Friday, December 23, 2011

Icy Goldeneye

What makes a good duck hunter? Aim, for one, but also the ability to quickly and accurately identify ducks: in flight, at rest, on the water. In Michigan, there are certain species of duck that may be taken; others are protected and cannot be hunted. So what's a duck hunter to do when he or she shoots the wrong duck?

Hide the evidence, as a friend found out. A couple of months back, she found a paper bag stuffed with a few ducks, dumped in the woods. She buried them, but as we know, dead animals don't stay hidden. The other day, I was told that one of the ducks had resurfaced, and would make a great photographic subject, so I went out to take a look.

At the time, I was perplexed; when I heard "ducks" I assumed they were mallards, so why ever would someone dump them in the woods? When I arrived, though, it became obvious that the duck wasn't a mallard -- in fact, it was something I really hadn't seen before. Beneath the frost and snow that obscured much of the body, I could see a dark head and mostly-white body. Steph identified it as a male Common Goldeneye. The feathers were incrusted with ice crystals; the underside was stained red with old blood.

Goldeneye I 

 I could not find a bag limit for the goldeneye on Michigan's DNR website, so I assume they're not game for hunting. That said, I have found old forum posts where Michigan sportsmen have displayed their bagged goldeneye, so I am a bit confused on the matter, and welcome any explanations out there. Are they legal to shoot, and perhaps someone went over their bag limit? Or are goldeneyes off-limits entirely, in the state of Michigan?

Meanwhile, I'm finally seeing live goldeneyes, for the first time! They've been hanging out on the Chocolay River, and Steph and I have observed them feeding in the cold water. Unlike mallards, which are dabbling ducks, goldeneyes are diving ducks, and they will dive for their meals. Just the other day, Steph saw a male goldeneye dive underwater, and resurface with a sizable fish in his bill.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Deer Portraits and Stories

I'm still working away on those deer legs (as well as lining a winter hat with the fur of a roadkill badger, but that's another story). Meanwhile, here are a few deer portraits that were taken last month, as well as their accompanying stories. I often think this blog is a little deer-heavy, but deer are probably the most conspicuous, easy-to-find dead creatures, and Michigan is absolutely rife with them.

On November 16, the day after the start of rifle season, a doe was hit on US 41, pretty close to where I live. At the time, I was sorely tempted to call it in and take the deer home, but I decided not to -- I didn't have the space nor the knowledge of the art of field dressing. I took some pictures, and hoped that the fur and meat wouldn't go to waste.



The next morning, she was gone.

The following week, I got a tip from a friend: there was a deer head at an entrance to the Fit Strip, and "the brain was oozing out." It sounded like a classic instance of poaching, but, upon finding the head on Thanksgiving day, I realized that might not have been the case. The brain wasn't oozing out, and in fact, there were no antlers to speak of -- the deer had been a very young doe. The head and neck were severed from the rest of the body (which was nowhere to be found), and scavengers had gnawed away at the neck meat. Left behind was a gruesome sight: the head of the deer, in perfect condition (save for its sunken eyes), its spine protruding from beneath the neck skin. It was a puzzling discovery; the cuts along the hide and neck vertebrae indicated that a person had severed it from the rest of the body, and had likely dumped it in the woods. But where had the deer come from? Surely, no one would poach such a small doe?

It very well could have been poached, but it's my belief that the deer was probably hit by a car, and someone brought it home for the meat. The head was chucked into the woods, and there it stayed, until someone's dog retrieved it (probably much to the owner's horror). Anyway, I took the head home and photographed it. Because of its strange, severed nature, it presented some challenges. I didn't try to put it in a natural setting, and instead decided it looked best (and bizarre) resting on a tree stump. I omitted the spine in my photographs.

Thanksgiving Doe 

I think it's worth mentioning that I found three ticks on this deer head; one of them was quite engorged with blood. All three were still alive.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

26 Deer Legs

The main attraction of Michigan's deer season has come and gone, but not without leaving me some deer pieces of my own. Around Thanksgiving, I got in contact with Marquette Deer and Game Cutters and asked if they could set aside some unwanted deer parts for me -- namely, legs and hides. I waited in anticipation, and last week, I got the call that everything was ready for pickup. The trunk of my Jeep was soon packed with four hides and two dozen deer legs, and it became pretty apparent that freezer space would be a problem! (Thankfully, a few months ago, Steph and I picked up a chest freezer at a yard sale, and that easily held the four hides.)

