Sunday, December 30, 2012

Snakes and Snakes

This week, Steph and I traveled to Traverse City and Ann Arbor, visiting our families for the holidays. While in Ann Arbor, we took a trip to the Museum of Zoology's new offsite storage facility, which hosts the University of Michigan's incredibly large fluid specimen collection. Back in April of 2011, I photographed a handful of mammals that were preserved in jars — this time, we got to take a peek at the preserved mollusks, fishes, amphibians, and reptiles.

It was fascinating — and a little sad — to see jars and jars of box turtle hatchlings, or, in a few cases, a single sea turtle head, occupying its own container. Some jars were packed with caecilians; others with newts. What really caught my eye, however, were the snakes.

Fluid Preservation III

While liquid preservation does a great job at keeping an animal's body intact, it does not often save the pigmentation of scales, skin, or fur. As a result, older specimens take on a pale, colorless appearance. That wasn't the case, however, for a few blue-hued snakes, whose coils provided an unexpected splash of color amongst shelves of ghostly specimens:

Perhaps what I like the most about the snake specimens is that their natural shape lends itself well to being in a jar. While mammals and turtles look awfully awkward crammed into a container, the snake specimens seemed to fit just right, their coils winding gracefully within the glass.


Refracted light, created by the curved glass and the liquid inside, also caused the specimens to take on a completely different appearance:


It's always such a treat to see what goes on behind the scenes at the museum! These photos cannot come close to representing the scope of how large the fluid specimen collection is — it is vast, and more than a little overwhelming.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Neighborhood Gray Fox

Shortly after moving back to Marquette in July of 2011, Steph and I were treated to a sight that I will not soon forget: it was around sunset, and we both just happened to look out our living room window — there, trotting through our front yard, was a gray fox. I had never seen one before, and I marveled at how swiftly it moved, like a shadow through the deepening dusk. Later, when the snow started to stick, we'd see the fox's tracks in our backyard and along the neighboring bike trail.

This year, especially in the late-summer and autumn, we spotted the gray fox several times. We decided it was likely a female, as we'd heard that a gray fox was raising her litter just a few houses down the street. She'd pass by mornings and evenings, invariably using the same path; her movement was more catlike than canine, and she walked with confidence, always seeming to know exactly where she was headed and why. One August morning, as she trotted down the street back toward her den, she paused to sniff a piece of garbage in the road; she then turned, squatted, and urinated on it. It was a fascinating display of fox behavior that one does not normally get to witness.

Having the opportunity to observe a gray fox was a special one, and knowing that our yard was within a gray fox's territory was even more special. 

*      *      *

On Monday morning, I pulled out of our driveway and made my way through the neighborhood, headed to work. I crossed the Chocolay River and turned down another street — and that's when I spotted an animal, dead on the side of the road. It was gray-brown, with a bushy tail, and I hoped against hope it was a stray cat, or even a raccoon.  It wasn't — it was a gray fox.

I pulled over, then crouched down beside the body. A snowflake landed on her snout. Her entrails had burst from her belly, but in the chill of the night, she had nearly frozen, minimizing the gore. Without a second thought, I lifted the body, and cradling it in my arms, I put it in my car and drove back home. 

Upon my arrival, both Steph and I lost it. I cried and cried, kneeling over the body, petting the soft winter fur. It didn't feel like it was mine to touch, or look upon so closely. Here was a fox, presumably the same one who we'd see now and then, a wild animal living at the edge of town. And now she was dead, and it almost felt as if the family pet had died. This was the neighborhood gray fox — it was a gutting, horrible thought.

The body went in the freezer and I went to work. I tried not to think about it, but the gray fox and her death dominated my thoughts for the remainder of the day.

As of this writing, a few days later, I still haven't fully recovered. I think of all the roadkill animals that I've seen and photographed; some of them affect me more than others, but this was the first time I was ever reduced to sobbing. It is, of course, because this animal was familiar to me — it wasn't just another anonymous raccoon on the side of the highway.

Today I decided to start working through some of my grief — in doing so I would begin to honor the life of this gorgeous, remarkable animal. The gray fox came out of the freezer this morning, and this afternoon, I photographed her. She was still very frozen: her front legs stuck straight ahead, and her nose, which had been pushed against the inner wall of the freezer, was off-center. Her eyes were frosted with ice.

The resulting photographs are haunting, disturbing, and beautiful.



