Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Doe Food

It's been a month since I butchered the roadkill doe! It may have taken an entire day, but thanks to what I learned from some friends a few years ago, it was a relatively easy process. The most time-consuming part, it turns out, was grinding the meat — and since all we have is an old universal hand grinder, that step certainly took a while. By the end of the day, our freezer was packed: one shelf occupied by the blueberries, huckleberries, and raspberries picked over the summer, the second shelf occupied by roadkill venison.

The following day I took the carcass down from where it hung, then tied it at the base of a tree trunk, facing the riverbank. It didn't take long for the neighborhood wildlife to find it.

Shortly after I processed the deer, the temperature plummeted, and that's one reason I haven't updated until now. December, as a whole, has been ridiculously, uncharacteristically cold. For over a week, temperatures didn't climb higher than 0°F, and the Chocolay River froze — something that usually doesn't happen until late January or early February. (Another cold front has since moved in: this morning, it was -8°F when I woke up, and the river had frozen over once again.)

Extreme cold is rarely welcomed by animals, especially those that must eat meat to survive. I was very pleased, then, when I saw many fox tracks leading to and from the deer carcass. Over the last month, I have seen chickadees and nuthatches pecking away at the remaining meat; I've seen a domestic dog tearing at it more than once; I've seen a red squirrel perched upon the carcass. It's being enjoyed by a multitude of animals, especially the foxes, and that makes me very happy.

My parents traveled to Marquette for the holidays, and on Christmas Day my dad and I collaborated to make venison stew. It was the first time I'd eaten the meat from the deer that I had processed myself.

The resulting dish (venison with potatoes, onions, green beans, crimini mushrooms, parsnips, and rutabaga) was very good. The taste was far less "gamey" than the venison I'd been gifted by a co-worker, tasting much more like beef (or at least, how I remember the taste of beef). It was also very lean and tender.

Earlier today I braved the extreme cold and went out to check on the deer carcass. The snow around it was trampled by the feet of many animals, and a rather delightful surprise left behind were the wing-marks of small birds:

In the coming weeks and months, many more beings will be fed by this doe.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Black Friday

Note: This entry, while no more gruesome than Useless Creatures' usual fare, does contain photographs of a skinned, gutted deer as well as descriptions of the cleaning process.

Almost two weeks ago, I passed up the opportunity to call in a large buck that had been freshly-hit along US 41. At the time, I was rather frustrated with myself for not picking it up, but I also realized that there was no way I could handle processing such a large, heavy animal. There would be other deer, I told myself, and sure enough, today proved as much.

This morning, Steph and I decided we'd take a drive down US 41 in search of hit deer. It being Black Friday, the highway would have had a higher traffic volume earlier — people seeking deals in town, perhaps driving great distances to get to those stores. Between shoppers and folks headed home after Thanksgiving dinner, the chances for a deer-car collision were higher than usual, and I thought it would be a good time to go scavenging.

We didn't have to drive far: only a quarter-mile in, I spotted a small deer on the side of the road. Steph and I exchanged a glance: well, that was fast.

The hoarfrost along the highway was brilliant. It coated the tree branches and bushes and the dead vegetation poking above the snow; the sun was shining and it made everything sparkle. The first thing I noticed about the deer was that her whiskers were encrusted in that same hoarfrost, glittering brilliantly.

A small, yearling doe, she'd been hit overnight. I decided immediately that I would call the police and ask for a tag.

Black Friday II

Black Friday IV

Black Friday V

Black Friday VI

Black Friday VIII

Visible in the snow were the doe's last tracks before she was struck:

Black Friday VII

It was a bit of a wait. First one state police officer arrived; he was young and very friendly, and we chatted a bit while waiting for his partner to show up with the tags. I told him that I'd eaten venison for the first time in 15 years the night before, for Thanksgiving (the meat was a gift from a co-worker); he seemed impressed that I intended to clean and butcher the deer myself. As we waited, two different men pulled over, both hoping that I had hit the deer and didn't want it. "They're like vultures," said the state trooper.

