Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Good to the Last Bite

Alternate title: Veni, Vidi, Vici, Venison?

Near the end of our Thanksgiving stay at the family lodge we found a dead deer in the bushes. She, a doe, had a broken neck. I did my best Horatio Caine impression and investigated the scene of the crime, but was unable to come up with a definitive cause of death (perhaps my sunglass acting needs work). Did she break her neck jumping over the fence that was about 15 feet away and down a bit of hill? Didn't look likely. Did the crafty cougar ambush her, and then get run off by the rutting bucks? There were no obvious teeth marks. Hmmmmm...

Regardless of the cause of demise, we needed to get her away from the house so she could "be returned to the circle of life" without thoroughly disgusting us. So, we took the carcass to an area where the scavengers could have their way, and we wouldn't have to see, hear or smell it. Well, that is, except for the camera trap I set on it. :)

I picked up the trap after 38 days. It had over 230 pics of animals. Snow fell on day 12 and stayed for 14 days - almost 1/2 the time the trap was out. In all, 8 species showed up for a look or snack: mule deer, gray fox, coyote, gray squirrel, black bear, raven, scrub jay & steller's jay.

Here's their stories...

Ravens were the first to arrive. Got there within hours of us placing the doe and trap. No need to mention what they cleaned up.


Gray Foxes
The local foxes found the carcass on day 1 as well, and 2 of them came by often. They win the cute award. Love how their markings look like smiles. Seems more like they're playing than eating. Not that they ate much - their small jaws and teeth aren't suited for tearing into seamless, thick deer hide. They get extra credit for their "try, try again" attitude though.

gray foxes

gray fox

Mule Deer
The visits by other mule deer is kinda fascinating. Are they paying respects or rubber necking? I can identify at least 8 different bucks and does that give the carcass a sniff, which is most of the individuals in the area. Deer even stopped by one night when the foxes were there. Wonder if they knew? Remember - the animals can't see the IR flash that the camera trap is using to illuminate the scene - to them it's just dark. And deer don't see well in the dark.


deer and fox

big buck

The coyotes took a while to find the carcass - arriving on day 10. Perhaps they were ranging elsewhere. Once they found it they came back frequently and fiercely though. Gotta love coyotes for their ability to "keep it simple stupid," and stick to the sure thing. The snow even fell two days after the coyotes found the deer, but it didn't stop 'em. Evidently, they don't mind digging in the snow, and their jaws are strong enough to chew frozen meatcicles.

At least 3 different coyotes claimed the doe (and peed around it to do so - yuck!). A team of two and a scruffy loner. Mighta been 5 - with 2 teams of 2. The infrared b&w night shots make ID tough. However, one is definitely the same coyote the cam trap caught pooping on the rock by the pond. Interestingly, the coyotes don't have much winter coat yet - the unseasonably warm weather still has them looking kinda mangy (that 2 weeks of light snow is all there's been so far).




The Black Bear
The black bear arrived for dinner too late. The carcass was bones by day 30, and the bear showed on day 32. That's what you get for sleeping in. Makes sense though - the bear was hibernating until the weather warmed and melted the snow, which was gone on day 27. It then took a few days for the bear to wake up and come down to find the scene of the crime.

And about that bear... sure looks pregnant to me. Splayed feet and a big 'ole hanging belly in January when bears have cubs. Make a good reason to come out of hibernation to forage too.

black bear

black bear

Overall, critters came almost nightly. Foxes, deer and coyotes were the most regular. Foxes stopped by 11 nights, deer 14, and coyotes 9. The bear just 2. Ravens flew in 3 times, and their brethren corvids, the scrub & steller's jays, once each. A gray squirrel hopped by twice - probably to see what new feature was added to its territory, and if it was a good place to store acorns.

scrub jaysteller's jay

192 pics and 38 days in 76 seconds
If you want to see all of the action, I squeezed the best of the 230 pics into a flip-book-like video. I give you 192 pics and 38 days in 76 seconds:

And last, here's a full set on flickr of about 50 of the top pics & vids from this set, including lots more pics of foxes, coyotes and the bear. Careful - some are a little gross.

