Explore Kansas Outdoors: Memories of pest hunts that were a blast for rural youngsters
After hearing from several friends recently about pest problems they have, this story from my youth comes to mind. Given society’s current penchant for looking at problems through emotional eyes only, I’ll probably get roasted for this one, but here goes anyway.
Amongst all its other merits, high school FFA was okay in my book because we had pest hunts! Pest hunts started in the fall and ran for a couple months. We divided into teams of four or five and for those couple months killed all the pests we could kill. Everything had a point value; starlings and blackbirds were two points each, pigeons were five and so on and so forth, and it was a simple competition to see which team could accumulate the most points by the end of the time period. As proof of “capture,” the heads of all birds were kept, and the tails were kept from mice, rats, possums’ and most everything else. And since all “trophies” were accumulated until the contest was over, they naturally had to be housed in the freezer. And since most folks only had one freezer back then, it was the same freezer where all the frozen meat, vegetables and fruit were kept. Yup, more than once I remember mom screamin’ my name in capital letters when she came up with a bag full of bird heads or possum tails instead of the frozen corn or hamburgers she was after.
The pest hunting game plan was fairly straightforward. We were all farm kids, so mice and rats were killed as we saw them around the barn. We were also hunters and trappers so possums were found squashed along the road or caught in our coon’ traps. Bird hunting gigs were the trickiest. Most barns where I grew up were three or four stories tall with hay lofts on each end. There was always a window high in each end of the barn with a ladder running up the inside wall to the window. One hunter would climb each ladder up to the window, turn around and prepare to swat birds as they headed toward the window, all the while somehow holding onto the ladder for dear life. Now that doesn’t sound all that dangerous, but here’s the thing; it was all done in the dead of night.
Here’s how the process worked. Our team would quietly converge on a barn around 10pm or so. (Of the whole process, the “quietly” part was the toughest.) Remember this was winter so everyone was dressed in old army jackets and mud boots, except the designated “swatters” for that night’s offensive, who had to dress warmly but in clothing that fit loosely around the shoulders so as not to impede their swing once they got into place at the top of the ladders. Clubs for the battle ranged from top-of-the-line gear like tennis or badminton rackets to more simple weapons like a scrap board with a handle nailed to it. Once the climbing swatters were inserted and in place, the rest of the militia on the floor would turn on lights and make as much noise as possible, attempting to roust any birds roosted inside, which would inevitably head for the windows, now guarded by the “swatters.” Snipers (with pellet guns) would begin picking off any drowsy birds still clinging to their perches after the melee started.
Meanwhile, at the tops of the ladders startled birds were flying into a trap, and the action could be fast and furious as flustered birds of all shapes and sizes tried to fly out the windows, and Heaven help you if one of those birds was an owl, which we obviously did not swat, but that would ring your bell if they flew into you. For starters, you only had one hand available to swat as the other was rather busy holding onto an old rickety ladder that you hoped would not crumble into pieces and dump you into the hay below. These were still the days of small square bales of hay and straw which might have been only a few feet below you, or twenty feet below you depending on how much the farmer had used already. It was still pretty dark up there and with birds often coming at you several at a time, it was impossible to swat them all. The ones you missed either flew around, coming back for a second try, or just hit you in the face from the get-go. In the midst of the assault, it could be raining dead bird carcasses down on the floor and it wasn’t out of the question to get “beaned” with the corpse of a deceased pigeon of starling if you were down there. We always tried to make sure the guys on the ground with the pellet guns were the most even-tempered of the group, thereby lessening the chance that one of the swatters would get shot in the butt for inadvertently beaning someone with a bird cadaver. After all forms of pest-life seemed to be vanquished from a barn, out came the flashlights and it was time to collect the spoils, leaving the neighborhood barn cats quite a feast indeed for allowing us to invade their territory.
How many times have you looked back upon crazy things you did as a kid and wondered how in blazes you ever survived past the age of nine? Every time I drive past a tall barn with windows in each end, I stare up at the windows and ask myself “Did we really used to do that?” Well, I’ve lived well past the age of nine and another part of me has to wonder if the world would be a better place today if we just had more pest hunts. Continue to Explore Kansas Outdoors!
Steve can be contacted by email at email@example.com.