Backyard Brief: Unearthed, Part 2

As I noted in Part 1 of this brief, it was in my vigilance following Ethan’s excursion under the deck that something peculiar came to light.

May 18, 2018, the following day

Ethan was lying down in the grass near the lacecap hydrangea, tether at full length, looking off to the next-door neighbor’s yard, when a small bullet of gray and brown fur shot under the deck from that direction. His eyes followed intently, head turning like a panning camera, but he made no attempt to pursue the creature. Our previous dog Elyse had had more prey drive than he, another thing to be thankful for.

Carrying the bowl of my mostly eaten cereal sprinkled with strawberries, I walked down the deck steps and around past the dog, still lying calmly by the lacecap. I scanned the deck base and beneath its edges for movement or sound. Unsurprisingly, I found neither. Dark shade and critter quickness had thwarted me again.

But while I stood there pondering the great unknown at my feet, I noticed a length of black corrugated pipe peeking out between the steps from under the deck. Not belonging there inherently, the pipe had once sprawled, cascading down the steps, set aside to serve as a tire for Ethan to practice jumping through for agility training. The construction project yet to begin, the pipe found its way under the deck some time last fall.

Now that agility is again in full swing after our winter break, I decided it was time at least to remove the pipe and ready it for use. Out of sight, out of mind. In sight, less out of mind. That’s my motto.

As I drew the middle of the plastic pipe between the steps, I heard minute rattling, as of dirt and debris, trickling across the ridges. As I dragged it out onto the grass, I shook it a little, producing clusters of pebbles, sunflower seed shells, and what looked like grass. I shook harder, and the rattling became knocking against the pipe. Shaking it even more, I soon became captivated by what fell out. Bones.

I had found a dead body.

Bones, sunflower seed shells, some acorn shells, apparently dead grass used for nesting, and more bones rattled their way to the thick spring grass. The largest intact bone among these was a skull.

I bent down to identify the species and determined by its size and shape that the head had once been that of a rabbit. A broad, flat crown, long sloping snout, large side eye sockets, and ear holes oriented vertically very close behind the eyes all pointed to the Eastern cottontail. Months and months ago.

The color was a ruddy brownish mottled with tanned bony surfaces that had once been whiter with life. On close inspection, the skull proved porous, especially along the crown behind the eye socket.

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After further shaking, one of the jaw bones greeted me. Alive and in one piece, the cottontail rabbit has a wedge-shaped head with an angular jaw. Just visible in the image above, to the left of the skull in profile and attached to a jaw bone off left, you can see the sharp, white tip of a lower incisor partially obscured by criss-crossing blades of grass.

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During this whole process, most parts I had successfully ejected with the first violent banging, hand to pipe, then pipe to ground. Along with a complete set of bones on a very hairy-looking foot, out flopped a posse of a hip/pelvic bone, the other jaw bone, its tiny row of teeth visible on one side, and some leg bones bound up in a conglomeration with several spider egg sacks, seed and acorn shells, and invisible webbing. All of the earliest results.

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Nothing alive. Nothing but spiders, possibly insects, bacteria, seemed to be living there now. The bunny, yes, still a young rabbit, I thought, might have become injured and crawled in there to die, or crawled in to escape the elements and died of hypothermia, or became stuck, terrified and confused, and died of fear and starvation.

I saw no great ecosystem tragedy in it. Although they have a high mortality rate, rabbits are plentiful, as the live brood of tiny, nestling bunnies in the base of our front yard’s ornamental grasses–and all the hopping, white-tailed life in this neighborhood–attest. It’s simply life and death, in the wilderness that is wildness to these animals.

But clearly, it seemed to me, something else had used the bones, and the seeds and dried nesting grass, to make itself a home. I suspected a chipmunk, perhaps more than one generation’s worth, for the bones have been picked clean and dry for a while now. Perhaps one or more creatures had eaten some of the flesh before one made a home there.

I recalled last fall, seeing a chipmunk dart out from under the deck to the bird feeder’s base, gather bulging cheekfuls of seeds and seed shells and dart back under again. I’m sure it happened much more often than I saw. Could that have been the chipmunk and this its home?

I suppose it’s possible some clever critters besides spiders had clung for dear life to the ridges of the corrugation while I gave them the ride of their lives, and perhaps slipped away once peace returned for a time, both the dog and myself in our own home again.