Neighborhood Gray Fox V

Neighborhood Gray Fox II


Perhaps this gray fox is not the same one we observed. Time will tell: a winter storm is about to hit our area, and any tracks left in the snow will help answer lingering questions. Regardless of whether or not this fox was the neighborhood fox who called our yard home, I will grieve for her.

See also: Young Creatures, from July 11, 2012.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Frosty Doe

This is the time of year when many deer lose their lives: some by bullets, and some by cars.

Until this weekend, I hadn't photographed a deer carcass since the summer months. Between then and now, white-tailed deer have undergone their seasonal transformation: a thick, gray winter coat has replaced the soft, red-brown fur of the summer; the necks of bucks have swelled with the rut, and fawns have long-since lost their spots. Michigan's winter deer have a fluffier, bulkier appearance – a stark change from their slender, angular summer form.

The section of US 41 that runs south of Marquette toward Escanaba is a deer death trap: the two-lane highway cuts through farmland, spruce and cedar swamps, and plenty of brushy, forested area. It's a perfect habitat for deer, and many are hit by cars on this stretch of road. On a frosty, misty Sunday morning, Steph and I decided to take a drive down US 41, just to see what we could find.

Less than a mile into our trip, Steph spotted a deer carcass resting a little ways away from the road. It was a doe, and she had been dead for a week or two. Her initial spot of death was marked by a large pile of fur, but something – most likely a coyote – had smartly pulled her body a safer distance from the highway. The scavenging habits of the coyotes had twisted and compacted the doe; her legs were left in a bizarre, unnatural jumble of suspended motion.

Not yet reached by the light of the rising sun, the doe's fur was covered in frost. The coyotes and crows that had scavenged her body had cleared out her insides and pecked out her eyes, but despite the carnage, the doe looked to be at peace, laying on a bed of dry bracken fern and whisker-thin grass.


The shade receded quickly, yielding to the sun as it rose higher into the sky. In the few minutes that I spent photographing the doe, I watched as the frost melted into drops of water. 

When we passed by again, on our way back home, crows were arriving for their morning meal.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Anatomy of Preservation

Here's a neat time-lapse video produced by the University of Michigan's Museum of Zoology, filmed in the Mammal Division – it shows the preparation of a bat specimen, from a body in fluid preservation to a mounted, articulated skeleton. Take a watch, and prepare to be impressed by the quick work of the bug room's dermestid beetles! You might also recognize some of the mounts on the wall...

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Feed the Birds!

It's November – and in the northwoods, that means less sunlight, colder temperatures, and an influx of winter birds visiting the bird feeders. If you too have a bird feeder, you might notice the vast amounts of chickadees, nuthatches, and woodpeckers that visit immediately before a particularly chilly or snowy day. These incredible birds don't migrate south for the winter: they remain year-round, even through the coldest and darkest months. To keep their tiny bodies warm, they must eat constantly, and though there are plenty of natural food sources, you can help!

Suet cakes, usually made from bird seed and rendered beef fat, are a product designed for feeding woodpeckers and other winter birds. At first glance, beef fat might seem like a strange component to bird food – and in a way, it is. Many birds, however – including chickadees and woodpeckers – do scavenge the meat and fat from animal carcasses, especially in the colder months. Deer remains are an especially important source of wintertime protein; in cities and subdivisions, though, where there are few or no deer, cow fat – a waste product of the beef farming industry – becomes the alternative.

But before you go out and buy suet cakes for your winter birds, let's skip the rendered beef fat and talk about a little DIY project!

You'll need a medium- to large-sized, freshly-dead mammal, a few suet cake molds, a small amount of birdseed, and some peanut butter, if you really want to get fancy.

In the spirit of this blog, I used the fat from a medium-sized raccoon, found dead on the road. (During this time of year, many mammals – raccoons included – are bulked up for the winter, and the amount of fat they accumulate is really quite impressive.) After skinning the raccoon, I set aside about a half-pound of fat – enough to make two suet cakes.

Step One: Melt the Fat!

Stick the animal fat in a saucepan – ideally, one you won't be cooking your own meals in!

When the fat is first harvested, it's slimy, pink, and opaque. As it's heated, however, it turns a creamy color, becoming translucent before melting to a clear liquid.


It takes very high temperatures for fat to melt, so proceed with caution! It also takes time – be patient, and allow for the fat to melt almost completely before removing it from the heat. When there are only a few small globs of unmelted fat remaining, turn off the heat, and let the saucepan cool for at least 15 minutes before proceeding to the next step.

Step Two: Extra Goodies!

