Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Donkey, Burro, or Ass?

I have been conducting an informal poll recently about donkeys…no not about Hillary and Barack…about real donkeys. My unscientific conclusion is that most, and by most I mean not 51% but more like 90+%, of the people I asked, don’t know the difference between a donkey, burro, mule, ass, or especially a hinny. Granted, I didn’t poll any farmers.

A donkey, a burro, and an ass are all just different names for the same animal. It is a small equine (horse-like) mammal with a relatively large head, large ears and small hooves. Burro is the Mexican name but it is used as often as donkey. A male burro is called a jackass, sometimes shortened to either jack or ass, and a female is a jenny.

My dad used to say that you could buy a donkey very cheaply in the fall because no one wanted to feed one over the winter in the north. Just to prove his point he bought a female donkey one fall for $25 to roam in the 120 acres of fenced woods at our cottage in Pennsylvania. Our “Jenny” was to be delivered on a Saturday, and when we saw a car coming up the dirt road with no horse trailer behind it we were disappointed…however, not for long. The couple selling us the burro had taken out the back seat of the car and our full-grown burro traveled 4 hours from Ohio in the back seat of a Buick. Just think of the people passing that car on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and thinking “now that is one ugly kid in the back seat”. After that the car may have smelled like leather, but not the new car type of leather.

On the weekends we would go to the cottage and round up the burros (my dad’s buddy bought a male burro to provide a companion for Jenny) and put a bridle on them so we could ride. The burros were semi-wild from roaming the woods all week and although they didn’t buck, they would do all sorts of tricks to get us off their backs. The first trick every time was to reach around and try to take a big old burro bite out of the leg of the kid on their back. You had to have the bridle reins ready to whip their nose to keep from losing a thigh. Then, they would take us under every low tree in the woods to try to rub us off. If that didn’t work they would get up a little speed and then stop abruptly and lower their head to roll us over the front. Since we always rode bareback it was almost impossible to stay on even though we knew what was coming. What fun!

One very interesting fact about donkeys is that one or two are often kept with a herd of sheep for protection against coyotes and feral (wild) dogs. I’ve read that canine predation of sheep and lambs stops completely if a donkey is in the field.

A mule is not a donkey. A mule is a cross between a female horse and a male donkey. Mules, like many hybrids, are sterile, so if you want another mule you have to breed a male donkey to a female horse again…that is the only way to get a mule. Mules can be any size. If the mother is a pony, you get a small mule. If the mother is a Clydesdale, your mule will be large. Don’t worry, these days horse people mostly use artificial insemination so the male burro doesn’t have to stand on a stool. Mules are noted for their intelligence. They say you can work a horse to death but a mule (and also a burro) will stop and refuse to continue before it is exhausted. That is one reason that mules are sometimes considered stubborn. But they are also known as calm, strong, surefooted, and reliable. These traits are the reason mules are used to carry greenhorns to the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Now, even if you knew about mules and donkeys, only one person that I polled had ever heard of a hinny. A hinny is nearly the same as a mule except the hinny has a horse for a father and a donkey for a mother…just the opposite of a mule. Hinnies are usually smaller and considered to not have all the good traits of a mule and therefore they are very rare.

By the way, the question in the title referring to the picture asks Donkey, Burro, or Ass? The answer is…Yes!

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Beavers in my neighborhood

We usually think of beavers as living high in a Rocky Mountain stream in the age of the mountain men. Beavers certainly did contribute to the exploration of the west by mountain men searching for their fortune in the form of beaver pelts for hats and clothing, and in the process beavers were wiped out in many areas of the U.S. due to the demand for their fur. However, over the last 150 years beavers have reestablished themselves either naturally, or with human help through trap and relocation, to almost all of their original range. Today they are living in Tennessee and are actually right here in Fairfield Glade.

If you go to the Overlook near Dorchester Golf course (follow the signs off of Westchester) and go down the path to Daddy’s Creek you will see trees recently cut down by beavers. Also look for white sticks at the water’s edge cut off at 45 degree angles (white, because the beavers have eaten off all the bark). The white sticks in a stream are usually my first indication that beavers are in the vicinity. Don’t look for a beaver dam or classic beaver lodge because on bigger and faster streams like Daddy’s Creek beavers often just excavate a den under the river bank. If you want to see any beavers you will need to be patient and very stealthy. Beavers rarely are out during the day, especially where there is any human activity. I have seen them high in the mountains in Colorado, in Texas, Idaho and Pennsylvania, but only at dusk and dawn.

Beavers are big. Adults are 40-70 pounds and 3 to 4 feet long including the flat broad tail. Once I was fly fishing in Idaho about dawn one morning, standing nearly chest deep in a quiet lake when I saw a very large beaver swimming on top of the water heading directly for me. I stayed still until I could no longer stand the thought of staring eye to eye with a 50 pound rodent. Wanting to communicate properly, I slapped the water with my hand and Mr. Beaver slapped the water with his tail and disappeared underwater. I half expected to soon feel something gnawing on my leg but I reminded myself that beavers are never a threat to humans.

Beavers are sometimes not welcome neighbors to humans because they cut down trees and they dam up streams and flood low areas. But when they aren’t interfering with us, they actually do much good in nature. Their dams create wetlands that are needed by many species. And their dams actually minimize flooding and erosion by holding back water. They cut down trees to eat the inner bark and to build dams and lodges. Beavers have been know to cut down trees up to 5 feet in diameter, but usually they work on trees less than a foot across. This isn’t a problem out in the middle of nowhere, but if it is in your backyard then you may not be too happy to see beavers move in next door and drop your $200 River Birch on your driveway. A wrap of chicken wire two feet up the trunk will save your trees.

You don’t need to be a mountain man to see wild beavers but you do need to get a little bit off the beaten path along a nice stream in the Big South Fork Recreation Area, the Cades Cove area of the GSMNP, or just down by our own little Daddy’s Creek. The variety of wildlife within a few miles of your home is amazing…you just have to look around. Beavers right here in Fairfield Glade…who would have believed it.