What didn't show?
To me, the most surprising absent guest is turkey vultures. I've seen them in the same spot before, but not a one showed. Too cold?

No cats showed - cougars or bobcats. Neither likes to scavenge though - only doing it when really necessary. That said, if it was a cougar that killed the doe, I woulda thought it would come back around to claim its prize (we only moved the doe 100 yards). Weird.

Raccoons, skunks, ringtails and opossums will also occasionally scavenge. However, all tend to stayed holed up when snow prevents easy foraging, so I'm guessing that kept them away. However, in the case of ringtails and skunks, there might not be any around. The last skunk that came through got munched by the great horned owl (thanks ms. owl!).


Interesting trivia:
  • The word "venison" wasn't originally specific to deer meat. It's origin is "venationem," which is latin for "the product of a hunt," and "venari" which is "to hunt" (and the root of "Venus").

  • We get the phrase "eat humble pie" from deer too. "Umble" is the word for deer liver & heart, and umble pie is a pastry made from them. It's not considered a delicacy though, so eating it was lowering oneself. I.e., umble pie was for peasants. And thus the word "humble."

The Miwok Way

The young hunter hefted the yearling buck over his shoulder and moved methodically for home. As his father and father's father had taught, he began to divide the kill in his mind's eye, not missing a muscle, bone or sinew. He'd gift the sacred stomach & entrails to the old tracker. The man had taught him well and could always be trusted. The precious liver would go to the healer. She'd used her lore to sew his cuts and soothe his stomach many a time, and he owed her much. He'd gift a leg to each of his 3 brothers, and one to his sister. The rest, from ribs to horns, would go to his wife's family. In fact, he best get home soon, for his wife herself would specially cook the tender back meats for her family this evening as they celebrated the deer and the hunt.

As for the young hunter, he'd be happy with a bowl of warm tuyu meal and the glow of the fire. Tomorrow, or the day after, one of his brothers or wife's brothers would bring a buck, and then he'd eat his share. For he knew as a Miwok that sharing was life. Without sharing he could be fat with his kill today, but go hungry when his skills failed tomorrow. Without sharing he'd have to learn all the ways - be a hunter, a tracker, a healer, a gardener, a baker and a chief. No, sharing was the only true way. Sharing was life. The hunter shifted the buck to the other shoulder, quickened his pace, and began again to mentally match its gifts to his tribe and families.




  1. Dude, awesome! I like all the commentary and background you do around these. Also, did the camera go off to the left midway through?

  2. Yep - a deer bumped the cam on 12/17 and shifted it left. Fortunately, the coyotes dragged the carcass back towards the middle of the frame. :)

  3. Very interesting series of photos and commentary. That pregnant bear looks huge in the tummy. I wonder how many cubs she's carrying with such a big belly?

  4. Thanks Zhakee. I asked the Codger about the bear and he said that because they give birth to tiny neonates that grow into cubs, the bears don't gain much weight from the pregnancy itself (each neonate weighs about 10oz at birth). However, they will eat heartily to bulk up to sustain lactation in birth years, so maybe her size is an indicator that she is planning on having several cubs (typical is 2 or 3 but some have had 5).

    Or, maybe she got lucky and found a huge meal just before the pics. It wasn't the deer though - it was done.

  5. Interesting answer. That flabby belly doesn't look like a full tummy. Nor a belly filled with cubs. Maybe it's loose skin from losing weight during the past few months while she's been denning up? Or swollen milk mammary glands all ready for cubs? I've never seen a pregnant sow before, just sleek, firm looking bears.

  6. I agree that it's a puzzler. Loose skin and/or ready-for-use mammary glands are solid guesses too. I've never seen one with such a belly either, and think this bear is one that I've caught before, but w/o the belly. I think she's the bear on the flat rock in my post Bear Necessities.

    It'll be interesting to see if she shows up on the camera trap when I pick it up in a couple of weeks.


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