When I first started doing fieldwork, I must admit that I spent a lot of time worrying about large mammals. Even when I worked up at QUBS, in the relatively safety of eastern Ontario, I fretted about bears. When I went to California, I obsessed about mountain lions. And after working in Hawaii, I added feral pigs to my list of formidable and frightening creatures.
But until I began my PhD fieldwork in the Okanagan Valley, it would never have occurred to me to worry about cows.
I know what you’re thinking: how can cows be in the same league as bears or mountain lions? After all, they’re vegetarians! There is no chance that you’re ever going to be eaten by a hungry cow. They just stare at you with their huge brown eyes and chew their cud meditatively.
As it turns out, you really don’t run into bears or mountain lions that often in the field. (Not that I’m complaining.) But what you do see – especially doing fieldwork in an agricultural area like the Okanagan Valley – is cows. They’re everywhere.
This is especially true if your study species is partial to the type of habitat that often holds grazing cows. When I was setting up my PhD field sites, I wanted to make sure to cover as many types of bluebird habitat as possible. So while much of my research took place in vineyards or along walking trails, I also had two sites that were open rangeland.
The open spaces and sage brush of one of my two rangeland sites.
When I first set up nest boxes at these sites, I fell in love with the wide, empty spaces and the scent of sagebrush. My rangeland sites instantly became my favourite. But on my second visit to one of these sites, I got an inkling that they might be more problematic than I’d thought. As the car rounded the last corner on the way to the site, I had to hit the brakes hard. My field of vision was suddenly filled with milling brown and black bodies. Cows, cows, and more cows…as far as the eye could see.
I pulled over to the side of the road and took out my phone to call the landowner. He’d mentioned to me that they’d be bringing the cows in, but I had to assume they weren’t supposed to be blocking traffic. “There must be a break in the fence,” I told him. “The cows have gotten out and are all over the road.”
“Oh, that’s normal,” he replied. “I’m sure the fence is fine.”
“But…” I started at the solid wall of bodies on the road in consternation. “…how did they get out, then?”
“Well, fences are more like…suggestions…to cows,” he responded. “They usually ignore them. But I’m sure if you honk at them enough, they’ll get out of your way.”
More trouble than they look… (Photo credit: Manisha Bhardwaj.)
From then on, the two rangeland sites were the bane of my existence. No matter what was on my agenda when I arrived, the cows always seemed to be between me and where I needed to go. It was like they had a copy of my schedule. And it was never just one or two cows – wherever one went, the other 30 animals in the herd joined it, forming a dense, noisy, smelly barrier between me and my destination.
Also, as it turns out, cows and bird boxes are not a good combination. The cows decided that the boxes were perfect scratching posts, and were irresistibly attracted to them. Almost every time I arrived at the sites, one or more of the boxes would be hanging at a precarious angle – often with a perplexed bluebird sitting beside it.
And then, of course, there were the cow patties everywhere.
After a month or so, though, the cows and I had settled into an uneasy détente. I was starting to think the situation was relatively under control – and that’s when the bulls showed up.
The first time I realized the cows had been joined by their male friends, I had just dropped my field assistant off at a site. I happened to glance in the rearview mirror as I pulled away, only to see my assistant standing completely still about 100m away. Straight across the field from her, staring her down, was a very large cow. As it lowered its head and began pawing at the ground, it slowly dawned on me that it was really too big…and muscular…and horned…to be a cow. As my field assistant ran for the car, I realized we had a problem. From then on, we spent considerably less time at that site.
My other ranch site, on the other hand, remained blissfully free of bulls for most of the summer. So while the cows and I continued to wage a cold war, I usually felt pretty safe. By the time August rolled around, the fieldwork was slowing down and I had pretty much relaxed.
Then one day, I was out in the field with my assistant, banding a nest full of bluebird nestlings. I had just taken two out of the box and was settling onto the ground with one in each hand, when I felt a malevolent gaze on the back of my neck.
I looked around in surprise…only to find myself making eye contact with a bull. He was about 50m away, and though he appeared relatively unconcerned, there was no doubt that he was sizing me up.
I scrambled to my feet and started backing away, urging my field assistant to do the same. We struggled cautiously up the small hill behind the box, turning frequently to watch the bull as he meandered closer to the box we’d abandoned. Every time we stopped moving, he would start towards us again – so we kept climbing.
As we reached the top of the hill, I realized two things simultaneously. One – we were out of hill to climb; if he kept coming, we were going to have to make a run for the car. And two – I still had the nestlings I’d been intending to band clutched in my hand, peeping faintly.
Luckily, after 20 very tense minutes, the bull lost interest and headed on his way, allowing us to creep back down to the box and finish banding. It took a little longer than that for my heart rate to come back to normal.
So, after more than a decade of fieldwork, here’s what I’ve learned: if you must worry, focus less on bears and the mountain lions, and more on the things you’re likely to actually run into. And don’t let those big brown eyes fool you – cows are usually up to no good.