But what to do with the two dozen deer legs? It was a bitterly cold day, and our covered porch was hardly any warmer. I laid out the legs I'd received, and counted twenty-six in all, as well as four stubby, white goat legs that had also made it into the mix.


It was pretty neat to see the variation in size, color, and shape amongst the legs. Rarely do we get the opportunity to see so many deer feet at once, but when they are all lined up, the differences and genetic variations become quite obvious. 

Because it was so cold outside, the porch became a suitable walk-in freezer for the legs. I skinned several of them immediately, and over the past week, I've whittled down the remaining number to fifteen. On a particularly warm day, I somehow found room in the chest freezer for the rest of the unskinned legs.

So, why deer legs? If there ever was a "useless" part of a creature, it would be the leg. This is especially true for deer, whose legs literally lack meat. They aren't good for eating, so all too often, they are thrown away (or turned into hideous lamps and gun racks). But uselessness is a subjective term, and whereas one thing is useless to one person, that same item can have a variety of uses for another. Deer legs are a wonderful example of this: though they lack meat, they have tendons, bones, hooves, and of course, the skin and fur. No, these materials aren't good for eating, but they have many, many other uses -- one just has to be patient, willing to try new skills, and be prepared for failure (or success).

Skinning a deer leg is an easy process, and since I am in possession of so many, I've got the ability to try different styles. Sometimes, I keep the dewclaws attached; other times, I cut around them. I skinned one leg in such a way that I kept all four hooves attached -- we'll see what I end up doing with that particular skin.

Once the leg has been skinned, it's time to cut out the tendons. Beneath all that fur, a deer leg is almost nothing but bones and tendons; it's an elegant structure, but one does have to wonder how they don't get cold! When fresh, the tendons are a pearly white-pink color. As they dry, they turn a translucent pink-yellow.

 
The uses for the skin and fur are rather obvious: buckskin, pouches, strips of fur for lining and insulating clothes... the list goes on. But what are tendons used for? Once cleaned and dried, they are pounded until they separate into strands. These strands of sinew can then be turned into cordage (string), which can prove to be useful in a pinch.
The bones and hooves have many uses as well. I'm using this guide (PDF) as I render these twenty-six deer legs into things that will be useful to me. I think it's very important to have some knowledge of traditional skills; these ways were used by our ancestors, and they're still used today. These deer legs could be rotting in a landfill -- instead, they will help me better understand traditional outdoor ways -- skills that have largely been forgotten by my generation.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Opening Day

Six years ago, I took some of my first photographs of dead animals. I didn't have any plan in mind for them, nor had I thought up any type of social statement, but they are certainly interesting to look back at. Today is opening day of rifle season for deer here in Michigan, so in recognition of that, here are a few photographs from November 2005 of the buck pole in Dexter.

Seeing full-grown deer strung up by their antlers is a rather sobering experience. They suddenly become massive; their bellies are open and steaming, their tongues loll out and their eyes are open. Depending on your background and upbringing, it can be a horrific sight, or a fascinating one, or a joyful one, or any combination thereof. Whatever the case is, it's certainly a good opportunity for photography.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Another Day, Another Raccoon

Raccoons are probably the most common road casualty along Marquette's stretch of US 41. For a while, I was tallying them as they were hit, but I've long since lost count. There's a particular area where the bodies of raccoons really seem to pile up, and it's a small span of the highway, between the newly-built traffic circle and the Altamont Street bridge:

click for larger view

Why is this spot such a death trap for raccoons? For one, the four-lane highway cuts between a neighborhood and a wooded area, both of which are ideal locations for raccoons to live. In addition, there's a divider that runs the whole length of this stretch, separating opposing traffic. If a raccoon were to somehow make it halfway across the road, getting around this barrier would be a challenge, especially with cars whipping by at sixty miles an hour.

As a result, raccoons die in great numbers along this small stretch of highway. A few weeks ago, I got a call from Steph; she was talking to one of her classmates, and he'd spotted a freshly-hit raccoon in this area. I had been on the lookout for a sizable raccoon for taxidermy purposes, so after work, I retrieved it, then froze it for skinning at a later, more convenient time.

