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!