Complicating the matter further, it was discovered that the deer was shot, in or near the head. There was no record of this happening, so the policemen had to notify the conservation office. The collision had broken the doe's front leg (as well as the driver's headlight); even if it wasn't initially reported, I'm glad the driver took the initiative to put the deer out of her misery.

Finally, after signing some papers, we loaded the doe into the back of the Subaru. Then the real fun began.

After dragging the doe into the backyard, I began cutting her open. Out popped her stomach and intestines, and then I asked myself what on earth do I do next? I called up our neighbor Clyde from down the street; a few days prior, he'd picked up a roadkill doe of his own (weighing in at 140 pounds!), and I asked him if he could give me a hand. Together we set up a pulley on one of our trees, and hoisted up the doe. Clyde then told me what to do next, and under his directions, I was able to complete the gutting process.

It was a lot like the dream I described in my previous post. I was elbow-deep in the deer's body, cutting away the diaphragm, working my fingers past the warm slickness of her heart and lungs, and then — pulling. The organs slopped out into a pile, glistening and colorful. I thanked Clyde for his help, then took more photographs.

Black Friday X

The tag, I was told, was to be kept on the body until the butchering process. 

Black Friday XV

Next came the skinning process. It was incredibly easy, and I'm not sure I've ever skinned an animal so quickly.

Black Friday XVI

Without her thick winter coat, the doe suddenly appeared much tinier. While skinning her, I discovered that she had been shot not in the head, but in the neck, the crumpled bullet still lodged in her muscle.

Black Friday XVIII

Black Friday XIX

Black Friday XX

Black Friday XXI

Black Friday XXII

Tomorrow I will embark upon the task of butchering the doe. Because she was so young when she died, and because the collision only damaged her front leg, her meat should be very good. I went to the local grocery store to pick up some freezer bags and freezer paper; upon greeting the cashier, he said with a smile, "Someone shot a deer." I told him that I'd actually picked it up off the side of the road, to which he replied, "Ah, I've cooked many a roadkill deer."

This afternoon, after the doe had been gutted and skinned, I happened to glance out our front window — just in time to see two deer bound across the road, their white tails flagging as they jumped. They were gone within seconds.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Opening Weekend

Friday marked the opening day of Michigan's deer firearm season. It's an occasion treated as a holiday by many; some hunters take the day off, if it's a workday, leaving their desk behind for a blind or tree stand. Blaze-orange hats grace the dashboard of many a vehicle, bars hang up their "WELCOME, HUNTERS!" banners, and gas stations sell large bags of carrots and apples and beets. Talk in the coffee shop, workplace, and grocery store ultimately revolves around hunting and venison recipes; local taxidermists advertise themselves with a renewed fervor, anticipating a flood of trophy mounts. It's an exciting time to be a hunter, a dangerous time to be a deer, and a fascinating time to be observing, from the sidelines.

It's during this time of year that roadkill deer become more conspicuous to me: while their kin are being felled by bullets, these deer are victim to cars. Sometimes they are retrieved, spared from a public decomposition alongside the highway; others are not. A freezer's worth of meat goes to waste, as often these deer die in so busy a place that not even the crows or coyotes will risk scavenging the carcass.

Last night, I dreamt I found a dead buck alongside the highway. He was a fresh hit, still warm, and I gutted him on the spot. It was a visceral, vivid dream, and when I woke up, I could still feel the hot sliminess of his internal organs sliding along my hands and forearms.

It was a warmish morning, with temperatures hovering around 40°F, and Steph and I took a drive south down US 41. The highway was clear, and after fifteen miles, the only roadkill critter we'd seen had been a skunk, dead on the center line. We turned around, heading back home, and that's when I spotted a dead deer in the ditch — it had somehow evaded my sight on our first pass. We turned around and parked to get a closer look.