Before making any incisions, I briefly photographed the raccoon.


This individual, who weighed in at around ten pounds, was a juvenile male. His winter fur had grown in thick and full; he had a few burrs stuck in his curiously stubby tail. The skinning process revealed the layer of fat that he'd put on for the approaching winter, and it was a rather impressive sight to behold.

While they are hit incredibly often by cars, raccoons can also owe their success to people. These animals have come to coexist with humans, enjoying open garbage cans, dumps, and the refuse that people leave behind. Neighborhoods are generally free of predators, allowing raccoons to reproduce and thrive, with little fear of being eaten. With this explosion in raccoon numbers, there of course comes a negative impact to the environment. One of the problems I've heard is that the numbers of frogs, salamanders, and turtles have fallen, due in part to the sheer amount of raccoons consuming them. This is especially an issue in smaller ponds and streams located in or around residential areas. 

Traffic, then, has become the chief enemy and population-controller for raccoons. It's an interesting relationship to consider; as humans we both build up the populations of these animals, as well as tear them down. Just the other day, yet another raccoon had been hit along that stretch of US 41, in bloody, violent fashion. When Steph drove by, a crow was helping itself to the carcass.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

A Year Later

Just over a year ago, I photographed a dark-eyed junco that had collided with a window in Ann Arbor. Almost 500 miles away, and 368 days later, another junco hit a window, here in Marquette, and again, I was alerted to its presence. Found by a friend, it rested at the foot of the NMU Art Building, another casualty of the structure's large windows.

Unlike the dark juncos that frequent our yard, this junco was a light brown-gray. Its eyes were open, its neck limp, its feathers barely ruffled out of place. I brought the junco home to photograph, resting its body on a bed of fallen pine needles.



Juncos are a sure sign of winter; they arrive as the air turns cooler and the days become shorter. They are regular visitors of our backyard bird feeder, and seem to coexist peacefully with the mourning doves while foraging on the ground for millet. As I photographed this junco, several were nearby, keeping a wary eye on me as they searched for food.

I do realize the last few posts here have been undeniably bird-centric – that will change, to the tune of raccoon, and I've got a few announcements to make, as well. Stop by again soon! Updates will be more frequent in the coming weeks.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

A Calico-Colored Bird

As autumn in the Upper Peninsula becomes colder, darker, and less vibrant, other changes are happening, too. The coats of deer turn heavy and gray for the winter; the fur of raccoons becomes full and bushy. Birds, so colorful in the summer months, trade their eye-catching plumage for more muted, earthy hues. Some animals brace themselves for the impending winter: the gray and red squirrels eat constantly, fattening themselves for the cold months ahead, caching acorns and nuts for use in the future. While some birds stay for the winter -- the hardier chickadees and nuthatches are a good example -- many are already well on their migratory routes south. Large flocks of Canada geese form Vs in the autumn sky; our musical thrushes have long since disappeared.

Still other birds are arriving for the winter, from even further north. One of these birds is the snow bunting. Its summers are spent in the Canadian tundra, nesting on the rocky terrain far north of Hudson Bay. While in the Arctic tundra, its breeding plumage is a striking contrast of black and white; by the time it arrives in the U.P. for the winter, the snow bunting has turned an equally-striking mottled calico.

It's a long way to fly, only to be hit by a car.


Snow buntings aren't a common sight. Steph found this one along County Road 550, while out on a field trip with her Boreal Flora class. She remarked how strange it was to hold a bird that she did not recognize. Her professor identified it, and he mentioned that he'd recently seen another dead snow bunting, also along a road.




Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Mister Mallard

While gulls, crows, and songbirds are regular victims of passing traffic, ducks aren't a very common roadside sight. They don't fly low, as robins and blue jays tend to do, and unlike gulls and crows, ducks don't stray too close to traffic to feast on roadkill. Imagine my surprise when I saw a dead mallard along US 41 -- again, in that dangerous strip of highway separating the mainland from the shore of Lake Superior.


The mallard had just been hit; the neck was broken, and the eyes were moist. Thrown several feet from the road, the body rested on the short bridge that crosses the mouth of the Carp River -- an area, I've found, that is a popular spot for ducks. 

