Sunday, March 25, 2012

Keeping Warm With Roadkill

Note: I will be using the term "ethical" in this entry. It's up to debate whether or not eating and wearing roadkill is ethical, but I think many people agree that it's more animal- and earth-friendly than eating and wearing the products of factory and fur farms.

One of the key purposes of this project is to explore the importance and usefulness of animal death in the ecosystem. A carcass is very useful for flies as well as crows; it's useful for raccoons and gulls, and squirrels in search of calcium. And, of course, a carcass is equally useful for the animals that prey upon these scavengers. But is it possible for dead animals to be useful for people? In a scientific sense, they're useful to biologists – for example, roadkill is valuable for tracking the distribution and migration of certain species (notably, the Virginia Opossum).

But there are human scavengers, as well. It's not uncommon for people to eat freshly-hit animals; I know a handful of folks who do, and I've seen, firsthand, how much meat can be had from a roadkill yearling deer. Flesh aside, there is also fur, a material that has been used in clothing for millennia.

Retrieving roadkilled animals for their fur isn't a novel idea; it's been happening for a long time, and these days, it seems to be occurring more often. More states are creating laws that allow the salvage of roadkill, both for fur and food – and in my book, it's a good move. The clearing of dead critters from roadways helps reduce the number of animal scavengers that are also hit by cars; it stops "animal pancakes" and "road hamburger" before it happens; it is a source of ethical meat and fur; the sale of these pelts can generate income from an animal that would otherwise be left to desiccate or liquefy on the side of the road.

Roadkill laws vary from state to state; while some states, such as Michigan, allow for the salvage of most animals (the proper hunting license is necessary and the animal must be in season, with the exception of bears and deer – they can be called in at any time of the year), other states, such as California, don't allow it, period. Alaska is an interesting case: roadkill must be reported immediately; large animals, such as caribou and moose, are collected by volunteers and the meat is distributed to those in need.

* * *

Over this past winter, it became pretty clear that I needed a warmer hat, and so did Steph. I wanted to line a hat with fur, but I wasn't keen on using the pelt of a trapped or hunted animal. As luck would have it, a taxidermist was selling tanned pelts online – and they came from roadkilled animals. The pelts weren't perfect: there was roadburn and missing legs or tails, spots where hair had slipped, and the fur wasn't prime like that of the furbearers sought by trappers.

The first roadkill pelt I bought was that of a badger. Most of its face was gone, as were the feet, and there were several areas of roadburn and slipped fur throughout. Despite the flaws, there was plenty of fur to work with, and in the end, I was able to line a hat for Steph, earflaps and all:

 About a month or so later, I purchased a second roadkill pelt, this time, from a red fox. It had been hit at a time when it was transitioning into its winter coat: half the fur was thick and plush, while the other half was short and woolly. The tail was bobbed (and full of burrs and sticktights), and the snout had a sizable area of fur slippage. Still, there was more than enough useable fur, and just the other day, I finally finished lining a hat for myself:

These hats were a fun, challenging project for me. The badger hat was the more difficult of the two: it was the first, which made it harder to assemble, and the badger, I later found, had far thicker skin than the fox. The fox hat, on the other hand, was easier to make; the skin was thinner, and this time around, I was using a glovers needle to sew. The hardest part of all, however, was making the first cuts into those beautiful pelts. Neither was perfect, of course, but it was especially heartbreaking to cut into the fox pelt. I had to remind myself that these animals had died needlessly, victims of the roads, and that they would be far more useful as winter hats than as whole pelts with no real function.

I'd like to continue making these hats in the future, preferably with roadkill animals I find myself. It's a bit of a challenge here in the Upper Peninsula – fresh roadkill doesn't stick around for long, thanks to other human scavengers. It's not a bad problem to have, however; I'm glad that there are so many people up here who know usefulness when they see it, whether it be for food, fur, or both.

Monday, March 19, 2012

When Coyotes Fly

It's been a week of record-setting temperatures here in Marquette! Over the weekend, our thermometer read 80°F – in the shade. The warm weather is more than a little strange and alarming, but it's been thoroughly enjoyable, too – and the insects agree! As soon as temperatures reached around 45°F, the flies began to emerge from their winter torpor. They quickly found the coyote carcass in our backyard, and soon, flies of all shapes and sizes began to show up.

Blow flies (Calliphoridae) can detect the scent of carrion from a mile away. As soon as a fly discovers a dead animal, it releases a pheromone that alerts other flies and they, too, arrive to feed and mate. Female blow flies will eat and lay eggs simultaneously; I observed this, and it was both disgusting and fascinating. Eggs tend to be deposited in the wetter, more protected areas of a carcass; in the case of the coyote, mountains of eggs were laid inside the chest cavity, where the internal organs had liquefied.

Coyote Decomposer 
By yesterday afternoon, some of the eggs had hatched, and tiny maggots were visible, and by this morning, the larvae had disappeared: no doubt they have burrowed deep into the carcass to feed. Meanwhile, more and more flies have been flocking to the coyote, and their buzzing creates a pretty impressive din. Other insects are joining in, too. Bees and wasps, as well as small beetles, have been investigating the carcass – there's plenty to go around!


If this warm weather keeps up, decomposition will occur rapidly. Of course I will be documenting the process, so stay tuned!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Dryocopus pileatus, Part Two

As promised, here is the second (small) set of photographs of North America's largest woodpecker. It took a little longer than anticipated to finish photographing the subject: we got hit with two consecutive snowstorms, then a warm front blew its way in, and now, finally, the weather seems to have settled down. Yesterday was gloriously warm and sunny, and the air was still, making for good photographing conditions.

Woodpecker feet are unique, and are modified in such a way that fits their style of foraging and nesting. Two toes in front and two toes in back allow for the ease of climbing both up and down tree trunks. The long, curved, sharp claws are perfect for gripping tree bark, and holding on tight when the bird begins to peck or jackhammer, which is what the pileated woodpecker does.

Also modified are the woodpecker's tail feathers. The quills are very straight and stiff, and they act as a brace against tree trunks when the bird begins to hammer away. This is especially noticeable in pileated woodpeckers: their tail feathers are very long and pointed, and need to be especially strong for a bird that can do this to a tree

If you're interested in attracting any sort of woodpecker to your bird feeder, whether it be downy, hairy, pileated, or anything in between, a suet feeder is your best bet. But not all suet feeders are created equal! Taking into consideration the need for a woodpecker to brace itself against a tree trunk, find a suet feeder that provides space for such – you'll want something along the lines of this model