It was a buck: neck swollen, hooves large, tarsal glands dark. Both his antlers had been snapped off during the impact — one laid several feet away, broken mid-beam, strong bone splintered.

A section of his back had been ripped open, exposing the meat and fat beneath the skin — a hind leg was twisted unnaturally — a sheen of blood lined his nostrils. The buck smelled of the rut, a strong, heady odor that permeated the immediate vicinity of his roadside deathbed. His face was calm.

He was also fresh. I wanted desperately to call him in — to be issued a tag — to take him home and butcher him. In retrospect, I could have, and I should have — and I would have, had I possessed more confidence in the whole thing. There will always be more roadkill deer, I tell myself, and it's true. 

I kept the broken antler. It smells of the buck's final habits while still alive: rubbing against a spruce tree. It's an intimate view of a life no longer living.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

From The Collection: This Year's Buck

Back in mid-March of this year, I found the body of a dead buck in Ann Arbor, at the Matthaei Botanical Gardens. I cut off the head, took it back to Marquette, and left it outside. For the next month, it went untouched, until finally in late April the weather was warm enough for the flies. And boy, did they ever arrive! By May, despite the cool temperatures, the buck's head was coming along quite well, playing host to a swarm of maggots. In June and July, the maggots pupated and emerged as adult flies, and decomposition began to slow. By late July, I was ready for the skull to be finished. Into a bucket of water it went, for the purpose of maceration. The skull soaked for a couple of weeks, and with the help of a pair of pliers, I was able to remove the last of the tissue. For another week or two, I degreased the skull, submerging it in a solution of water and dishsoap; finally, I whitened it in a peroxide bath.

By August 24, the buck skull was finished. Over five months had passed since I'd found the buck and removed its head. The result, I think, was well-worth the wait.

click for larger view

click for larger view

The antlers on this skull are pretty incredible. Three of the tines on the right side are broken — no doubt from clashes during the rut. The tines on the left antler are all intact, and the length of the eyeguard and especially the G2 are rather impressive. 

click for larger view

When viewed from the front, the skull is pretty lopsided! I've got to wonder who this buck was battling, and just how big his opponent's antlers were.

click for larger view

One thing I really love about this skull is the base of the right antler. There are all sorts of bizarre spurs and points coming out of it, as well as a bit of webbing between the main beam and eyeguard. The amount of beading on the antlers is pretty noteworthy, as well — they're very bumpy.

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When this buck died, he was getting ready to shed his antlers: the pedicles on both sides were deteriorating, the bone weakening. His death halted that process, but the evidence remains.

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Another cool thing about this skull is the evidence of coyotes! Before I found the body, it had been dragged and eviscerated by scavenging coyotes. They left their mark, quite literally, on several of the buck's tines: teeth marks!

Back in March of 2011, I found a dead buck at Matthaei, not too far from where I found this one. It's interesting to compare their skulls, side-by-side.

click for larger view
click for larger view

Judging by the wear on their teeth, there isn't much of an age difference between the March 2011 buck and the March 2013 buck. The difference in the size and strength of their antlers doesn't denote age — it simply denotes a difference in genes. It's safe to say that this year's buck had a much more impressive set of genes, and I sincerely hope he passed them along before his death.

Back in 1998, a four-point buck was hit across the road from the Matthaei Botanical Gardens. I have a very vivid memory of my mother cutting the head from the carcass; over the next several months, the skull was decomposed by backyard insects. I still have that skull in my possession, and it was a real treat to compare it to the 2011 and 2013 bucks:

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On the topic of good genes, the 1998 buck certainly had them. He was quite young when he died — his teeth were still growing in — but his antlers were impressive, even for a four-pointer. The base of his antlers are quite remarkable, and are reminiscent of those of the 2013 buck. It's not too far-fetched to think that somehow, they might be related.

