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.