Though a solid block of animal fat is perfectly edible to birds, it doesn't hurt to add in some other tasty treats, as well. Before you mix anything into the melted fat, however, make sure it's not too hot. Drop a small amount of water into the saucepan: if it sizzles, the fat is still too hot! If not, you're ready for this next step.


Mix in a few tablespoons of peanut butter, if you'd like, then add in the goodies: sunflower seeds, peanuts, and even dried cranberries are a great addition to the diet of your backyard winter birds.

Step Three: Cool It!

Once all your ingredients are incorporated, it's time to pour the mixture into suet cake molds. I used the leftover packaging from store-bought suet cakes, but other homemade or impromptu molds will work, too – so long as they fit into a standard suet feeder.


Allow the suet cakes to cool in your freezer for several hours. They'll be ready to put outside the next morning!

Step Four: Feed the Birds!

Once it's completely solidified, place your homemade suet cake into a suet feeder and hang it up with the rest of your bird feeders. Don't be dismayed if the birds don't immediately flock in to eat!


Though I hung up the suet cake on Sunday, it wasn't until today that we observed birds feeding from it. This morning, Steph saw a female hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus) eating the suet and took some photographs for me.


Whether you're a hunter with some leftover fat from your kill, or you have a habit of picking up roadkill from the curb, making homemade suet cakes is a rewarding experience, and one that your backyard winter birds are sure to enjoy!

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Bones Beneath the Window

In autumn, when the foliage starts to die back, summertime deaths are revealed. When the obstructing plants wither, we see several months' worth of decomposition and scavenging; often, there's a brief window of opportunity to find these skeletons, when the flora of the forest floor has senesced but the trees have not yet shed their leaves. Roadside ditches, choked with invasive weeds and shrubs in the warmer months, lay bare the year's roadkill; our garden, full of broad-leafed hostas and colorful daylilies, becomes dry and dormant for the winter.

At some point over the summer, a warbler collided with our window, fell beneath the hostas, and died. Like most animal deaths, it went unnoticed — at least, by humans. In the months that followed, decomposers and scavengers consumed the carcass, eating flesh, organs, connective tissues, and even the smaller, softer feathers. Left behind was a skeleton, tiny and fragile, primary feathers still clinging to the bones.

Some months after the warbler's death, it was finally discovered by human eyes. Fallen needles from a nearby red pine had already concealed much of the carcass.


I was struck by the fragility of the skeleton, and the fact that it had weathered several months in the same spot, undisturbed and intact. The skull of the bird still pointed to the sky, in a seeming act of defiance of being reabsorbed into the earth. 


How many animal deaths go unnoticed by human eyes? How many birds have struck our windows? How many reptiles and amphibians are hit on the road, unseen at high speed? How many organisms are fed by these deaths? As the autumn landscape turns to a palette of browns and grays, look for those that have passed during the summer months. Discover their bones, ask questions, and learn something from them.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Final Journey

Every year, sexually mature salmon travel upstream to reproduce. It's an amazing journey, and it's been well-documented in places such as the wilds of Alaska, where the salmon swim inland from the Pacific Ocean in astounding quantities, so numerous that their shiny bodies nearly spill from the rivers. Along the way, many are consumed – by grizzly bears, by bald eagles – until at last, they reach their final destination: for once they spawn, the salmon die.

What some may not know is that this same journey takes place elsewhere – in my backyard, for example, along the Chocolay River. In the autumn, the coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) begin to leave Lake Superior, swimming upstream to spawn. Other species in the salmon family join, as well: rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss; more commonly known as steelheads here) and chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), both of which, along with coho salmon, were stocked in the Great Lakes some years ago.

As they make their spawning run, the behavior and physical appearance of salmon undergo some dramatic changes. They stop feeding; the snout of the male salmon becomes large and hooked, and the body of the female salmon swells with roe. By the time they spawn, as Bernd Heinrich notes in his book Life Everlasting, the flesh of the living fish has already begun to deteriorate. They die soon after, and their corpses help to feed the ecosystem in which their offspring will soon hatch.

The bodies of these large fish are eaten by many animals, including raccoons (which likely dragged this deceased salmon from the Carp River)...

... and by people. I caught my first-ever coho salmon today, from the Chocolay River. After filleting it, I left the rest in the backyard. The neighborhood foxes and raccoons will finish what I didn't take.

Salmon Face (Dead)

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Sorry

A few days ago, Steph heard the impact of a bird hitting one of our windows. Despite looking, she couldn't locate it; yesterday, I finally found the bird, camouflaged amongst fallen leaves and pine needles. It was a hermit thrush.

