Sunday, May 11, 2014

Dump Sites

What do you do with a deer carcass once it's been butchered? Law dictates that, save for the offal, one cannot simply leave the remains of their kill in the (public) woods. It's a bit of a conundrum, because nature's scavengers will happily claim whatever is left, but it's a law nonetheless. All the same, deer carcasses, post-butcher, are often dumped everywhere imaginable: roadside ditches, parking lots, trailheads. Some were hunted legally; others were poached. I documented a bit of this a few years back, when I visited the Brighton Rec Area in Livingston County.

Of course, it happens here, too. At the end of April, in the span of just a few days, I bore witness to two separate dumpsites, both of them only a few miles from my house. The first, a small stream that crosses Silver Creek Road in Sands Township. The ribcages — two of them — were stripped of their flesh by scavengers, the bones bleached white in the sun. The smaller ribcage was all that remained of that carcass; the larger ribcage was connected to much of the deer's body. Its de-haired hide was submerged, flailing in the creek's current; the antlers had been cut away from the head. Judging by the amount of skin remaining, its attached forelegs, and sawed-off skullcap, I believe that this particular deer, and perhaps the other one as well, was poached.

A few days later, after fueling my Jeep, I noticed a crow feeding upon something in the empty lot adjacent to the gas station. We drove closer and realized that it was not one but two deer carcasses, dumped in a macabre embrace.

The smaller body was a young buck, antlers cut away from his skull; the other was a fairly large doe. They were likely dumped sometime over the winter and subsequently buried by the snow. 

With the snow finally gone, we see the ugliness of winter left behind — at least, until spring's vegetation grows and hides it once again.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Ondatra zibethicus

While beavers are the best-known semiaquatic rodent in North America, there's another that's more widespread: the muskrat! Muskrats are found in streams, marshes, ponds, and slow-moving rivers, where they build small lodges out of cattails, reeds, and other plant materials. Unlike beavers, they don't create dams. Muskrats are a fraction of the size of beavers, usually weighing in at no more than two and a half pounds. Like the beaver, though, their fur is dense, soft, and waterproof — and as a result has long been an important part of the fur industry.

Earlier this week, we came upon a muskrat that had just been hit on the highway. Not far from where the body rested was a small creek, its waters higher with the recent rain and snow melt. After retrieving the muskrat, I brought it home to photograph. Right away, I made several observations, the first of which surprised me: muskrats do not have webbed feet! The toes on their hind feet are lined with thick, bristly fur which acts like webbing. Their appearance reminded me a lot of the feet of grebes and coots.

Muskrat claws are an interesting shape, as well. They're surprisingly sharp! The claws are long for a non-climbing rodent.

Beavers are famous for their broad, flat tails. Muskrats have flat tails as well, but they're dorsally flattened. The tail acts as a means of propulsion in the water, and this is quite obvious when the animals are seen swimming. In addition to being "scaly", the tail of the muskrat is also covered in sparse, bristly hair. Though the tail appears to be tough and rigid, it's actually quite pliable. 

What struck me the most about this animal, though, was its fur. I've handled a lot of furbearers — mammals whose pelts are important to the fur industry — and muskrat fur is, by far, the most luxurious I've had the pleasure to feel. It's dense, thick, sleek, and soft all at once. Unlike other freshly-dead mammals I've examined, this muskrat seemed to have no external parasites: no fleas, no lice, no ticks. Could this be a result of the muskrat's thick fur and mostly-aquatic habits?

The muskrat has a very important role in Ojibwe lore, especially in relation to the creation story. One of the many versions of that story can be read here.

After I was done with the body, I rolled it down the riverbank for the neighborhood scavengers. Within a few hours, a pair of crows was feasting upon it.