Mallards are common birds: they're found almost everywhere, from neighborhood parks to the shores of Lake Superior. Often, small groups swim by on the Chocolay River, quacking loudly as they pass. And yet, in all their familiarity, I had never seen a mallard so closely until I saw this particular duck. Until very recently I thought it was a female, but the yellow bill says otherwise -- I believe it was a juvenile drake.


His plumage was beautiful, and I couldn't help but marvel at how soft and dense the feathers were on his head and neck -- they looked and felt like fur. 

It was also neat to see the signature band of blue on the mallard's wings. Often, I'll see solitary blue feathers washed up on the beach, but to see them all together was quite the opportunity. Depending on the angle that the light was striking them, the feathers would appear blue, teal, green, or colorless.

Since I travel on US 41 into town for work, I see lots of different animals dead on the road. Most common are raccoons and squirrels, but this duck was certainly an unusual victim. Other recent casualties along this stretch of highway have been a mink, a whitetail deer fawn, and a coyote. It's a beautiful drive, between mountains and Lake Superior, but it comes at a price to local wildlife.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Too Late

Usually, when I find a dead animal, chances are it has been lifeless for quite some time. Skeletons, partially-decomposed carcasses, and even most roadkill are almost always long-deceased by the time I find and photograph them. Last night, however, a needless death could have been prevented, had I been paying attention to the road.

No, I didn't hit and kill an animal -- but within two minutes of Steph and I arriving home, someone ran over a small snapping turtle, right in front of our house. Had I been watching the road as I got out of my car, perhaps I would have seen the turtle crossing the street; after all, I could see its smashed body plainly from our living room window.

Judging from the damage to the head, neck, and shell, the turtle died instantly. It was gruesome, gory, and sad, and I moved it off the road immediately. The legs were all limp, but the muscles of the tail were still firing and flexing, which made the scene all the more disturbing. Because the shell was so damaged, and the head and neck were flattened, there wasn't much for me to photograph. I focused on the snapping turtle's scaly, armored feet and its tiny, hooked claws.


Turtles are common victims to both rural roads and highways. Because they move so slowly and are generally dark in coloration, they can sometimes be hard to spot, especially at night (this snapping turtle was hit about an hour before sunset). I have also had the displeasure of seeing motorists hit turtles on purpose, which is a sickening, despicable behavior.

If you see a turtle trying to cross (or in the process of crossing) the road, and it's safe for you to assist it, by all means, do. I once saw a woman holding up traffic on a very busy street in Ann Arbor to let a painted turtle cross, and though it was dangerous, it was also very admirable. Last summer, Steph and I helped a medium-sized snapping turtle cross Highway 550 just outside of Marquette -- a much safer road, for sure. If you do transport a turtle across the road, always carry it in the direction that it was headed (if you just put it back where it came from, it will attempt to cross the road again). And of course, always use extreme caution when picking up snapping turtles!

After I finished photographing this little turtle, I buried it in our backyard with an offering of semaa. Semaa is a mixture of tobacco, sage, and red willow. Oftentimes, it is used by the Ojibwe to give thanks, and to honor deceased family members and ancestors. Turtles hold a very important place in Ojibwe culture; when I took Anishnaabe language classes at NMU, our instructor, Kenn, told us how he would give semaa offerings to the animals he found dead on the road -- especially turtles. They are, after all, our family -- beings we share this earth with.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Young Skunk

One of the major routes in the Upper Peninsula is M-28. The highway runs from one end of the peninsula to the other and passes through national forests, the Seney National Wildlife Refuge, and land leading up to the shore of Lake Superior. It's a very scenic drive, especially between Munising and Marquette, but it's also a death trap for animals. In places where M-28 follows the shoreline, the road becomes a barrier between the forest and Lake Superior, a major source of food and water for wildlife.

I've seen many different animals dead along this stretch of highway: deer, raccoons, foxes, skunks, squirrels, porcupines, and even an opossum. With the volume of traffic along M-28 so low (as compared to that of downstate, for example), I sometimes wonder how cars manage to hit skunks and porcupines, as they are such slow and bumbling animals. One has to remember, however, that many of these animals are out at night, and this highway becomes very, very dark once the sun sets.

On a recent trip down M-28 toward Munising, we found a freshly-dead skunk. Her nose was still wet, her teeth were so white and sharp, and she was tiny: a kit from this year, she was about the size of a healthy Ann Arbor fox squirrel.

