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.