The weight and the noise tell me some remains, and who knows what else?, remain inside the pipe. Tomorrow, I will flush out the rest with the garden hose. I don’t anticipate any further surprises, now that I know what to expect. I’ll be sure to let you know if the unexpected awaited us.

Several days later . . .

The garden hose. Such a useful tool.

On the same side of the yard where the living rabbit had shot under the deck, I took the corrugated pipe in hand and inserted the nozzle end of the hose into one end, setting it to “jet.” A few stray bones—two leg bones joined at the knee, perhaps a lone clavicle—made their way out, along with the brown fuzz I thought was grass.

Remembering the bulk of materials must lodge somewhere off center inside the pipe, I flipped it around and ran the water through again, the other end aimed roughly toward our Pagoda dogwood flowerbed.

Success. Out clumped a huge brown mat that flattened, now laden with water, into a raft-like shape, ridged with impressions from the corrugation. A bit startled, I emitted something like “Whoa” and proceeded to blast away at the brown mass. It disintegrated easily, revealing among other pieces a most striking spinal column. This was a moment of definite awe.

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I continued flushing, spreading some of the brown stuff into a pool the flood had formed in the round flowerbed. Ribs, a rib cage, another shoulder blade, and shards of other bones all made themselves visible.

After extracting them from the mess, I carefully rinsed the bones and then returned for stragglers. Pushing at the brown stuff with my fingers, I realized it wasn’t grass or other plant material at all. It was fur. Of course. Rabbit fur. Where would it have gone? So perhaps no rodent had made a home in the lagomorph carcass, though the seed and acorn shells suggest at least temporary refuge.

After I allowed the bones from this second extraction to dry on our deck table, I inspected them again, taking some pictures, and found what I believe to be evidence of the cause of death. The spine was somewhat flexible but more flexible in the middle than across the whole. Looking closer, I saw two total breaks in a set of adjacent vertebrae—a broken back, most likely from either a car strike or animal attack. The rabbit had gone into the pipe to die, then, after all.

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After assembling the bones neatly in different arrangements on the table, I was cursing myself for not having saved the skull and other first bones discovered, so that I could try to reassemble the nearly complete skeleton.

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I made the most of the three separate spinal sections and hip and leg portions, putting the rib cage back together. The result is shown below.

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The spine measures a full nine and a half inches with all three parts, from coccyx to the top of the available rib cage. An adult rabbit, I think.

I relished the opportunity to play biologist, quickly overcoming the mild squeamishness I felt initially. It helped that there was no flesh or blood. Still, after freeing the parts from inside the pipe, rinsing them, and laying them out in the sun, an unpleasant odor became apparent.

“Easy Ethan,” as our dog trainer calls him, lounged beneath the table while I worked to examine and arrange the bones. His faint curiosity melted before his overwhelming inclination to relax. He’s a relentless sunbather. Perhaps his nonchalance also benefited from a long-time familiarity with these odors as a natural part of his backyard domain.

Either way, despite his unstoppable appetite for grass, that alarming under-deck excursion, some clumsy, mouthy playfulness, a tendency to destroy new toys, and a little minor digging, as dogs go, Ethan is truly a keeper.

Further Afield

Another animal, this time fully clothed, lay in our path on a dog walk through that channel of power lines that cuts through the middle of the neighborhood. In March, we saw a mostly intact wood duck lying dead in the clearing.

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It saddened and puzzled me in particular for two reasons: First, these distinctive, beautiful ducks seem fairly uncommon in our area—I had never seen one in the metro parks, for instance. And second, if the power lines were the culprit, it seemed odd that the bird hadn’t disintegrated more. Practically every last feather remained on board.

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I briefly considered that it could be an abandoned hunting decoy that had been used for practice in the field, but the bird was real. Just not alive. Now reduced or elevated to another artifact for my experiential collection, the body was cleared away by someone or something within days of our encounter.


For the first half of my rabbit bones discovery adventure, visit Backyard Brief: Unearthed, Part 1.

For more bunny blood and gore, see:

Happier rabbit- and bird-related posts:

Backyard Brief: What’s New?