Hermit Thrush III



The hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus) has, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful songs. In the spring and summer months, they are a common sound in the northwoods; I have heard the flutelike call lilt through an otherwise silent jackpine forest, and it's an experience I won't soon forget.

Now, however, is not the time for birdsong: it's migration season, when our summer birds head south for the winter. This hermit thrush was likely passing through, on its way to warmer places; perhaps it flew all the way from a boreal forest north of Lake Superior. It saddens me to know that its life and journey were cut short by our window – a window that has never caused trouble for birds before, but now has decals to keep this from happening again.

See also: Moving Closer, from September 11, 2010. 

Friday, September 28, 2012

Deer Bones

Yesterday evening, we went for an off-trail walk on Presque Isle Park. Steph is taking a directed study course in mycology, so we were looking for mushrooms and other fungi – which we did see, but we found the scattered remnants of a deer skeleton, as well.





The bones were clean and dry, indicating that the skeleton was not fresh; most of the vertebrae and ribs were broken and splintered, which leads me to believe that the deer died in the winter, when predators and scavengers are very hungry and in their desperation will eat bones.

The forest floor of Presque Isle Park is barren save for grass and moss; very few wildflowers can be found there, thanks to the vast amount of deer and their browsing habits. Nevertheless, the skeleton of this deer was well on its way to being obscured by the island's scant vegetation. Grasses weaved through the pelvis and along the vertebral spokes of the spine; ribs nestled amongst moss and pine needles. In a few weeks, the plants will die back; fallen leaves will cover the skeleton, and the bones will be hidden. Over the months, they will be rediscovered, this time by gnawing rodents; as the years pass, the skeleton will continue to scatter across the landscape, moving further and further from the spot where the deer first fell.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Facing the Sky

When I find dead animals, I like to conduct some detective work – I try to find the why and the how, and I like to solve mysteries. Occasionally, though, I encounter a scene for which I can offer no suitable explanation, at least not without a whole lot of conjecture and guesswork. In these situations, all I can do is take photographs and wonder – how did this come to be? What series of events – many or few – led up to this moment?

Last weekend, I came across a mysterious scene, and I left with more questions than answers. The rocky shoreline near the Presque Isle Park breakwall is, without fail, a place to find gull corpses; I wasn't prepared, however, to discover one peacefully facing the sky, head raised to the heavens in what looked like a postmortem act of sun worship.


It was an eerie sight. The herring gull was uncanny in appearance, seeming neither alive nor dead, looking more like taxidermy than anything else. The body was in rigor, the eyes were still wet, and the feathers were warm, thanks to the sun.


One can only guess how this came to be. Throughout my walks and travels, I've seen a great number of dead animals; each has been unique in appearance, but never have I seen one posed as such. Was a person responsible? Did the gull simply die while facing the sky?

Now, several days later, the appearance of this gull has most certainly changed – if it's even still there. I feel lucky to have seen it when I did; it's a reminder that death and decomposition can be strange and mysterious. The dead animals that we do see offer only a brief glimpse into the long process of decay, and sometimes, it can take on forms unexpected and bizarre.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Book Review: Bernd Heinrich's Life Everlasting

I'd like to start featuring reviews of books relevant to this project, perhaps as a monthly or bi-monthly affair. There are many great books out there, both new and old, that delve into the topics explored in this blog. As public interest shifts and talk about dead animals becomes more mainstream, there are, notably, quite a few recent titles that discuss subjects such as animal death, taxidermy, and recycling in the ecosystem. I haven't written a book review since middle school, so the first couple of reviews may be a little bit rocky – bear with me!

First up is Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death, a new book put out this year by biologist and author Bernd Heinrich. The narrative is divided into five distinct sections, each dealing – sometimes, only distantly – with a different aspect of death, decay, and rebirth in the ecosystem. As I soon found out, the "animal" and "death" part of the title is a little misleading, but not in a necessarily negative way.


In part one, Small to Large, Heinrich opens with discussion and notes from his observations of the habits of burying beetles. This was one of my favorite sections of the book, as I'm a sucker for insects, and I learned quite a bit about burying beetles and other insect decomposers. The author then moves on to other familiar scavengers: ravens and coyotes, for instance, and their roles in the recycling of larger animals, such as deer, before tackling the subject of humans and our history of hunting, scavenging, and foraging, and what it means as we use more than our share of what the earth can provide.

