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


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.