We brought the body home, double-bagging it for two reasons. For one, her scent glands hadn't been ruptured, but she still did smell like a skunk, and even more importantly, her face was covered in deer ticks. I'd never seen deer ticks before -- and I could have lived without ever seeing them -- but when we got home, we picked off nearly forty of them from the poor skunk's face alone. They're tinier than dog ticks, and are vectors for all sorts of nasty diseases, so extra care had to be taken.

I cleaned up the skunk, washing her with a mixture of water, peroxide, dishsoap, and baking soda, to both help eliminate the skunky scent, as well as to kill the lice, fleas, and remaining ticks. I promptly froze the body in our new chest freezer, and took pictures the next day after everything had thawed.

August Skunk I

August Skunk II

I've found that skunk feet are amazing. Their front claws are long and sharp -- for digging out tasty grubs -- and their back paws are fleshy and, oddly enough, very much like baby feet.

After I finished photographing the little skunk, I case skinned the body. It was my first time trying this method of skinning, and I found it to be far easier than ventral skinning, which I've done on a squirrel and a chipmunk. Special care had to be taken around the skunk's scent glands. They were located at the base of the tail, and I was shocked by how large they were, for a skunk of such small size.

The face was the last part of the body to be skinned, and when the fur was pulled away, sharp teeth and powerful jaw muscles were revealed. I buried the corpse in our backyard, near the raccoon; it's certainly a better place to decompose, rather than languishing in the center of the road.

Why skin an animal? For me, the reasons are twofold. Obviously, it's a learning experience. When the skin is stripped away, left behind is the body, sleek and muscular and bony, no longer obscured by fur. It's fascinating to see, and I'm constantly surprised at how delicate these animals are, their ribcages so frail beneath my fingers. Secondly, it's my goal to learn how to skin, tan, and eventually mount animals. Taxidermy has long been an interest of mine, and seeing all the creatures in the Mammal Division really made me revisit this interest.

This little skunk won't become a taxidermy mount; what she will become is a tanned pelt, as well as beetle food and, ultimately, food for the soil.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Return to Marquette

It's been just over two weeks since our return to Marquette, and Steph and I are so happy to be back! We've made the house our own, and now that we're done unpacking, painting, and hanging art on the walls, we've had the opportunity to catch up with friends (of which there are many), scour the area for jobs (of which there are few), and return to our favorite haunts -- Presque Isle Park, the farmers market, and so on. Here at Riverhouse, the name we've given to our new abode, we've been keeping track of all the animals we've seen -- and the list is quite extensive! Not only have we seen and/or heard nearly thirty species of birds, we've seen plenty of mammals, including a gray fox and a raccoon, who helped himself to our birdfeeder.

This afternoon, as we were heading into town along US 41, I spotted a raccoon on the side of the road. There was no time to pull over and investigate more closely, but after some chores and an inspiring seminar about art and success, we returned to the scene. By then, the corpse had started to bloat and was covered in flies, but we took it home anyway. Closer inspection of the teeth revealed that the raccoon, though decently-sized, was relatively young. The fur was thin and scraggly, typical of a summer coat, though the tail was full and bushy.

August Raccoon I

The feet, of course, were fascinating.

August Raccoon II

The raccoon was struck on the head -- a quick death. Many teeth were broken as a result of the impact, and the snout was crushed.

August Raccoon III

I'm rather pleased with how well these photographs turned out -- I used my macro lens, and no tripod. The sun was low in the sky, making the light nice and cool without any harsh shadows. The raccoon, meanwhile, was emitting quite an odor, and flies were flocking to it in droves while I took pictures. After I finished, I dug a hole in our backyard and buried the corpse; the raccoon will feed the white pines and red pines and jack pines that tower over our house.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ann Arbor Wrap-Up

In just a few days, Steph and I will be moving back to Marquette! I'm excited for our relocation, but I'll also miss Ann Arbor in many ways. This city is my hometown, after all, and there are many memories tied to it. I will miss my parents very much, of course, as well as the exhibit museum and all of the photographic opportunities that it provides. I'll miss the plethora of Japanese food and the Trader Joe's that's right around the corner, and the Ann Arbor Area Crappy Camera Club, too.