This spring I’ve added a new bird feeder to the party, and there are some new arrivals not before seen, plus others not seen in a while. Some migratory, some residential. Most of the birds that visit seem to prefer the finch seed mix to the black oil sunflower seed, but they are two different brands, so I suppose quality could be a factor. I’ll have to mix the two in both feeders to spread the sights and delights. Happy Earth Day.

New this year
  • song sparrow – Smaller than the house sparrow, with a narrower beak, buff and brown streaking with a black chest spot and eye line stripes, he makes beautiful music all day. The song sparrow perches in our weeping cherry tree beneath the bedroom window, in the tops of the trees (hazelnut?) lining the street sidewalk, in the evergreen of the neighbor’s yard behind us, and hops in the grass below our large backyard feeder. I think there may be more than one. He just seems to be everywhere these days, and it’s a welcome addition.
  • brown-headed cowbird – brief glimpses in the vicinity, seen and heard (loud, bright, high-pitched chip) 4/21/17 on our gazebo structure. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to the camera in time. Shy fella.
New this season
  • chipping sparrow – Two males! Also petite like the song sparrow, with a ruddy skull cap and grayish cheeks with an eye stripe, he can easily hide even in the freshly mowed grass. I might have seen females without realizing they weren’t female house finches or house sparrows. Those all tend to blur together. Although I did see a male chipping sparrow last June, the one I thought I saw in May 2016 turned out to be a female red-winged blackbird. These guys appeared 4/21/17.
  • red-winged blackbird – Usually a transient visitor, this time with female in tow; several males spotted, three at once on one occasion this week.
Other less regular visitors seen lately
  • downy woodpecker – Sometimes upside down as necessary, feeding on the suet. Female downy confirmed and pictured below. The other possibility was female hairy (longer beak, larger bird, no black bars on outer tail feathers). 3/31/17
  • common grackle – He keeps trying to alight on the squirrel-buster feeder without success. I haven’t captured his image yet, though. 4/21/17
  • European starling – Usually in flocks, they tend to prefer the suet as well.
IMG_0487_starling-triptych

starling triptych

American goldfinches are in the process of molting for their brighter seasonal black and yellow. The rosy house finches and house sparrows are as ruthless competitors as ever, northern cardinals have come around now and then in mated pairs, and the docile mourning doves have made themselves at home in the bed below our pagoda dogwood. The American robins continue to dominate, as expected.

Backyard Brief, January 2017

January 18, 2017 – Titmice, chickadees, house finches, and the ubiquitous house sparrow have been competing with squirrels for our backyard fodder. Hubby watched two squirrels crowd the suet feeder, one impatiently waiting for the other to get the bushy tail off.

Of sparrows, mice, chicks, houses, tufts, finches, caps, food, tits and a squirrel-proof feeder –

Happy backyard birding and squirrelling, and remember, brevity is the soul of tit.


P.S. To All Scots, Scotch Descendants, and Lovers of Scotland and Poetry, Happy January 25th. Have an excellent Burns Night supper!

ICYMI: Here’s my post about Burns’ “To a Mouse” poem.


For a marriage of wild breast taxonomy and Scotland, ogle these: The Paps of Jura

Backyard Brief: Sparrow Sparring

Fierce  feathered  flying  feeding  frenzy

Backyard Bloodshed

cutting flowers in sun
a pinched caterwauling
behind
no sign of a child
peek around the dogwood
glimpse a grey cat passing
in its mouth
a small eastern cottontail
now silent limp
dangles by the neck
the cat walks
body beneath
to the evergreen shade
rips at its prize
I am near
trying to see
cat disappears
I go around
fence's other side
wide-eyed rabbit
sees me
begins to move
from side lying
to upright
and staggering
comes toward me
toward the fence
pokes nose through slats
where a sale flyer rests
it retracts
stops in the sun
I back away
look over the fence
see the bright red
hanging out
along its side
toward the back
muscle bone or organ
I don't know
second wound behind
it stays put
I curse the cat
not finishing off
am I to blame?
not my place
not my yard
no one home
and no gun
only hammer shovel spade
and would not reach
I walk away
the robins hop
the sun shines
the flowers beam
I go inside
write this

For a lighter take on bunnies . . . and blood, you might like:

Backyard Brief: Mystery Bird Unveiled

In my post last Monday about the wildlife in my backyard, I mentioned I was uncertain about the identity of one of the birds frequenting my feeders. As it turns out, it was neither a chipping sparrow nor a white-crowned sparrow, as I had conjectured. In fact, it wasn’t a sparrow at all–it was a female red-winged blackbird!