The second part of the book, North to South, discusses scavenger birds: the common raven from the northwoods of the United States, and the various species of vultures distributed throughout the world. I found the anecdotes and information about the vultures to be of particular interest; I'm familiar mostly with our native turkey vultures (Cathartes aura), but reading about swarms of vultures descending upon a giraffe corpse on the African veldt was absolutely fascinating.

The importance of dead trees in a forest ecosystem is explored in the third section of the book, Plant Undertakers. Also discussed are the habits of dung beetles. At first glance, neither subject seems to be directly related to The Animal Way of Death – least of all, the feeding behaviors of dung beetles – but this part of the book is an interesting read, nevertheless. Dead trees are just as under-appreciated as dead animals, but they provide for a wealth of biodiversity – as Bernd Heinrich outlines in the chapter Trees of Life.

The fourth segment of the book, Watery Deaths, was a section that I wish had been developed further. For the most part, the author discusses two aspects of aquatic death: the salmon life cycle (I enjoyed this chapter immensely) and the deep-sea decomposition of whales, which was also fascinating. I would have liked to read more, however, about other animals that meet their end in the water. Aquatic decomposition is a mysterious and widely-misunderstood phenomenon; as someone who lives along the shore of Lake Superior, I see my fair share of decayed creatures, many of which do not live in the water but end up there nonetheless.

Changes, the fifth and final section of the book, wraps up a few loose ends – relating the dung beetle life cycle to human beliefs in death and the afterlife, for example – while also bringing up insect metamorphosis, something that, while interesting, I didn't think fit very well with the rest of the text.

Heinrich's narrative is a joy to read, and his observations about various animal undertakers – from the burying beetle to the common raven – are fascinating. Life Everlasting is unique in that it focuses on decomposition at a tiny level (Nicrophorus beetles on a shrew), while simultaneously outlining a worldview, as well (the ramifications of animal agriculture practices in respect to vulture populations). Despite a few chapters that seem to clash with the overall theme of the book, Life Everlasting is a good, thought-provoking read filled with fascinating facts, both humorous and sobering anecdotes, and, a pleasant surprise, some illustrations from the author.

There were many parts of the book that I'd love to repeat here, but I'll choose only one. In closing, here is a small passage from page 77, in the chapter The Vulture Crowd:
"Most parts of any domesticated livestock are now cycled only into human consumption, with scraps converted to pet food. Thus we and our pets are vulture stand-ins. But if an animal that is deemed not suitable as food for us dies, we also deem it unsuitable for availability to others. Even the road-killed deer and other animals that the highway department pick off the roads are disposed of by burying. Vultures would do the job better if we let them."

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Coyote Bones

It's been nearly a year since I found a coyote dead in the road, brought her home, and skinned her. My journey with her is nearly complete; her skin has long-since been tanned, but over the months, her body has been decomposing in the backyard. In recent weeks, the process of decay has slowed down considerably; the remaining tissue is hard and dry, and no longer attracting insects. Her bones are half-buried in the dirt, their color taking on the same hue as the soil on which they rest.

Coyote Ribs


At some point in June, I decided to remove the head from the body, for fear of losing small teeth and skull fragments. I submerged it in a tub of water, to macerate; there it stayed for several weeks, creating quite the amazing stink.

Finally, at the start of this month, I deemed the maceration to be finished. I removed the remaining bits of tissue (which was not a pleasant endeavor), soaked the skull in peroxide, then set it aside to dry. Like everything before, Coyote's skull proved to be quite the puzzle:


Besides having to deal with a whole array of loose teeth, the back of the skull was in pieces – fractured when the coyote was struck by an automobile. Some of the fragments are still missing, and despite searching for them in the backyard, I was unable to recover them. Rebuilding the skull was another challenge; some of the pieces refused to fit back together just right, as the bone had cracked and buckled from the collision.

After some initial frustration, however, I was able to reassemble Coyote's skull. Seeing it (mostly) whole, for the first time, was pretty amazing.


This coyote was a healthy, mature individual. Her sagittal crest is well-developed, some of the sutures on her rostrum are fused, and her teeth are strong, white, and slightly dulled from some years of use. The only faults I could find with the skull are related to the collision: her auditory bullae are missing, and a few teeth are smashed, which probably happened when her head hit the pavement:


I have one other complete coyote skull, purchased at a powwow last spring, and it's interesting to note the differences between the two. The purchased skull is much smaller, belonging to a juvenile animal; the sagittal crest is less prominent and none of the sutures are fused.