Living in Ann Arbor for the past year has allowed me to take this project in several different directions. I've explored new techniques (such as using limited depth of field with a macro lens) and I've had the chance to watch the complete decay of three different animals (September Squirrel, March Buck, and Needham Opossum). This city, with its many roads and large population of squirrels, raccoons, opossums, and deer, has provided me with an almost constant supply of subject material, and has even allowed me to practice the skinning of animals and the tanning of their hides.

Before we move, there are a few photographs I'd like to share, from last month's foray down U.S. Route 12 to Saline and back. Steph and I went out for an early-morning drive, before the temperature got too warm, to look for recent roadkill. Route 12 (also known as Michigan Avenue, connecting Chicago to Detroit) can be a death trap for animals, especially deer and raccoons. We didn't see too many fresh corpses; the side of the road was mostly littered with flattened, unidentifiable pieces of fur.

One corpse we did stop for was that of a snapping turtle. The body was a dry husk, and light as a sheet of cardboard.

Route 12 Snapping Turtle I

Turtles are rather special to me, and seeing them dead on the side of the road is always so heartbreaking. This snapping turtle was really quite beautiful, with the early morning sun hitting the scaly, dessicated skin.

Route 12 Snapping Turtle II

Perhaps the most heartbreaking thing, though, was when I moved the shell -- and beneath the carapace, scattered amongst the bones, were unlaid, unhatched eggs.

Route 12 Snapping Turtle III

On our way back, as we were nearing Saline's strip mall district, a robin swooped out in front of the vehicle ahead of us. It collided with the car, and for a moment, its plumage was illuminated in the sunlight, a fiery red-orange. It was dead before it even hit the ground. I parked the Jeep on the side of the road, and there lay the robin, a fledgling, its speckled plumage moving gently in the breeze. It was otherwise quite still. I scooped it up; the body was warm and limp, only moments dead.

I brought the robin back to our apartment, where I photographed it in the grass.

Young Robin I

Young Robin II

Young Robin IV

Young Robin III

This was the first time I photographed an animal that I had watched die. It was a sad, surreal experience, and one that I'd rather not repeat. The body cooled slowly, gradually becoming stiffer as I took more photographs. By the time Stephanie painted a watercolor rendition of the fledgling, rigor mortis had set in. Later that day, I buried the robin in my parents' backyard.

The fledgling and the snapping turtle are the last two useless creatures that I photographed here in the Ann Arbor area. Many adventures await in Marquette and the Upper Peninsula, and a full update will arrive, post-move!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

March Buck: the Conclusion

It took more than three months, but the skull of March Buck is clean and whitened at last. It was a sometimes-soggy, often-buggy process, but in the end, I am most pleased with the results:

March Buck: End Result

After the beetle activity died down, I removed the skull from my parents' backyard and placed it in a bucket full of water and dish soap. This process, known as degreasing, eliminates fats and other oils from the bone. Every few days, I changed the water and soap. It was fascinating to see the fat slowly drawn from the skull; it would exude from the bone, forming little piles that looked an awful lot like Crisco. This went on for a few weeks, and it was a stinky operation. Finally, enough of the fat had been eliminated and it was time for the whitening process. Since bleach ruins bone, I used a very diluted mixture of water and hydrogen peroxide. It only took a day or two, but it worked wonders, turning the skull a nice off-white color.

March Buck's skull, which had been submerged for about a month, could finally dry. I glued the incisors back into place, then glued the two halves of the jaw back together.

As far as skulls go, this one's relatively typical. The only abnormality is the left pedicle, which is a bit deformed. It also appears as if March Buck was getting ready to shed his antlers.

March Buck: Weird Pedicle


I also kept the black plastic ring that was found strangling one of the buck's front feet.