Thursday, October 10, 2013


It's nearly mid-October, and here in the Upper Peninsula, that means the warm weather is coming to an end. The leaves are at their peak colors, the plants on the forest floor are senescing, and every day the sun rises later and sets earlier. There's a distinct chill in the air, especially in the mornings and evenings, and everything smells of fallen leaves and pine needles.

The last few days have been blessedly warm and sunny, and the cold-blooded animals — the reptiles and amphibians and terrestrial arthropods — have been taking advantage of the heat. The meadowhawks — the dragonflies of late summer and early fall — have been as active as ever, hovering from one perch to the next, obelisking toward the sun. There has been a resurgence of blackflies; ladybugs and leaf-footed bugs have started to gather in our house, staking out places to hibernate for the winter.

The sunlight is especially welcomed by reptiles, who must bask for warmth. In a few weeks' time, the snakes and lizards and turtles will hide themselves away — but until then, they are soaking up as much sunlight as they can. Prime places for basking are exposed rocks, dry earth, and, sadly, hot pavement. As alluring as warm roads and sidewalks are, they become a death trap for reptiles, especially snakes, who are seeking heat.

Yesterday afternoon was brilliantly sunny: the leaves of the maples seemed to glow, and the air smelled of Autumn. We took a short hike in the Forestville Basin area, and on our way back to the car, I remarked that it was a good day to look for basking snakes. Not long after, I spotted a flash of black and green along the side of the road — and my heart jumped at the prospect of seeing (and maybe even holding!) a garter snake.

It was so lifelike — its colors were so very bright — and then I realized that it was dead.

The garter snake had only just been hit; its wound was tiny and the body was otherwise intact. Its eyes still shone with the intensity of a live animal; the color of its scales was incredibly vivid.

As I started to photograph the snake, it occurred to me that it looked anything but dead. Without any firsthand context, someone viewing the pictures would likely assume that it was still alive. My first course of action, then, was to flip the snake upside-down.

I couldn't resist holding the snake; having only just died, it was still extremely flexible, and its scales were so silky and soft.

I find the photographs of it in my hand to be my favorite; the first, especially, is ambiguous to the snake's state of death.

After photographing the snake extensively, I moved it off the road, setting it in a neat coil in the underbrush, then gave it an offering of sema.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Chocolay Foxes

The crows were unusually loud this morning; we hear them often, especially this time of year — but today they were excited, their vocalizations clamorous and close by. I didn't think much of it until early this afternoon, when one of our neighbors stopped by to tell us there was a dead fox alongside the road. "Again?" I demanded, mostly out of exasperation. Last weekend's fox pup had been enough; I wasn't happy about the prospect of yet another deceased fox.

But sure enough, just a hundred feet or so down the road from our house, there it was — a gray fox pup stretched out in the grass, its entrails strung out behind it, already blackened by the heat of the sun. Flies had arrived on the scene, but so had several dozen yellow jackets. The wasps crowded themselves onto the exposed flesh and viscera, their jaws tearing away at the muscle, and it was a decidedly disturbing spectacle.

Yellowjackets I

The loud cawing and croaking we'd heard this morning was explained, as well: the scavenging crows had left several feathers behind. As for the fox, unlike the one I photographed last Sunday, this one had been killed on the spot: its belly had burst open and its jaw was smashed, culminating in a grisly stain on the pavement.

Dew still clung to the soft summer fur.

Not only had the fox's jaw been smashed, but it had also been skinned down to the bone. The scrape of the pavement had torn away the gums and flesh; it was a bizarre, haunting sight.

This fox, too, was still in the process of growing its set of adult teeth — but it was much further along than last week's fox. I don't believe they were in the same litter.

As I said in my last entry, I hate to see dead foxes. This is the time of year when young animals are becoming independent; as a result, many are hit on the road — skunks, raccoons, and foxes alike. It's a waste of life, and it's a reminder to slow down when you're driving.