The rest of Coyote's skeleton is still outside. I'll likely be cleaning the bones soon, before colder weather sets in.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Wolves in the Library

Whether you're visiting Marquette, Michigan or you're a resident of the area, I recommend a trip to the Peter White Public Library! Currently, there is an excellent exhibit in the Huron Mountain Club Gallery, and it offers a unique opportunity to view taxidermy wolves, up-close and personal.


Wolves and Wild Lands in the 21st Century is produced by the International Wolf Center and discusses several subspecies of wolf, their ranges, and their interactions, both positive and negative, with humans and wildlife. The exhibit is made up of five mounted wolves, as well as a mounted coyote, and there are plenty of interpretive signs that accompany the taxidermy. In an area where wolves are a constant hot-button issue, this is a great exhibit to see!


Wolf Exhibit 


The taxidermy is all quite excellent, and it's interesting to note that none of the wolves were mounted to appear ferocious or threatening – a practice that is all too common with predator taxidermy. There are many myths, superstitions, and irrational fears surrounding wolves, so it's good to see them portrayed in a more natural manner.


Wolves and Wild Lands in the 21st Century runs through September 25th at the Peter White Public Library.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Young Creatures

I do a whole lot of driving, and I'm always afraid that I'll witness an animal get hit by another car. It's happened before, and it's an awful feeling; you can't tell the other person to brake, nor can you make them swerve, and you become helpless and powerless, left only to look away when the collision takes place. Similarly, one of my more prominent fears is that after braking for an animal, or persuading it to cross the road, I'll come back later to find it dead.

That's what happened yesterday evening, to one of Steph's coworkers. A young gray fox was trying to cross Lakeshore Boulevard in Marquette – a slow, 25-mph stretch of road right in town – and it was obviously terrified and confused. She ushered it across the street, then continued on her way. When she returned, it was dead. Steph alerted me – it was a drop-everything-and-go sort of alert – and within minutes I was in town. The body was still warm when I arrived.


When I lived downstate, red foxes (Vulpes vulpes) were a far more common sight – alive as well as dead along the roadside. Here, however, gray foxes (Urocyon cinereoargenteus) seem to be more numerous. Sadly, they're hit quite often, as I've seen their bodies both in town and along the highway. I do see living gray foxes from time to time, though – there's one in our neighborhood, and occasionally I'll glimpse her trotting past our house in the morning. They're gorgeous creatures; the gray part of the name is a bit of a misnomer, because they're quite orange, too.

Gray foxes are a bizarre, unique animal, and I've always thought of them to be more primitive than other canids. Certainly, they are nothing like the domestic dog. In life, gray foxes are catlike when they walk; their muzzles are quite short, and their pupils become slits when they contract. Gray foxes also possess the amazing ability to climb trees. Here is a great video demonstrating this incredible skill. I did notice that this fox's claws were very sharp, just as sharp as those of a cat – likely to aid in vertical climbing.


What truly gave away this fox's age, however, were its teeth. Many baby teeth were still present, although a few adult canines could be seen poking through the gums. As the blood and misaligned jaws in this photograph depict, the fox was struck in the head and likely died instantly. 

A juvenile gray fox, however, was not the only young animal that I photographed yesterday. In the morning, Steph had alerted me to a few dead skunks along M-28, so I drove east to check them out. I passed plenty of turkeys, both toms and hens, feeding along the roadside, which I should have taken as a sign; I didn't end up photographing the skunks, and instead, I pulled over to check out a bird on the shoulder of the highway. It was a fledgling turkey, and not far from it was its mother, also dead.

Both turkeys had only just been hit; they had only just been scavenged, as well. The corpses were still warm, and their body cavities were devoured completely.

The fledgling turkey had been in an awkward stage of plumage when it died. Baby feathers remained in most places, while adult feathers were growing in on its tail and wings. None of the feathers had an iridescent shine; they were still mottled and brown, perfect camouflage for a young bird.


What surprised me the most was the relative size of the turkey's feet to its head. Turkey feet are huge! They have to be, for a bird that spends most of its time walking.

It's both ridiculous and dismaying to imagine a fox getting hit on a 25-mph stretch of residential road, or a turkey family getting plowed over, likely when taking a slow stroll across the highway. Right now, many young animals – especially skunks, raccoons, and foxes – are getting hit by cars as they wander away from their mothers and dens. It's a time to be cautious when driving, and to remember that young animals, so unsure and curious in this big world, can be very unpredictable.

Sociable