Barn cats - just about every ranch and farm has them.
The name "barn cats" has been given to cats that like to hang out around barns, outbuildings and haystacks. However, today the name "barn cat" is generally used when referring to cats in rural settings, whether there's a barn or not.
Barn cats seek out places where they can get in out of winter weather and hide from predators such as foxes and bobcats. And, of course, they need a place where they can find food, especially in winter when rodents are scarce.
Years ago, most ranchers milked cows and shared the milk with barn cats. The ranchers didn't mind sharing because the cats kept down the mice and rat populations. The same holds true today. Anyone who has ever experienced the misfortune of having a house infested with mice (or, heaven forbid, rats) will gladly feed barn cats scraps and dry food in the winter.
Cats and ranchers benefit from this relationship.
Some barn cats have gotten to ranches by their owners who needed "mousers." But in most cases, barn cats are strays, seeking homes after their previous owners moved away or, even more likely, trying to find refuge after people have driven them out into the country and dropped them off. These people no longer want the cats and believe that ranches mean food and the cats will be taken in. Sometimes females are ready to have kittens.
Whatever the reason, ranches are apt to have a bunch of cats of every age, size and color. Some are tame; others are wild. Some arrive with chewed-up ears, bad cuts, matted fur and bad eyes.
One fall, at chore time, this author came upon a cat that was tangled up in some plants along the garden. The cat's leg was caught in a trap, and the cat had dragged the trap to our place. It wasn't a tame cat, either, so it took some help to remove the trap. The cat stayed around for a while to heal, and then one day he disappeared.
This time of year, even though it's still winter, ranches seem to come alive with cats. Black, orange, white, calico, striped and long and short-haired - the cats seem to be running around everywhere. It's mating season, and the males are busy courting the females. Male cats from surrounding ranches make visits, too.
Especially at night, the male cats howl, yowl and make incredibly loud meowing sounds. They fight, leaving fur on the ground, and knock things down while chasing one another. The males mark their territory, leaving buildings, hay, doors and tires with a disagreeable odor.
Unfortunately, the cats don't limit their fighting to the barn area and sometimes fight under the bedroom windows at the house.
In spring, the females give birth to their litters of kittens in a wide variety of places. The haystack is possibly the females' favorite place to hide her kittens. There are holes between the bales, sometimes running way back in the haystack. The kittens are snug and warm in these tunnels.
The haystack kittens eventually cause problems for the ranchers as they remove bales. Bales have to be removed from another part of the stack until the mother cat decides to move her kittens. Ranchers try not to move the kittens themselves because the mother cat may not reclaim them.
Besides the haystack, other hiding places for kittens include under buildings, in the hot box (where baby calves are put to warm up), the rhubarb patch, and even in a bucket that's turned on its side.
In the late spring and summer, cats start hunting, leaving the ranch to find rodents. It isn't unusual for cats to spend entire summers in hay meadows where mice are plentiful. Mother cats bring food back for their kittens, and when the kittens are old enough, their mothers take them off to learn to hunt, too.
In the fall, when rodents aren't so plentiful, cats spend most of their time back at the ranch again. On warm, sunny winter afternoons, cats can be seen sleeping on the haystack or on barn window sills.
Sometimes barn cats live at a ranch a long time. Sometimes they disappear after a while. When the cat population increases, some of the cats tend to leave. Older male cats sometimes chase off the younger males.
Barn cats may live at a ranch, but they never really belong to anyone.
Copyright Diane Prather, 2009. Diane Prather can be reached at 824-8809 or by writing to her at P.O. Box 415, Craig, CO 81626.