Using my bird guide books, I was able to sleuth it out and identify her. The books mentioned that female red-winged blackbirds are commonly mistaken for sparrows. Here’s what Mrs. Red-Winged Blackbird looks like in my backyard.

She’s the first of the 4 birds from top in the above group photo, followed by a mourning dove pair and a male house sparrow.

She was darker than I had remembered, with heavy brown streaking along breast and belly and a bright white eyebrow against that darkness. A buff or gray cheek and reddish shading on her throat also help to distinguish her. The beak is longer, narrower, and pointier than a sparrow’s, and the tail is longer and more fanned. There is also the distinctive tail bobbing behavior, and she is a larger bird.

Although of similar shape and behavior, her mate, in addition to being larger than his lady, looks rather different. . . .

Another male is hanging out with these two, but it is a duller black, almost brown, and without a prominent yellow wing stripe of maturity, so I think that’s a juvenile.

Mystery solved!

Backyard Brief, May 2016

The red-winged blackbirds have grown bold and frequent in their visits. I counted two males at once about the feeders this morning. I keep singing the Beatles–“Blackbird singing in the dead of night . . .”–and recalling Wallace Stevens’ poem “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” There is something magical about them. And that distinctive call; I hear it, grab the camera and go hunting.

Another visitor of late seems to be a female or juvenile chipping sparrow. She has a barred or striped breast, and the stripe over the top edge of her eye distinguishes her from the house sparrow riff-raff. Pig birds, I call them. Numerous and sloppy in their feasting. The chipper’s beak is too narrow to be a house finch female’s. I’ll try to snap a shot of it. It was something like this:

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Image credit: Brian E. Small. Audubon.org

I had hoped the suet feeder would attract at least that one remaining woodpecker I keep hearing throttle in the woods across the street, or a white-breasted nuthatch, but so far, no luck. The starlings, usually in flocks, have started coming around for the suet, along with the red-winged blackbirds and the grackles. Even the robins have ventured upwards from the worm-rich yard. The flying pigs, of course, will go for it as well.

Resident mourning dove pairs, two of them: They sit in the grass or the flower bed beneath the dogwood, relaxing but with wary black eyes. They are relentless in seeking out leftovers.

The diminutive goldfinches are few, but their feeder is large. I keep hoping for a flock. Even one is a treat to me. Too bad I broke my CJ Wildlife mug with the American goldfinch and sunflower on it the other day. I’ll have to order more.

Patches of red come in the form of house finches and cardinals.

I spotted a dark-eyed junco a couple of times in early April.

Black-capped chickadees darted in and out in March, but I’ve seen none since. I did change the birdseed. Perhaps a return to the previous variety. . . .

Interestingly, no squirrels or chipmunks yet, though I’m sure the nocturnal rabbits are active.

Barn and tree swallows were snatching bugs low across the grass at the Silver Springs soccer field yesterday for my niece’s game. Canada geese flew overhead, and the red-winged blackbirds abound in the reeds beside the field.

So, let’s see, the spring tally for the backyard so far:

  1. red-winged blackbirds – 2
  2. chipping sparrow (?) – 1
  3. house sparrows – so many, they hardly count
  4. starlings – 5 or more
  5. grackles – 2
  6. American robin – up to 3
  7. mourning doves – 4
  8. goldfinches – 4
  9. house finches – 6 or more
  10. cardinals – a couple of pairs
  11. dark-eyed junco – 1
  12. black-capped chickadee – 1 or 2

That’s quite a few different species! Upwards of 50 individuals.

It brings a smile–and lots of droppings, but I’ve got it covered.

We planted a serviceberry tree (Amelanchier canadensis) at the dog’s grave on Saturday. The berries should pop out in summer. For now, after the drench of the past few days, some delicate white flower bunches, like little balls of popcorn, remain. The tree is about 8 feet tall. Autumn should bring red and gold foliage.

Forget-me-not seeds will nestle soon there, too. Rest in peace and beauty, bird dog.