Friday, August 12, 2016

Wild Life

The United States Penitentiary at Lewisburg is an interesting place for wild life.  Like all such places we have a healthy population of pigeons, but we also have regular visits from a couple of hawks.  The hawks are interesting to watch but they make life rough on the pigeons.  We also have as a regular a very large snow owl, which is a beautiful bird.  There are a number of smaller birds to be found, the largest population of which is the starling.  We also have the occasional lost goose and duck that will drop in for a few days.  As a bird lover I enjoy watching them.

On the ground the most prevalent animals are wild cats.  We also have a healthy population of ground hogs that live on the grounds and fairly regular visits by a skunk or two.  I do not exaggerate when I say these cats are wild.  Lewisburg was built in the 1930's so it has an interesting building.  The design provides the cats places to hide and breed.  And breed they do. I've watched generations of cats come and go.  The staff use live traps to capture them, but there are so many of them that I bet every barn within fifty miles of here is protected by a feral Big House Cat.
Despite the age and size of this place the rarest sighting are the things you don't want to see, like rats, mice, and cock roaches.  I've never seen a rat here.  I've only seen a few mice, and that was rare.  I've seen exactly two roaches here.  I know they work hard to keep the pest out, but I am always surprised at how well they succeed.

My least favorite time here is winter, when it always seems a new litter of cats shows up. Inevitably a kitten or two will make her way from the basement where she was born into the weight room and art room.  The kittens will enter these spaces at night when no one is there then be surprised when men rush in the next day.  Every year these kittens climb up into the exposed pipes and there they stay. The real problem with this, at least for us, is that heating pipes are up there and before the day is over one of those cute little kittens will pee on that hot pipe.  You have to experience this smell to appreciate it.
The ground hogs dig their holes on the opposite side of fences were inmates roam.  Some how they understand they are safer there.  I have no doubt that we have guys here that would eat them if caught.  Some guys feed apples to the ground hogs.  We used to have a guy called "the Ground Hog Whisper" because of how he'd trained a few of the young ones.  Skunks roam much like the cats do. It's not uncommon to see a skunk eating its dinner where the cats dine, but it is clear that the skunk is the alpha.  The cats give them a wide birth.
Pigeons are everywhere.  There is a window ledge on an inner court yard where every year a single pigeon pair will set up a nest and lay two eggs.  This is an interesting spot in that every time I go anywhere out of the cell block I pass this spot.  Because I am able to walk up to the glass without disturbing the birds I am able to watch the baby birds from a foot away.  Every year I enjoy watching the birds grow and fly away from there.
Until arriving here I had never witnessed how pigeons flock and fly together for protection when a predator arrives.  I see it here often and am always fascinated by the spectacle.
We also have the occasional small flock of geese or duck land on the yard.  We once had two ducks that spent several days in a large puddle left by a heavy rain.  I thought those ducks were going to end up in the microwave as two Vietnamese guys were pretty serious about catching them.  I think the ducks got away, but I was never really sure.
For years I had heard guys talking about a giant white owl roaming our grounds but I had begun to discount this.  Most of the guys here are from the city so know nothing about things like owls. Then one night I saw the fellow myself.  It was early morning and I couldn't sleep so I was pacing my cell. At one point I looked up and out the window and there was the owl.  He was on the roof of the next cell block over, but so large as to seem anything but real.  It was most definitely a snow owl.  I'd seen snow owls before, but never one half this large.  My window is set high on the cell wall so I stood on my chair to get a better look.  The instant my face appeared in the window the big owl spotted me and put its big eyes on me.  Not wanting it to fly away I stood still.  It watched me for a minute then continued its careful search of the ground thirty feet below for something to eat.  I watched it for five minutes until something drew the big bird's attention.  It's body went tight, then it leaned forward and seemed to fall off the roof, then it's wings caught air and it flew with fluid grace.  Its prey was below me so I couldn't see what it had killed.  I watched for some time for it to fly off the ground but I never saw it leave.
That snow owl was the most beautiful bird I have ever seen.  He was also the most lethal looking flying predator I have ever seen.  That was five years ago and I look for him every night now, but haven't seen him since.

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