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: