Sun 13 Oct 2013
Saturday morning I got a call from my neighbor Jay Haas, who told me, “If you’ve been wondering about all the vultures around here for the past day, there’s a dead deer on your side of our [common] fence. I thought you might want to snap a photo.”
I’d been over the hill all day Friday and hadn’t seen the buzzards, I replied, but I immediately went down to the fence to take some pictures. (Warning: three of the following photos are fairly grim.)
It wasn’t hard to figure out where the dead deer was. The first thing I saw was this buzzard sitting on a fence post warming itself in the morning sun and looking like the imperial eagle on Kaiser Wilhelm’s banner.
Most of the flesh, hair, and internal organs of the deer, a one- or two-year-old blacktail buck, had already been stripped from its skeleton. The bones, ears, antlers, and the hair on its head were about all that remained. There was no way to readily tell how it had died — killed by a predator, injured in traffic, wounded by a hunter, or weakened by disease.
By now the buzzards were circling overhead again, waiting for me to absent myself so they could carry on eating carrion.
Buzzard, by the way, is American English for vulture. My ornithologist friends periodically tell me I should be calling the birds vultures. Buzzard refers to a buteo hawk, they insist, not a vulture.
But that’s not what the dictionary says. My American Heritage Dictionary defines buzzard as “any of various North American vultures, such as the turkey vulture.”
The use of buzzard to mean buteo hawk, the dictionary adds, is “chiefly British,” and I don’t live in England. I live in the American West, and when a fellow here calls a disreputable man an old buzzard, he sure as hell doesn’t mean an old buteo hawk. He means an old carrion eater.
Two buzzards keep an eye on the carcass as two others strip some remaining bits of meat from the skeleton.
Foxes, raccoons, and coyotes eat roadkill and other dead animals.
Mountain lions will also eat carrion when extremely hungry but normally prefer fresh meat.
Smaller carrion eaters often start with the eyes and anus because they provide easy access to the rest of the body. These holes also open passages for flies.
The role of carcasses in a fly’s lifecycle is remarkable. The average lifespan of houseflies is only three weeks, but females can lay 900 eggs in that brief period. The eggs are laid in whatever the flies are feeding on, and within a day, the first larvae (also called maggots) hatch out. It takes less than two days for the maggots to double in size, forcing them to molt and shed their exoskeletons.
After continuing to grow — and molting two more times — the worm-like maggots dig deeper into their food supply and begin their pupa stage. The pupa develops a hard shell and inside it the appendages of an adult fly. To free itself from the shell, however, requires a strange ability. The pupa grows a bump on its head which it uses to break through the shell, after which the bump is absorbed back into the fly’s head. From a newly laid egg to an adult fly on the wing takes a week to 10 days in warm weather.
Before long five buzzards were perched on fence posts, watching two others tearing away at the carcass.
Sunday morning, I decided to take another look at the skeleton and was startled by what I saw. During the night, the buck had been dragged 10 feet uphill from the fence. Now who did that? Certainly not a buzzard, fox, or raccoon. Even stripped of most of its flesh, the skeleton was still fairly heavy.
I know of only two wild animals hereabouts with the strength to drag that much weight even a short distance: a mountain lion and a coyote. Although mountain lion tracks have been found near Mitchell cabin, there certainly aren’t many cougars hereabouts. Nor could I imagine a mountain lion going to the trouble of dragging around a skeleton that didn’t have much meat on it.
That would seem to leave one of the local coyotes as the most likely suspect. Coyotes, like mountain lions, sometimes drag their dinner to places where they can eat in private, but this coyote apparently gave up after only a few feet.
I called Jay back and asked if he had heard any coyotes howling Saturday night. He hadn’t but was as surprised as I that the skeleton had been moved.
The cause of the young buck’s death remains a sad mystery. The full variety of critters that ate its carcass is likewise a mystery. But who dragged its skeleton uphill is the biggest mystery of all.