Much Buck: Plastic Ring

And now, an announcement -- Steph and I are moving back to Marquette! We're both extremely excited about this; while Ann Arbor treated us alright, we found we truly missed our friends as well as the Upper Peninsula's landscape. We'll be relocating in less than a month, moving into a small house with a riverfront view. I can't wait to find out what animals we'll see, and I'll certainly continue this project -- in the place where it started.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Chipmunk

A few days ago, my mother brought home a dead Eastern Chipmunk that she'd found at work. Surprisingly, up until then, I had yet to encounter a chipmunk for this project! I photographed it in my parents' backyard, as evening sunlight filtered through the trees. I'm rather pleased with the results –

June Chipmunk I

June Chipmunk II

I feel like I don't know very much about rodents, especially chipmunks. I see them all the time, and second to fox squirrels, they're the most visible rodent in town. They're constantly chirping and dashing through the courtyard; I often wonder why they scold and run, as I never see them until they move. In Marquette, they were always raiding our birdfeeder, stuffing their cheek pouches full of seeds and stashing the stolen goods elsewhere.

I got to know this chipmunk -- a female -- quite well. After photographing the body, I skinned it. I had never skinned an animal before, and working with such a tiny corpse was certainly a challenge. After an hour and a half of cutting and prodding, the skin was freed from the rest of the body, and surprisingly enough, I did a pretty good job. Whether or not the tiny pelt will be any good is a different story; the chipmunk may have sat outside too long, and the fur very well might slip, even after being salted. However, while skinning this animal, I feel like I learned a lot.

For example, female chipmunks have one pair of teats (how they manage to nurse several babies is a mystery to me). Their ribs are thin and weak, seemingly no stronger than dry blades of grass. Their front paws have four toes, with an additional tiny nub that is clawless. Overall, they are quite lean, save for fatty deposits near the neck. Their jaw muscles are well-developed, while the tail, once the skin is removed, is little more than bones.

I know I haven't been posting much as of late -- between work and other things, life's been pretty busy! I've got an exciting announcement to make which, along with an update on March Buck, will be detailed in my next entry.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

An Old Opossum

Needham Opossum was one old opossum. The end of his tail was missing, his ears were notched, his canine teeth had cavities, and his lower jaw was marred with a partially-healed wound.

His skull, as it turns out, is full of holes.

Needham Oppossum: Day 72

Seventy days after finding this opossum dead on the road, I pieced his skull back together. The braincase had separated from the rest of the skull, and the zygomatic arches had detached -- normal, it turns out, for opossum skulls, regardless of whether or not they're road casualties. What isn't normal, though, are the holes and pits that cover the right side of the opossum's snout.


Mr. Opossum likely had a nasty injury from which he never fully recovered. So infected were his wounds, even the root of his upper canine tooth -- visible in the picture above -- was severely deteriorated. The afflicted bone is thin, spongy, and delicate. I imagine life for this opossum had to be quite painful.


Opossums don't live for very long, in fact, they're quite lucky if they make it beyond a year. According to Animal Diversity Web, the oldest wild opossum was three years of age when last captured. And yet, I wonder -- how old did Needham Opossum live to be? Had he not been struck by a car, would he have lived much longer?

Friday, May 20, 2011

March Buck Check-Up

It has been a cool, rainy spring in Ann Arbor. While decomposition on Needham Opossum zoomed right along, seemingly unhindered by the chilly temperatures, the process seemed a lot slower on the head of March Buck. Today's inspection, however, revealed that decay is indeed happening, and that there are more carrion beetles in this neighborhood than I ever could have imagined.

March Buck

The first thing I noticed was that much of the deer's jaw was reduced to bone! (His incisors are starting to come loose, hence their kind of freaky appearance in this photograph. I'll probably be removing them soon and will let them dry out separately, as I'm afraid they'll become lost.) The carrion beetle larvae covered the nose...

Carrion Beetle Larvae

... as well as pretty much everything else (the deer's eye socket is visible in the upper-right corner of the above photograph). Their activity was audible: I could hear them scurrying about, inside the buck's head as well as under the leaf litter. Rove beetles also darted about, their black-and-yellow coloration and quick movements more wasplike than anything else. Flies continued to land on the carcass, but there wasn't a single maggot to be seen.

Eventually, I decided to turn March Buck's head over, just to see what the other side looked like. The moment I jarred the head, the beetle larvae scattered. They poured out of unseen places, a waterfall of segmented coleoptera, their skitterings louder than ever. The other side of the deer head was a pleasant surprise:


The skull, visible at last! The beetles have really done an amazing job thus far. I decided to keep the still-fleshy side against the ground, in the hopes that it will encourage more beetle activity. As the temperatures continue to warm, I can only assume that decomposition will move along faster than ever.

Sociable