do it. They entwine their necks and do a kind of turkey trot tug-o-war. Back and forth across the road they go, ignoring the calls of “Scat” and “Shoo” from the people headed home from work who have already had enough of the day.

All this brings me to the point of my little tale. I live near the south shore of Edgartown, halfway between Katama Farm and Herring Creek Farm. Before rising in the morning I can tell which way the wind is blowing by what sounds I hear. The crash of the surf, lowing cows, and – in good weather – which runway is being used at the grass airfield all tell me if the wind (and there is always wind in Katama) is coming from the south, north, or east.

I awoke the other day to exceptionally loud mooing, and since I knew the herd had been at Katama Farm, I figured the breeze was light and coming from the east. In fact, I could have sworn they were in the backyard. But that would be silly, wouldn’t it? I got up and looked out the window and there they were. A dozen or so cows, using the trees for scratching posts and munching on my carefully tended lawn, surrounded by six confused farm workers.

It seems the FARM Institute moves the cows from farm to farm on foot, via Herring Creek Road. This particular morning the lead cow decided to make a break for it and the rest of the herd followed. After trying several methods of wrangling, these New England cowboys finally got them back on the road. The trip continued to be eventful, with two more attempted escapes before the cows reached their destination. Retired life can be dull. I got a lot of mileage out of this story. Not with Islanders, though. They just shrug. They’re used to strange behavior, both animal and human.